Reporter's Notebook: A Journey Down the Yangtze

Yu Falun is a retired metals factory worker, and I met him on the banks of the Yangtze River above Yibin, picking colored stones from the water.

He is 63, has a winning smile and collects the stones as a hobby -- a peaceful pastime that gets him out by the river for hours at a time. For him the Yangtze is a geologic marvel, water wearing down stone for millennia, its slow changes over time producing smooth pebbles for someone with the patience and interest to find them.

When I told him I had come to China to see how people felt about their rapid economic change and growing power in the world, Yu just shook his head and laughed.

China was not rich, he told me in tones one might use to explain the world to a small child. Didn't I know that the only thing they had was cheap labor? How could they make much money like that? No, no, "China," he said emphatically, "is still a poor country."

I know what he means -- there are still plenty of poor people in China -- by one estimate 150 million Chinese live in poverty on less than $1 a day. But 1,700 miles downriver, where the Yangtze flows into the sea at Shanghai, the country does not look poor at all. This is the fourth-largest economy in the world, growing at 11 percent a year, buying up foreign banks, oil companies, computer makers and huge swathes of African rainforest. Like the powerful Yangtze River, China is on the move, and it is getting rich -- fast.

Click here to read Terry McCarthy's blog entry "The River and the Dam: Partners in Changing China."

It has been seven years since I lived in China, and the journey down the Yangtze was a way of checking back to see how much China has changed as it gears up for the Olympics and the eyes of the world next summer. The Yangtze River is, in many ways, the pulse of China, and my journey was a way of taking that pulse.

Spanning the Breadth of China

At 3,964 miles long, it is the longest river in the country. Some 385 million people live in its extended watershed -- almost a third of China's population. They rely on its waters for irrigation, for transport and, sadly, often for dumping waste materials and sewage. It spans the breadth of China, from the desolate nomadic regions of the Tibetan Plateau, down through the poor mountainous areas of Yunnan and the densely populated agricultural province of Sichuan, across the flat -- and often flooded -- center of China to the enormous and just completed Three Gorges Dam and finally reaching its end at Shanghai.

I started the journey just upriver from Yibin, which is about as far as the Yangtze is navigable. The river is yellow-colored here, and in Chinese this stretch is called Jinsha, or Golden Sand river, after the yellow sparkling sand particles it washes down from the steep mountain gorges.

After I said goodbye to Yu, I found an older farming lady, Yang Yingzhen, who works a small scrap of land on a steep hillside that drains into the Yangtze. Now 61, she has been widowed for 10 years, and as we sat on her terrace cracking walnuts on the ground with a cleaver she told me how hard life is in the countryside and how she could only afford to eat meat at most twice a month.

She has no refrigerator or TV -- electricity is expensive, and she just uses a little to power a single lightbulb inside her house at night. She has never been to Shanghai -- or anywhere else outside her home province of Sichuan -- but she knows that the price of meat there is even higher than in her local village, which makes her think life must be even tougher in Shanghai.

Her big dream is to be able to rebuild her house with a strong roof -- during the winter storms she sometimes fears that her roof will be blown away. "It is good to be able to feel safe inside your house." As for her life -- well, it all depended on how the weather treated her crops -- corn, oranges, vegetables, a little rice. "Kao tian chi fan," she said. "I depend on heaven to eat food."

And so it goes in much of China, a crowded, noisy, difficult society to live in that requires much tolerance and much putting up with adversity. Over their long history, the Chinese have become masters at going with the flow.

Of course some challenge the system -- Mao Zedong was successful with his revolution in 1949 -- but most who try get crushed, rightly or wrongly, in a society that for centuries has simply not had much room to accommodate individual priorities.

In the city of Chongqing we met migrant laborers from the countryside who worked on construction sites for $200 to $300 a month. They ate better in their new jobs than if they had stayed at home on the farm -- and yet they knew they didn't stand a chance in their lifetimes to ever buy one of the $100,000 apartments they were building. But maybe if they had enough money to get their children through school one of them might be so fortunate.

In Chongqing I saw how wide the income gap is becoming in China. A very pleasant woman, Rachel Zhou, who runs the newly opened Cartier store, told me how she had just sold a watch for over $26,000. She had gotten her job after working in a four-star hotel for some years, and having been exposed to foreigners and their lifestyle she understood the concept of luxury.

But when she brought her parents to visit the Cartier store, they walked around as if they had seen ghosts peaking out from the jewelry cases. "They could not understand how a ring could cost that much," she said.

Rachel was born in 1977, as the excesses of Maoism came to an end -- but her parents lived through the famines and the madness of the Cultural Revolution when anarchy prevailed. They could not grasp the world their daughter seemed so comfortable in.

A New Skyline

Some of Chongqing's new wealth comes from the fact that the Three Gorges Dam has deepened the water level of the river enough to allow big container ships to reach the city from the coast, boosting trade.

The Chinese government is keen to spread economic development across the country, conscious of the fact that there is now a huge gap between the eastern seaboard where most development had occurred, and the still relatively backward interior. Chongqing has been among the first beneficiaries -- and the city is acquiring the requisite skyscrapers as befits its newfound wealth, including a replica of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan.

