A remote Chinese village was poised for prosperity after a tycoon
introduced it to the Internet. Then fate stepped in.
By 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
"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
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
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
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
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."
Lin decided to ship another dozen computers, and offered the school
$300 a month of his own money to ensure that students got three
hot meals a week. By this time, the youngsters were designing Web
pages describing the history, cultural heritage and natural resources
of their village.
Wang Junyi, 52, who owns a mom-and-pop grocery store across the
street, noticed more students coming to school. "A lot of young
people here have nothing to do. Many quit school and just stay home,"
he said. "Computers opened their minds."
Soon, the school opened a public Internet cafe and allowed farmers
to join computer classes. With the help of the teachers, they checked
out prices for fresh produce in the country and around the world.
Some wanted to know how much the latest tractor cost and where to
buy the best fertilizers and seeds.
At one point, when there was a bit of a surplus harvest, the farmers
decided to experiment with some e-commerce. Selling online, they
made about $9,200 from peas, $2,600 from medicinal herbs and $800
Once Lin got Wen interested in Yellow Sheep River, the tycoon shipped
in 100 additional computers, along with software to train the students
in typing and English. Enrollment doubled in a year to 600 students,
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."
For the poorly educated people here who find it hard to see past
the next rainless day, Wen's lofty plans were appealing.
Li Yuemei, 48, an illiterate peasant, helped mix cement for the
hotel. Her husband and son worked on the construction site. They
each made nearly $400.
"Everybody worked on the hotel," Li said. "I wish
the construction would last longer so we can earn more money."
"It's the first hotel I've ever seen," said Yu Kaike,
a 68-year-old villager who wore an old blue Mao jacket and oversize
round spectacles. His wife's bound feet also hearkened back to a
"I've never left my home town before," he said. "I
am glad they built it. I wish people will come here and help make
this place rich."
Just as Wen predicted, the hotel project had something of a trailblazing
The Chinese government took notice. It improved local roads and
officially upgraded Yellow Sheep River from a village to a town,
planting trees and encouraging tourism.
The government even put up a billboard on a main road to direct
passing motorists to the "Internet Village." A big gas
station opened under the sign. Merchants came to build shops and
homes. They brought small appliances, fresh fruit and clothing to
sell, bolstering the town's previously anemic commercial life.
As construction progressed, local youths began training for hotel
jobs answering phones, checking audio systems, changing sheets and
serving Western cuisine. They worked alongside the experienced chefs
and managers brought in from big cities.
"With my background and level of education, it's hard to find
a good job in the big city," said Zhao Xiaoping, 25, who with
his high school diploma is considered one of the best-educated people
in town. He was hired as a room service attendant. "Most of
my schoolmates are away working as manual laborers."
But in December 2003, before the hotel was complete, Wen suffered
a stroke and died in Taiwan. He was 53.
Suddenly, the whole grand plan was thrown into doubt. Though Wen
hadn't been living in Yellow Sheep River, everyone knew his force
of will was driving the ambitious project.
Hundreds of villagers turned up for a memorial service, despondent
over losing their best hope to change their way of life.
For nearly a year, the hotel sat unfinished. The outer shell was
built but the inside was without fixtures or even floors. Finally,
Wen's brothers chipped in the money to complete construction.
Early this year, it was ready for guests, but there was no grand
opening, no parade of dignitaries, no influx of well-heeled conventioneers.
The hotel has hosted a few Taiwanese tourist groups and conferences
for Wen's companies, but mostly it sits empty.
Many of the staff members from the big cities have left. Those
who remain worry that their days are numbered. They kill time by
splashing around in the pool and downing nearly expired beer from
the stockroom. Equally vacant is the Internet cafe at the school.
"Catching up with the east in 10 years is a little difficult
to do now," said teacher Hu Wanglong, 30, sitting in the otherwise
empty cafe. "Our economy is too backward. With Mr. Wen gone,
our progress will definitely slow down."
According to Hu, only 10 people have visited the cafe this year.
The town's website still advertises locally grown mushrooms, but
Hu said they aren't really selling anymore. The only thing that
still attracts customers is a ginseng-like dried root used in traditional
medicine. But it grows in tiny quantities and is hard to propagate
on a large scale.
Hu tries to look on the bright side.
Before, his school had no computers and no one to teach about them.
Now it has 140 desktops and 1,300 students, who are learning about
Windows, Word, PowerPoint and search engines.
"Before, people here thought the computer was a high-tech
machine far removed from their lives," Hu said. "We helped
demystify that concept. They now know the computer is no different
from the TV or radio. It can be helpful to their everyday life."
After the initial shock of Wen's death, Lin is stepping out of
the shadow of his former classmate to try to salvage the dream.
But he knows he is essentially starting from scratch.
"Mr. Wen wrote himself into the original business model,"
Lin said. "Our job now is to retain his old vision, redesign
Lin jettisoned anything that relied on Wen's connections or cash.
He spun off the hotel to a new company. He gave up on the idea of
school-based global outsourcing. He is focusing on the village's
most abundant resource: cheap labor.
From his base in Tianjin, Lin is seeking jobs for western peasants
at eastern restaurant chains, factories and hotels. He's teaming
up with local entrepreneurs in Gansu to recruit residents to fill
the jobs he finds.
The entrepreneurs are setting up small "digital centers"
with one or two computers, using the Internet to communicate with
Lin and show job applicants video clips of prospective work sites,
factory dormitories and cafeterias. They earn a commission for each
Feng Zhicai, 67, dropped into one of the centers looking for work
for his 24-year-old grandson. Manager Gao Yanbin, 47, showed him
a video about a shoe factory in southern Guangdong province to which
140 villagers have gone this year.
"I've never seen a computer before. Young people tell me it
can do many things, like count money. I didn't realize you can watch
it like a TV," he said.
So with the birth of the digital center, area residents are turning
to the Internet again, though not in the way Wen imagined. Instead
of using it to draw opportunity to Yellow Sheep River, they are
using it to seek opportunities elsewhere.
"I hear the east coast needs at least 3 million workers a
year. The west has that. And nobody is tapping into this. We can,"
Lin said. "If we can plant 1,000 seeds, 10 years from now western
China will definitely be a different place."