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, let me know, and I’ll send it to you.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

It is a beauiful story indeed, it is always good to hear something positive. That’s also why I don’t watch news anymore.

October 7, 2005 @ 12:05 am | Comment

Wen, a giant from a tiny island.

October 7, 2005 @ 1:05 am | Comment

Lin, let’s hope your namesake can help bring this project to fruition.

October 7, 2005 @ 1:14 am | Comment

It might work out, and I dearly hope that it does, but I’m afraid that I see a niggling little parralls here.

“Me big foreigner (OK, overseas Chinese), me bring civilization to you poor backward Chinese”.

I hope that Wen does a better job of it that the whites did when they thought that they were brining civilization to the backwaters of Asia, and that is a sincear hope. I really hope that he does a good job.

October 7, 2005 @ 8:30 am | Comment

Well, ACB, Wen is dead – that was part of the irony of the article. Lin, his former partner, is trying to resurrect the project on a smaller scale. But it’s unclear if he’ll succeed.

October 7, 2005 @ 10:24 am | Comment

I’m less concerned about whether he will succeed than if he will make things worse.

Remember what happened when people tried to bring ‘civilization’ to the American Indians and the Australian Aboriginals.

October 8, 2005 @ 5:41 am | Comment

it’s unfair, obviously, to compare poor Chinese (they are Chinese, still, like people from the same tribe!) people living in the desert with American Indians and Australian Aboriginals.

Lisa, actually I doubt Wen’s business partner Lin will succeed. Business wise it is a nonprofitable activity in the short term for sure. Wen was a billionare and his hi-tech company have enough profit to let him to push such a long term ambitious goal. Without such a huge backup, Lin won’t succeed.
However what I appreciate is the traditional wisdom of a traditional Chinese style bussinessman. Mainland China has been lack of these traditional Chinese wisdom in business over a long period of time. Thanks to Taiwan, to let us keep some businessman in our own style. Even if they often conduct some seemingly anti-economic activities, which is contrary to the instinct of an usual bussinessman. Now seems everything including humanity has to be imported from western culture into China. Looks like mainland Chinese have lost its own…
In Taiwan there are several legendary businessman like Wen, although they don’t often get the media exposure they deserve.

October 9, 2005 @ 1:12 pm | Comment


I wasn’t compairing the villagers to aboriginals, I was saying that when whites came to Australia, some of them brought these grand ideas of ‘helping’ the aboriginals to become ‘civilized’. They tried to do things like educate them or get them to move into fixed comunities like the whites did, because they thought that they were helping them. But, in the end, all thy ended up doing was standing over them with a glaring superiority complex and destroying their way of life. Which is exactly what I don’t want to happen with this Chinese community and their apparent benfactor.

Imagine if Bill Gates showed up at your door and said that you were some poor backwards suburbanite who needed to be educated in the ways of big city life, and then he tried to transform your neighborhood into an unsustainable comunity modelled after New York, and to tell you that your suburban ways were holding you back and must be changed whether you like it or not.

When big men try to help little commuinities in this way, it doens’t always go well.

October 10, 2005 @ 10:00 am | Comment

It a beautiful desert, rember sustainability is important so it gobi desert would not perish.

November 10, 2005 @ 2:35 am | Comment

No matter what people think – It is the actions and vision of people like Dr. Kenny Lin what makes a difference in this world.

Bravo for Dr. Lin!

James Redin

December 29, 2005 @ 10:04 pm | Comment

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