Behind The Bamboo Curtain

But there is hope. The air is slowly improving. Some experts even think Linfen has given up its long-held title, having to settle now for a top-five spot in the rankings of most polluted cities, which means it's still worse than any place most Americans have ever been. Severe national government crackdowns have closed some of the worst polluters. A new, wildly popular mayor cracked down even further. The guys can now play basketball outdoors. And, since they're young professionals, there's even better news: They can wear white shirts again. A year ago, because of pollution, a white collar wouldn't be white by lunchtime.

In this new Linfen, they play PS3 (good) and debate China's chances in the Olympic basketball tournament (bad). They go five-on-five, full court, first team to make six buckets. They wait for next August. They dream impossible dreams. They believe those dreams can come true.

"My big plan," Cocofish says. "First, a Hummer. Second, an apartment."

Road Diary, entry 4: MORNING BREAKS TRIUMPHANT Driving between Linfen and Zhouzhi County

We roll the windows down. Clean air whistles in. This is the China I'd imagined. The old China. Fluorescent green rice paddies, laid out in steps, halfway up the side of a mountain. Men in conical straw hats. Entire villages pick the crops. We're following the harvest west, first grain, then rice. Families separate the grain from the chaff along the roadside by throwing shovelfuls into the air and letting gravity do the work. The road is smooth, undamaged by coal truck tires. "This looks like a proper countryside," Austin says. "Water. Fields. Everything looks clear. Mountains."

We are headed for a small village not on the maps, looking for a brave peasant who fought the developers. We stop and ask for directions countless times. Finally, we are close.

"Next bridge," someone tells us.

We cross. The road narrows. It turns to gravel. We park outside a house. The sign tells us we're in the right place, but the door is locked. So we wait. The air smells fresh, like a Utah trout stream. A noise catches our attention … it's a bird chirping. We haven't heard a bird chirp in days.

Down the road, someone approaches, getting larger and larger until it's clear he's headed straight for us.

We've found our man.

Zhouzhi County, 1,656 kilometers from Beijing

Duan Zhiqiang sits down in his living room on a small wooden stool. He lights a cigarette, rolls up his pant legs and begins telling how corrupt local officials tried to sell the villagers' farmland to developers, who were going to turn it into a golf course, of all things.

"What are we going to do?" the peasants asked.

"You can be caddies," the developers replied.

Land grabs are common. In every province, local citizens protest and, in some cases, riot when their land is taken. What happened here was typical. The developers offered the local government $5,600 per person for the land. The government was going to pay out $1,100 a person, pocketing the rest, leaving the villagers without enough money to move and without enough land to feed themselves. It is happening everywhere, as "progress" creeps in from the cities.

"We are in a battle," Duan says.

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