How the West Was Wired

Two idealistic Taiwanese businessmen happened into the most rural part of China and thought: Let’s bring it from the 15th century to the 21st.
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Photographs by Ariana Lindquist

rural china
WESTERN CHINA'S Yellow Sheep River Valley

You could compare the far west of China to America’s western frontier, if U.S. territory reached only to Nevada. In China as in the United States, when you head west into the continent from the crowded eastern corridor, the landscapes become drier, the trees sparser and the cities farther apart, and eventually you’re in stark desert. But in China there is no coastline with fish and forests on the other end. Just more desert, steppe, and mountain until the country reaches its borders with “the ’Stans”—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and the rest.

In China’s history, some interior cities have been prosperous and powerful, especially when the Silk Road trade routes to the Middle East and Europe brought commerce through places like Dunhuang and Xi’an. But in modern times, to say xi bu (“the west”) in China is to signify the poorest part of the country, as “the South” meant in America for a hundred years after the Civil War.

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Slideshow: "China's Wild West"



James Fallows narrates photos of China's western reaches and describes how technology has transformed them.

Only a quarter of China’s population lives in the western provinces and “autonomous regions,” including Tibet. But that is more than 300 million people, roughly the entire population of the United States, many of them trapped in a kind of subsistence economy hard to imagine from the perspective of even China’s own major eastern cities. After trips to a number of these areas—Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang, the western parts of Sichuan and Shaanxi—I was sobered as I have been by nothing else in the country.

If I were running a travel agency, I would skip the likes of Beijing and Shanghai and send foreign visitors out toward these western villages, where they would see aspects of China beyond its urban spectacle and manufacturing prowess. In China’s most famous cities, tourists are surprised by the scale, speed, intensity, and ambition of the activity all around them. But seeing all this firsthand mainly gives a more detailed confirmation of the impression they already had. Even the poverty of the big cities, impossible to ignore and startling because it appears right next to the fanciest luxury projects, involves people who are connected to the modern world: for instance, migrant construction workers live very dangerous and oppressed lives, but they work on fancy high-rise office buildings and new freeway overpasses.

But in the villages, people effectively live in a different century. Their families may exist on the cash equivalent of $10 or $15 per month. Their entire life experience may be encompassed within a radius of 10 or 20 miles. When my wife and I visited a high school in an ethnic Tibetan village in Gansu province, we were the first foreigners the students—or any of their teachers, or the principal—had ever seen outside of textbooks. At that school and others in the west, we talked with children who went to school in some years and didn’t in others, depending on whether their families had sold enough crops to pay the public-school fees. This is not the China that most foreigners read about or experience on visits, but its isolation and poverty are important parts of any understanding of China.

To my taste, the arid western provinces are the most beautiful areas of China. The eastern seaboard is mainly flat, featureless, overdeveloped, and devastated. Much of the west is awe-inspiring to see. This is the austere beauty of the desert: limitless vistas, clear skies, dramatic topography, an unforgiving environment for life of any kind.

Several of the trips we took through western villages were in the company of a Taiwanese-born software expert in his early 60s named Kenny Lin, who is now engaged in the most touching and quixotic enterprise I have seen in China—one that my wife and I felt moved to support after seeing its effects in rural schools. During the year I’ve followed Lin, I’ve found his efforts both fascinating and significant, in this sense: They underscore the depth of the economic challenges today’s mighty China still faces. And they suggest the power of a new way of dealing with those challenges. This involves neither the government edicts that have guided the economy for decades nor the me-first capitalist vigor of recent years, but instead a deliberate use of market incentives and technological tools in what Kenny Lin calls an altruistic way.

To see what this means in 2008 requires going back more than 40 years, to Lin’s friendship in Taiwan with his college classmate Sayling Wen.

In the summer of 1966, Lin and Wen started college in the electrical-engineering department of National Taiwan University, in Taipei. Lin’s father was a doctor and politician; Wen’s, an electrician who died when his son was young. Wen was smart and the most diligent among his group of friends. After graduation in 1970 and mandatory military service, he joined one of the small electronics companies then proliferating in Taiwan. Over the next quarter century, he grew very rich, as Taiwan went through an outsourcing and manufacturing boom like the one that more recently got under way in mainland China.

