Thursday, October 06, 2005

Gobi Desert Dreams

The LA Times has a strange, poignant story from one of my favorite China reporters, Ching-Ching Ni, about how societal change occurs in fits and starts and sometimes, staggering leaps:
YELLOW SHEEP RIVER, China — This village on the edge of the Gobi desert entered the 21st century much as it had the previous one, with yellow sand blanketing the mountains and poor farmers sharing their mud huts with cows, donkeys and pigs.

No homes had running water. No shops sold clothes, just bundles of fabric to be sewn into shirts and pants. Donkey carts plied the dusty main street, rarely troubled by the rumble of a motor.

No one in this forgotten section of northwestern China seemed to realize that the nation's east coast was booming or that dot-coms were changing the world. But then, out of the blue, came an idea — and a multimillionaire — that promised to bring prosperity here.

High-tech entrepreneur Sayling Wen heard about the village and decided that by harnessing the power of computers, he could beam its 30,000 inhabitants into the Information Age economy.

Never mind that the Taiwanese tycoon had never laid eyes on the place. He would turn Yellow Sheep River into China's first "Internet village."
Inspired by a former classmate, Kenny Lin, who told him about Yellow Sheep Village, and perhaps by his own poverty-stricken childhood, Wen decided he would build a five star hotel and a conference center in this Gobi Desert outpost.
But the real giddiness set in when Wen made his first visit in April 2002 to break ground for the hotel. As many as 10,000 farmers came to meet the miracle maker. Some walked more than 10 miles, others rode horses. The nimble climbed trees for a better view. The sound of drums and gongs filled the early spring air.

Wearing a dark suit and tie, the round-faced and solidly built Wen showed visiting Chinese officials a model of the hotel. He cut ribbons and helped shovel dirt. He posed for the cameras.

"I'm investing in Yellow Sheep River and building a five-star hotel and Internet village because I want to turn Yellow Sheep River into a knowledge-based economy fit for the 21st century," Wen told the crowd. "My hope is that you no longer have to leave home to find work. As long as you come here to the Internet village, you can create wealth, you can change your life and you can preserve your traditional culture."
. As usual, Ni tells this story with an eloquence that defies summarizing. Go read the whole thing. If you can't get to the article behind the Great Firewall, email me, and I'll send it to you.

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