Behind The Bamboo Curtain

Finally, we're inside. The tunnel seems to be about a kilometer or two long, straight as an arrow. The air is so thick with pollution and coal dust that we can't see. Headlights don't help much. We hear a truck rushing toward us before we can pick it out of the blackness. Singing Songs slows. We are driving toward the most polluted city in the world, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Linfen, 1,070 kilometers from Beijing

The three 20-somethings eating lunch upstairs at the New Hunan are like young men anywhere. They play video games by the hour, which their wives tolerate. Barely. The guys met online. They make grand plans for getting matching tattoos of the god of death. They love speed metal. One of them runs the city's pickup basketball league; another is the star player.

And, like young men everywhere, there is one thing coveted above all others.

"I want to own a Hummer," Zhao Kaihong says.

This is Linfen. Home to at least one Rolls-Royce and two Bentleys. Most polluted city in the world. Coal boomtown, like Pittsburgh in the glory days of U.S. Steel. One day, the big-spending mine owners will be China's Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and Mellons. They will have plazas and universities and arenas named in their honor. Presently, they are newly wealthy barons who buy sports cars they rarely take outside. The three young men and their peers breathlessly track their every move.

Dreams are close enough to touch. The Rockefellers-to-be roll down the street in Porsche SUVs, wearing the same trendy clothes, because when one coal-mine millionaire gets something, the rest simply must get it, too. That's how the black Audi A6 fell from favor overnight. Someone bought an A8.

"The coal mine owners," says Liu Xinyu, the league director, a skinny young man with glasses, "they find a villa they like and pay for everything in cash."

Zhao, the league's best player who goes by the screen name Cocofish, nods.

"In Linfen, when the coal mine owners want to buy something, they don't just buy one or two apartments," Cocofish says. "They buy the whole building. Then, as a gift, they give it to the local officials."

All this consumption makes the young men hungry for their piece of the Chinese dream. So many things are happening so quickly now that inertia feels like a million miles an hour in reverse. They want all those goods advertised with the Beijing 2008 logo alongside. They want them 10 minutes ago. The Olympic Games sell hope, progress and a future, all of which they desperately wish to buy.

If progress is on one side of the scale, destruction is on the other, and all three see the price paid for a shot at wealth. It's a steep one. As Cocofish says, coal is the best and worst thing to happen to their city. Twenty years ago, the air was good. Industrialization changed that. The third guy at the table, a local business reporter named Duan Jun, gets nosebleeds from the pollution. Cocofish had to move back to Linfen to take care of his mother; she, like so many, is suffering from lung disease. "Everybody in Linfen has chronic throat infection," he says.

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