PANZHIHUA, China — Isolation is Panzhihua's reason for being, but to Mayor Li Lawang it is a curse.
The steel city was built in mountainous southwestern China in 1965 in response to Chairman Mao Tse-tung's call to move strategic industries away from the vulnerable coasts.
But Mao died in 1976, and now almost no one fears invasion by outsiders. So Panzhihua has been left without the massive government funds of the past.
Late last year, the government formally opened the city to foreign visitors in hope of luring investment and tourism.
"We welcome foreign investment," Li told foreign reporters recently, the first ever to visit Panzhihua. "The resources for tourism are quite rich. We plan to build an airport."
To do that, Panzhihua literally will have to move a mountain--one of the steep, thickly carpeted mountains along which the city is strung for 30 miles on the Golden Sands River of Sichuan province.
But Panzhihua residents are accustomed to challenges. When Mao issued the call in 1965 to build a steel mill and a city at Panzhihua, then a village of a few hundred people, more than 50,000 workers were dispatched from eastern steel mills.
They arrived to find no bridges across the swift-flowing river and only a few peasants with row boats.
"We were terrified to get in," recalled Wang Zhimin, now chairman of the city's People's Congress, the local legislative body. "But the peasants assured us they could get us across."
A city was built of tents and huts made of grass and mud.
"When I saw it I almost cried," confided one municipal official, now in his 50s, who was sent out in 1966 after graduating from college in Canton.
Few Phones, Bathrooms
Nearly two decades later and after 4.6 billion yuan ($1.2 billion) in government investment, most of Panzhihua's 850,000 people have permanent houses of brick, concrete or limestone-covered hardened mud. Still, fewer than a fifth of the homes have indoor bathrooms, and only top officials have telephones. Vice Mayor Qin Wanxing said the city plans to work on both problems.
The city has a 2,760-student technical high school equipped with computers and an Olympic-size swimming pool.
It also has 1,000 shops, and anyone willing to spend 600 to 1,000 yuan ($160 to $350)--most of a year's wages for the average person--can get a radio-cassette player.
But the city still wears its frontier aspect.
Families Left Behind
For one thing, more than a third of the 52,000 workers at the steel mill have not been able to bring their families to the city to live with them.
Because of China's chariness in giving out urban residence permits, every city has some workers who had to leave families behind in the countryside. But in Panzhihua, because almost everyone was assigned from somewhere else, the percentage is unusually high.
Vice Mayor Qin said workers at the local iron and vanadium mine can bring their families to the city only after they have worked here for 20 years.
But most workers are willing to accept those conditions because they would have to wait a very long time to get other work and because a job at a major iron and steel complex is not a bad one.
The city's remoteness also is revealed in the enthusiasm with which it greeted about two dozen foreign reporters. When the group visited an apartment complex housing about 1,700 families, nearly everyone turned out to welcome them, standing in the early evening dark for several hours in order to catch a glimpse.
"Most people here have never seen foreigners," explained a host from the Sichuan province Foreign Affairs Office.