Downriver from Chongqing some of the negative effects of the Three Gorges Dam also have started to become clear. Since the reservoir behind the dam began filling up in 2003, about one and a half million people have been forced to leave their homes and move to higher ground.

There have been few outright protests even as families abandoned homes they may have occupied for generations. But there is a simmering bitterness, particularly against corrupt local officials who allegedly skimmed some of the relocation compensation the government earmarked for ordinary people.

In Fengdu I met a man tending goats by the river -- his name is Dai Jifan, and he used to run a hostel for tourists who came to visit the town's famous Temple of the Ghosts. But the rising water level submerged his hostel, and the local party chief stole the money he was meant to get in return. Now the water level is rising to the bottom floor of the house where he lives, but he still has no money to relocate. The goats he keeps earn him barely enough money to eat. "What am I to do?" he asked. "I can only live life one day at a time."

Another big problem is that the slower flow of the river is allowing pollution to build up. Xiang Chun, a biology graduate from Chongqing University who is working to clean up the river, said pollution has increased faster than predicted.

"Between economic development and environmental protection there is a conflict," he said, as we floated down the river in a small boat. "Who is to decide which gets priority?"

Who indeed? Until recently the government has been promoting growth at any cost, but pressure has been growing for a greener approach to economic development. There have been numerous protests around the country about bad air, toxic water and untreated industrial discharges.

Some 300 million Chinese do not have access to clean drinking water from their taps, and over half of China's rivers are so polluted they do not support any fish. More recently the government has been embarrassed by negative publicity over Beijing's air pollution that could affect the Olympic Games, particularly outdoors endurance sports like the marathon.

So at his widely watched keynote speech at the five-year Communist Party Congress, China's leader Hu Jintao said that economic growth had been achieved "at an excessively high cost of resources and the environment" and promised to increase government spending to control pollution.

How that will affect the Yangtze remains to be seen -- the river receives an estimated 14 billion tons of waste every year, and there is often a big difference between what the central government in Beijing announces and what gets implemented by local officials on the ground.

As we passed through the narrow gorges that give the dam its name, I couldn't help noticing how dirty the water has become. And one could also see some of the landslides along the steep banks of the reservoir that scientists say is caused by the rising reservoir levels.

Coming to Shanghai

Downriver from the dam I stayed a couple of nights in Yichang -- one restaurant had a large buffet on the central table which included delicacies such as turtle and dog meat. Not to my taste, but in a country of 1.3 billion people where many still vividly remember famine you are reminded that people's choice of food springs from a different set of calculations. Chinese say they can eat anything they cannot build a house on.

I passed through Wuhan, where Mao famously swam across the Yangtze in 1956. Somehow it is hard to imagine China's leaders stripping off and jumping into the river today with all its toxic pollutants.

The journey ended in Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city which has always had a weakness for self-indulgence and luxury. Here I found a Ferrari store, fine wine shops and Armani boutiques. One of the restaurants I used to like seven years ago when I left now offers valet parking – this in a city where back in 2000 almost nobody owned their own car and most vehicles belonged to the government. Now pricey imports are double parked outside the best restaurants, showing off a new level of extravagance in a city that has built 4,000 skyscrapers, twice as many as Manhattan.

I climbed to the top of the tallest building in China -- the 101-floor Shanghai World Financial Center, nearly a third of a mile high with a huge counterbalancing pendulum suspended at the top to prevent the building from swaying too much in high winds. This is taller than any building in the United States, which was part of the point in building it. Shanghai is not shy about its ambitions.

Golf is the new sport of choice for businessmen in Shanghai, with 16 new courses built in the past few years. I went to play with some shipping executives at the Palm Beach Club about a half hour's drive outside the city. I was a nonbetting participant; they were playing for up to $6,000 a hole, in a country where the average annual income is about $2,000.

The caddies who were carrying our clubs earned less than $200 a month, including tips. I had to remind myself this was communist China. But the players were not at all fazed by the income disparities. One of my golfing partners, Harry Zhang Zuohai, said, "China has always been like that."

I was thinking quietly to myself that China periodically has had revolutions, too, and when Zhang said, "Nobody knows what will happen in the future -- that is what we worry about, so we are always saving money… because if we don't, maybe in the future we will lose everything… all rich Chinese worry like this."

Harry Zhang may be rich, but in the end he doesn't know if some storm will come and blow the wind off his house. Chinese work hard and endure a lot, but there is a sense that some things will always be out of their control. So too the Yangtze -- even as their best engineers try to tame it with dams, it resists in unexpected ways.

China is moving ahead strongly, many -- but not all -- peoples' lives are improving, and the country feels like a more open place than when I left in 2000. But there is a fundamental unpredictability to China, just like a river that may burst its banks in any rainy season.

How can a country growing at 11 percent a year not be unpredictable? A country where you can buy a Ferrari from a few smart real estate deals but where a single Internet posting criticizing the government can send you to jail.

On my last day I took a boat from Shanghai downriver to where the Yangtze meets the sea. The ships were lined up out, waiting to come upriver. A century ago they would have been British, French or American ships, waiting for cargo to enrich their owners at China's expense. Today they are mostly Chinese container ships, ready to export to foreign countries to enrich China. The terms of trade have been reversed, the pace of trade has accelerated and the Yangtze keeps flowing.