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.
More
rural china
SUDDEN CHANGE: the Yellow Sheep River Valley convention center, right, next to adobe village homes

The villagers’ fundamental problem was their isolation. The Internet could solve that! Lin’s branch of Inventec could give more computers and software to the school. It could work with the local government to bring in a broadband line and set up a computer center that everyone in the village could use. The students could take courses far beyond the range offered by their impoverished school. They could communicate with people they had not known all their lives. The local farmers could use the Internet to learn about the weather and market conditions. Local craftsmen could offer items for sale to distant customers. Working-age people could look for good factory jobs elsewhere. “The shackles that had bound their spirits had been taken off,” Lin wrote after he had, within a few weeks of his first visit (things happen fast in China), established the computer center, declared Yellow Sheep River an “Internet village,” and created the Yellow Sheep River Web site.

It was just after his momentous first trip into the mountains that Lin saw Sayling Wen again. The year 2000 was the 30th anniversary of their college graduation, and Wen sent a note to his classmates saying that he was now so rich, he’d throw a celebration in Shanghai for the entire class and their families at Christmastime and pay their way. (His choice of Shanghai for a reunion of Taiwanese alums is an indication of the near-total integration of the mainland and Taiwanese economies.) On Christmas Day, he overheard Kenny Lin say that Yellow Sheep River now gave purpose to his life. Neither man had known about the other’s recent interest in western China. Both had converted to Christianity, and both thought of helping western China partly as a spiritual obligation.

Wen told Lin about his vision of parity with the big cities within 10 years for these destitute areas and said that the “Internet village” was the model he had been looking for, since it could leapfrog the long process of industrialization and bring villagers directly into the telecommunications age.

Very soon, Wen had founded and funded a new company and put Lin in charge. Its name in English is “Town and Talent Technologies.” Everything about it reflected Wen’s love for the grand gesture. Had Lin brought the Internet to one village? It should come to a thousand villages. Might it cost $50,000 to equip, operate, and maintain each village’s new computer center? Then Wen should commit $50 million, to cover all thousand villages.

rural china
KENNY LIN, born in Taiwan and long a U.S. resident, found his calling in the rugged, rural west of China.

Plus an extra $4 million, for what Wen saw as the crowning touch: a five-star luxury conference center in Yellow Sheep River itself, kind of an Aspen or Jackson Hole without the rich people. There Chinese visitors from the rich eastern cities could see how their countrymen lived, and so could visitors from around the world. Wen kept adding new specs and features to the resort. A conference room with special acoustic tile and high-end video projectors. A swimming pool with the latest “antiwave” design to prevent needless ripples, plus a gym. Naturally, broadband in all the rooms.

Wen used his connections and pull to interest governmental and industrial groups in the project, and he kept encouraging and funding Lin’s work. Then he dropped dead.

In December 2003, as Town and Talent was setting up Internet projects at more than 50 western schools and as the external structure of the resort was being finished, Sayling Wen suddenly suffered a stroke. He’d always been overweight—standing behind him in line for mandatory fitness training back in their first week of college, Kenny Lin had been startled to see Wen weigh in at 99 kilos, 218 pounds, and strain valiantly but be unable to complete a single pull-up. (Lin, in contrast, was and is a physical-fitness fanatic.) But Wen had seemed vigorous and healthy. He was taken to the hospital and within three days had died, at age 55.

Kenny Lin was devastated for his friend, and he was also in trouble. Wen had given him only $1.2 million of the promised $4 million total for the resort. “I had 400 construction workers ready to start on the interior,” he told me. “No one knew where the other $2.8 million was.” Wen had apparently told no one else in the company about his commitment. Lin stalled the workers, telling them that the hotel might become a school. He feared a riot if they knew that the whole project was at risk. Finally, in March 2004, after three months of Lin’s pressure and pleading, one of Sayling Wen’s brothers agreed to provide the missing $2.8 million.