As the mainland Chinese economy opened in the 1990s, business opportunities, plus his own curiosity, led Wen to spend more and more time on the mainland. In 1992 his company, Inventec, built its first mainland factory, in Shanghai. Wen had long been a man of passions and pet projects. For instance, from the start of his career, he was convinced that the right English-teaching software could make it easy for Chinese speakers to learn English and, in his view, end their isolation from world discourse. (So far, no dice.) In 2000, he developed a new and very powerful passion: to save the poor people of western China.

During the 1990s, Wen had traveled incessantly through China’s industrial areas. In the summer of 2000, he had his first exposure to the driest and perhaps most challenging of the western regions: Gansu province, in the windblown yellow-earth plateau on the edge of the Gobi Desert. At an economic conference in Gansu’s capital, Lanzhou, he heard officials compare China’s development of its western frontier to the development of the American West, a process that would unfold over many generations.

Wen strongly disagreed. He stood up to say that even a 50-year target was unacceptable. For one thing, it was too far off to fit into any business’s investment plans. With the advantages of airplanes, telecommunications, and global trade, progress should be much faster. Moreover, the 300 million people living in the arid west were “like us, all children of the Yellow Emperor, sharing the same ancestral blood,” yet still living in poverty. If China let them languish another 50 years, “their suffering would be unbearable.”

rural china
ON THE STREETS in Yellow Sheep River, farmers often play Chinese chess, or xiangqi, in the time between planting and harvest

He had a new idea: western China would have to become fully modernized—brought into parity with Shanghai and Beijing—by 2010. Soon he had written a manifesto called Develop Western China in Ten Years, which was published in English and Chinese, and he steered Inventec’s money toward sites in the west. He also learned that he would have an unexpected ally: his old classmate Kenny Lin.

In the years after college in Taipei, Kenny Lin went to the United States, earned a doctorate, and had a successful 20-year run as an engineer, researcher, and manager, winding up at Bell Labs and NYNEX. He married a woman from Taiwan, became a U.S. citizen, and raised two children. But China’s opening under Deng Xiaoping attracted him, and after investigating various possibilities, he left the United States and in 1993 started a software center in Tianjin, outside Beijing, for his friend Sayling Wen’s Inventec company.

One of Lin’s engineers in the Tianjin software facility, Peng Haina, had spent a year as a volunteer teacher in a remote, desolate village in Gansu province called Huang Yang Chuan, literally “Yellow Sheep River.” It lay at the junction of two shallow streams in a gorge 8,000 feet above sea level. The village of several thousand people had two streets. Most families lived in mud-brick-walled courtyard buildings where their sheep and cattle also slept. Inside their homes, they kept warm in the frigid high-altitude winter by burning charcoal or animal dung in the lower part of large rectangular brick structures called kangs. They sat and slept on top.

Economically they survived by grazing sheep on already overgrazed, dry, and rapidly eroding hillsides, and by growing wheat and potatoes when there was enough rain. The people of Yellow Sheep River came into virtually no contact with the world beyond their little gorge, except when young men and women who had fled hundreds of miles to take factory jobs returned for a few days each year during the Chinese New Year holiday to see their hometown, and often the children they had left behind.

Peng encouraged his Inventec colleagues to donate books and computer equipment to the school and told Lin that he, too, should visit western China, which he had never seen. In late September 2000, Lin went to Yellow Sheep River. What he saw changed the direction of his life.

In a book recounting that visit, which he wrote during a two-week burst, Lin described the hardships of the life he had seen in the hinterland—and also a solution that had come to him. It was a solution in the same spirit that had already motivated his old classmate Wen, though at the time he had no idea of Wen’s own interests.

The hardship that stunned him most was the powerlessness of rural people against brute natural misfortune. A bright and promising young girl had made it through elementary school—but then a drought dried up the crops, and her peasant parents pulled her out of school because they didn’t have money for the fees. In an hour-long video documentary Lin made to accompany the book (available at YellowSheepRiver.com), he showed the peasant parents saying they mainly wanted to get the girl married off as soon as possible. (An uncle then gave her money for school.) Another boy was shown sobbing about the dim fate that awaited his younger sister, who had been pulled out of elementary school to save money and would remain uneducated like their parents. “Oh God, help these simple and innocent children out of the poverty, deliver them from the tortures of the lack of rain,” Lin wrote.

His immediate impulse was direct charity. On his first visit, Lin pledged 2,500 RMB per month, about $365, to pay for meat in the school lunches and for fuel to boil drinking water. But he believed in “teach a man to fish”–type help rather than long-term charity, and so he conceived his scheme.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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