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The World | COLUMN ONE

Town Loses Hyperlink to Future

A remote Chinese village was poised for prosperity after a tycoon introduced it to the Internet. Then fate stepped in.

October 06, 2005|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

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."

"The plan seemed unthinkable, like jade falling from the sky," said local Communist Party secretary Zhang Xusheng.

Wen donated 100 new computers and arranged for teachers to be trained. He believed that by teaching computer basics to schoolkids, he could quickly develop a labor force to perform simple tasks for Western high-tech firms looking to outsource work.

Next he began building a $50-million, 140-room hotel and convention center in the village, with high-speed Internet connections, state-of-the-art meeting rooms, swimming pool, sauna and even a stable for horse- and camel-back riding.

Wen planned to have villagers staff the hotel, and would invite tech-savvy workers from China's east to train others. High-tech executives could use it as an exotic conference locale, and meet Yellow Sheep River's labor pool. The project would spawn more development.

Just as things were looking up, Wen dropped dead.

Now the people of Yellow Sheep River are at a crossroads, unsure how to move forward without their visionary leader, unwilling to go back to their old way of life.

"Just like Mr. Wen used to say, we are a bunch of lonely soldiers," said Chen Ming, the hotel's manager. "All we can do now is press on."

*

Perhaps in Yellow Sheep River, Wen saw something of his own beginnings. Or maybe just a chance to make money.

The son of a poor Taiwanese family, he did his homework by the light of an oil lamp. He landed a spot at the prestigious National University of Taiwan, then started his own business and became a Bill Gates-like figure in his homeland.

His company, Inventec, makes notebook computers, digital cameras and iPods -- devices until recently unimaginable in Yellow Sheep River, 700 miles west of Beijing in Gansu province, one of China's poorest.

As China welcomed foreign investment in recent decades and became the world's factory, development concentrated on the east coast. In Yellow Sheep River, the average income is $120 a year, a 10th of what east coast city dwellers make.

Five years ago, amid growing concern that the gap could spark social unrest, officials in Beijing launched a "Go West" campaign to modernize Gansu and 11 other provinces. But the primary focus has been on huge infrastructure projects such as a west-to-east natural gas pipeline.

Still, many experts say it could take 50 to 100 years for the region to catch up to the east.

Through a chance encounter at a college reunion in late 2000, Wen heard about Yellow Sheep River and wondered whether he could cut the timetable to 10 years. If the tactic worked there, he planned to replicate it a thousand times throughout the impoverished west.

He set up a company, Town & Talent Technologies, and deputized Kenny Lin -- his friend and college classmate who first told him about the place -- to run it.

*

Lin, 58, a mild-mannered Christian, was so overwhelmed by the poverty and deprivation during his first encounter with Yellow Sheep River students that he fought his speechlessness by teaching them to sing "Hallelujah to the Lord."

Lin was working for one of Wen's subsidiaries in the eastern city of Tianjin and had heard about the village from a former employee who was volunteering as a teacher there. In October 2000, Lin decided to visit.

The middle school, he recalled, was dark and gloomy. There was no library, no music room, no cafeteria. Lunch consisted of hard bread dipped in cold water. Many youngsters dropped out before the seventh grade. The World Wide Web might as well have been in another solar system.

He had 11 old computers sent in.

The students quickly became comfortable with the mysterious machines the Chinese call dian nao, or electronic brains. Within two months, the school had set up its own website, yellowsheepriver.com, and students sent e-mails to Lin, thanking him for the devices.

"I saw a computer for the first time here," said Zheng Haoju, a shy 17-year-old girl. "I like to use it to draw."

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