By the end of 2004 the conference center was done, and officials from around China attended a grand-opening ceremony. “But our original business model was lots of conferences, and Mr. Wen, with his connections, was the central part of that model,” Kenny Lin told me. “Now there is no one to invite the people he could bring.”

Lin told me this in the summer of 2007, as my wife and I walked along the echoing marble floors of the conference center, beneath a larger-than-life-sized portrait of Sayling Wen. We had heard about Yellow Sheep River, which has been well publicized in China, and had gotten in touch with Lin through mutual friends. In the 145-room resort, we appeared to be the only paying guests (the list price is about $100 a night). A full, uniformed staff was on hand—to welcome us to the breakfast buffet, to hand us towels at the pool and exercise room, to greet us when we went in and out the front door.

I have seen deserted resort-palaces before—for example, a ghostly one in the Ilocos area of northern Luzon, which Ferdinand Marcos had built strictly for his daughter’s wedding and which stayed open, empty, for years after he was deposed. But this was different, in retaining an air of hopefulness rather than sheer decadence. And hopeful is how I feel about the several legacies of Sayling Wen’s vision for western China.

The resort itself is of course the most visible of these legacies. When I run my travel agency, I will send every foreign group there I can. By international standards, it is no longer super-luxurious. But for foreigners it is comfortable, which cannot be said of many other places where outsiders are a two-minute walk away from village life. Unlike similar “comfortable” lodgings in places like Haiti or West Africa, it creates little sense of surviving behind barricades in a gilded cage. The hotel and conference center are in the middle of ordinary peasant fields but not besieged by desperate local crowds. As in much of China, including some areas of the west, my wife andI walked through the region chatting with farmers and children in basic Mandarin without causing too much of a stir.

Kenny Lin, who turned over management of the resort to a colleague in 2005, was aiming for a high-end international crowd of visitors. He knew that the surrounding mountainous area would appeal to Western hikers, mountain bikers, and horse-riders. The highland scenery is breathtaking, like Wyoming or the Canadian Rockies, with numerous white yaks in place of bison or bears. (Breathtaking literally, too. While my wife rode horses among the yaks with Lin, I foolishly attempted to run along a path in the same highland meadow, only to stop in my tracks 10 seconds later. It turns out that the meadow is at an elevation of 11,000 feet.) The resort’s new manager has decided that the domestic Chinese tourist and conference business, a very rapidly growing market, offers the best prospects, and reportedly has booked enough of them to keep the business running.

A second legacy of Sayling Wen is the Town and Talent company, with its plan to bring the power of the Internet to isolated villages. The strategy behind that plan has also changed significantly since Lin’s first trip to Yellow Sheep River, eight years ago. Then, he thought the Internet could best help the young people of Gansu by helping them move away. They could learn what they needed to know to take factory jobs, and then be matched with big employers in the big cities. “Outsourcing labor to factories was a big economic success,” Lin says, “but ethically, we couldn’t be responsible for what happened to the kids. They were country children. They didn’t know how to handle money in the big cities. They didn’t know how to make friends or even cross streets.”

Now Town and Talent’s strategy is the reverse. It still wants to help children leave subsistence farms, on land that was barely farmable even before the drought and has been overused to the point of exhaustion. But instead of speeding their departure to the east and further straining family and social ties, it is trying to use the Internet to create new jobs in western China’s cities. To oversimplify, the plan has similarities to India’s success in creating call-center and tech-support jobs in Bangalore and Hyderabad, except here the idea is to attract jobs that might otherwise end up in Shanghai, Hangzhou, or some other booming eastern Chinese city. Town and Talent has set up programs in more than 150 schools in western China to train students in using computers (which it donates) and the Internet, so they will have a better chance of holding tech jobs or starting companies of their own.

The final legacy is outright philanthropy, the current version of Sayling Wen’s obviously impossible dream of modernizing the west within 10 years. The Town and Talent company devotes 10 percent of its efforts to a project whose English name is “West China Story” and whose goal is to connect students in remote villages with the outside world.

In this program, middle-school and high-school students in distant areas apply for a kind of work-study grant. The standard amount, about $115, covers most of their yearly school expenses and so can keep them enrolled even when times are bad. (In many of the schools I’ve seen, the students sleep in cramped concrete dorm rooms on weeknights, because their homes are too far away for daily travel by bus or on foot. Part of the fee is to cover their food at school.) In exchange they must, essentially, become bloggers. At least 10 times per year, they are required to research, write, illustrate, and post on the Web a report on some aspect of their lives in the countryside. The idea is to remind them that they are earning their way and not being given a favor, while at the same time teaching them modern Web-site-design skills. In addition, teams of students put up elaborate multipage Web sites—on the prospects for wind turbines in perpetually gusty western areas, on the history of irrigation systems in the Yellow River basin of Ningxia—some of which have won prizes in international high-school “cyber-fairs.”

rural china
TEACHING TECH: Liu Li helps 10-year-old Shi Xiaomeng at an "animation camp" held in Yellow Sheep River's convention center

The essays are available at WestChinaStory.com; they are in Chinese, but the students correspond with site visitors in simple English as part of their training. Many of the pictures are eloquent, regardless of language. (Town and Talent gives each school one digital camera, which the students share.) One middle-school student writes about the “moment of joy” when the family wheat crop is ready for harvest. A high-school boy tells about how great it was when his school got a basketball to play with outside. Another, about learning Tibetan dance. Another, what is hard but satisfying about herding sheep. It might sound maudlin, but having met some of these children, I take their accounts as alive, hopeful, human.

Some 2,200 rural students now earn their keep through this kind of blogging, supported by half a million dollars in donations mainly from Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States, and a few businesses in mainland China. My wife and I signed up to “hire” a number of blogging students from the school that welcomed us. (On the site, you can not only see all of the students’ essays in Chinese and their pictures but also choose students to sponsor at 800 RMB, or about $115, per year.) I’d like to know what becomes of them.

“The children in these villages have so many disadvantages,” Ted Wen, Sayling’s son, told me when I met him in Taipei. “They do not have a fair chance.” For instance: Chinese universities reverse the logic of U.S. affirmative-action programs. Rich and poor students alike take the gaokao, the nationwide admissions test. But to get into the famous, career-making universities, a poor student from the hinterland must score higher than a rich kid from an elite urban school. (This is the practical effect of a system whose stated bias is in favor of students from each university’s own geographical area, and where the best universities are in the biggest, richest cities.)

Ted Wen is a suave figure in his early 30s who studied computer science in Japan and California before returning to Taiwan after his father’s death to “get involved in my father’s unfinished business,” as he wrote to me in an e-mail. He said that his father’s vision for western China was in part purely practical: if Taiwanese businesses did good things for mainland China, maybe people on the mainland would look favorably on Taiwan. But it also had a moral core. “I think it was important to my father to give children in the west a fairer chance to compete.”

That effort might be doomed. The children might still have no hope. The west of China may still be poor 10 years from now, and a hundred. But in a big, bustling country where many people are thinking mainly about what’s profitable, it’s worth noticing the ones who are thinking about what’s fair.

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.
Presented by

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.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Recycled Chair Made From Junk Found in the Ocean

An art project inspires people to collect plastic debris from the sea, melt it down, and transform it into furniture


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Is Trading Stocks for Suckers?

If you think you’re smarter than the stock market, you’re probably either cheating or wrong

Video

I Spent Half My Life Making a Video Game

How a childhood hobby became a labor of love

Video

The Roughest, Toughest Race in the World

"Sixty hours. No sleep. Constant climbing and descending. You're out there by yourself. All day and night."

Video

The Gem of the Pacific Northwest

A short film explores the relationship between the Oregon coast and the people who call it home.

Video

Single-Tasking Is the New Multitasking

Trying to do too many internet things at once makes it hard to get anything done at all.

 

Video

New Zealand in HD

The country's diverse landscapes, seen in dreamy time-lapse footage

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In