East of Fengjie City, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai - 1,155 km
Distance from Lhasa - 1,779 km
About halfway between Wushan and Fengjie, in the mountains to the north of the Yangtze River, the slopes were dotted with clumps of sunflowers – but I did not find even one that was pointing in the direction of the sun, and many that were pointing at the earth. The flowers were huge and bees were assisting in the propagation of the species, working their way around the clock faces at the hearts of the flowers.
Chinese writing, barely legible but calligraphically interesting, began to appear on the gray metal guard railing alongside the outer edge of the road, and continued for thousands, maybe tens of thousands of characters. At least two kilometers of it.
Unfortunately at that point the valley was on my right, and so I was walking against the direction of the writing, which made it hard to follow the argument. But basically it was a political rant. “Out of 10,000 officials, 9,999 are corrupt,” said one sentence. “Long live the people of China,” said another.
It went on and on, like callers on talkback radio shows in more open societies, and I asked a farmer sitting by the road who had written it. “He lives near here. He’s about 30 years old. He keeps to himself,” the farmer said.
The writing followed me and ended, or rather began, next to a cornfield where, as a preamble, the man had written on the railing: “This corn is poisoned to stop thieves. Thieves please take note.” If it was poisoned, of course, then it was useless to everyone else as well.
I met an old peasant (there seem to be no young ones) clearing up after the rains, sweeping rocks and debris off the road. “Hello!” he said in English with a big smile, took off his straw hat and invited me to sit down. He looked up at the rock face and chose a shaded spot which was unlikely to crash down upon us. “This will be safe,” he said.
I asked him what he grew and he said corn and potatoes, which he called yangyu.
“That is tudou in Mandarin,” he said. “What is it in English?”
“Potato,” I said, and he repeated it back to me pretty accurately.
“I am speaking English with an Englishman!” he exclaimed with a big grin. “How do you say corn?”
His name was Li and he asked me if I had met any bad people on the road during my walk across China. I said I had been lucky so far.
“But you went through Yichang, right?” he asked. “Yichang people are the worst. They steal and grab anything. You have to be very careful. But you are a foreigner so I suppose they won’t touch you. Stealing from a foreigner would be a loss of face for the Chinese people.”
I later asked a Yichang guy I knew about what Mr Li had said and he laughed. “You know, these people from Sichuan are really clannish. We call them the Sichuan gang and they used to cause all sorts of trouble on the wharves and ferry terminals when they and the local Yichang gangs would face off against each other. But law and order is better now so it doesn’t happen so often.”
Later, I was told by a 73-year-old farmer named Duan that I should watch out particularly for highway robbers from further west in Sichuan.
“Where do you put your money?” he asked me. In my trouser pocket. “Not safe. You should be more careful.”
He showed me where he kept his money – he had on three loose shirts, each a different color, and on the left side of the inside one there was a secret pocket in which he kept his little stash. He pulled it out – it took him a good minute to extract – and I would guess there was RMB400 (US$58) there. Not bad.
The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that people from their own area were fine and upstanding and posed no threat. But I was struck by the discrepancy between my view of placid rural China and the vibe I was getting from some of the people I talked to. The disconnect was stretched further by a conversation I had back in Wushan.
“The law and order situation here is terrible,” said a young man, maybe 18 years old. “There is a guy named Wang Xingping who was the mafia boss of Wushan, and he was arrested in February. But before that everyone knew he ran the casinos, the nightclubs, everything. It is said he and the county head had an agreement where he ran the dark side and the county head ran the regular side of Wushan. I don’t know if it’s true.
“But when he was Laoda (the big guy), he could do whatever he wanted. People were knifed to death on Guangdong Lu (the main street of Wushan) and nothing happened. I hear another guy has already taken over as Laoda and had a big banquet in [one of Wushan’s biggest hotels] recently. So I don’t think things will change much.”
I looked into this online afterwards, and there were a number of reports in Chinese about Wang Xingping’s arrest and trial in Chongqing, but the foreign media had completely missed what was by any measure a juicy crime and corruption story.
Xinhuanet had a story dated April 13 giving details of the case, and saying Wang and 18 accomplices had been tried and sentenced, with Wang getting the death sentence. The crimes included murder and extortion. Wang started operations, the report said, in 2003. He put together his gang, and brought in, or bought out, six “core officials” from the Wushan government, for whom, appallingly, Xinhuanet only gave surnames, no full names.
“Wang Xingping took measures to require the officials to follow his instructions, took steps to ensure that each side did not interfere with the other, and strengthened his control and leadership of the officials,” said the report, basically paraphrasing what my 18-year-old friend had said.
In other words, there had been a deal, and for five years, the police and government of Wushan took a hands-off approach to Wang Xingping. In return for which Wang Xingping presumably agreed not to have any of their relatives knifed on Guangdong Lu. The gang was, according to the Xinhuanet report, killing and maiming people, trading in weapons and generally “interfering with the economy and social order.”
Wang had the whole county police force in his pocket. Xinhuanet said that in early 2006, Wang gave a Chinese New Year present of RMB20,000 (US$2,900) to the then-Wushan police chief, Su Xiaojiang. Su, it said, handed in the money at the time, but the fact that Wang continued to run his operations for two years after that suggests strongly there were other more discreet presents along the way.
China Economy Net had some extra detail, saying the gang ran casinos and traded in drugs. It added that in court Wang denied giving bribes to anyone. Well he would, wouldn’t he, as Mandy Rice-Davies famously put it. This guy was the king of Wushan.
At the heart of the operation, from what I learned from my friends in Wushan, were the casinos. Wushan is in the middle of coal mining country, and the small mine owners are big gamblers. With the coal price rising as fast as it has in the past year, you can bet that they are continuing to find ways to risk their profits in spite of Wang’s imminent appointment with a bullet in the back of his neck.
Over some beer and noodles at a Wushan street stall one evening, a guy told me that the casinos were still there, though fewer in number and not as open as they had been up to February. And then if Wushan gets too hot, there is always Macau.
I followed the road downward, falling fast from 800 meters to 500 and then 400. Down below, I could see the town of Shuangtan, a couple of kilometers away as the phoenix flies, but six kilometers by the winding road between me and it. The bridge over the torrent was a couple of kilometers upstream.
“For every mou of mountain burned, detention for 10 days,” warned a slogan. “Grow opium in the forest and face prison,” threatened another.
The bridge was at the top of the valley, and the road proceeded confidently westward, with a brief stop at Shuangtan village. It was a hot summer afternoon and everyone was sitting around in the shade of the store and house fronts, playing cards and pool. I chose one storefront, ordered a mineral water and was invited by a couple of guys to take a seat. The guy next to me asked me where I was going. I asked him what he did for a living.
“I play mahjong,” he replied.
“You make enough money at it to live on?”
His friend started to talk at me about international affairs from the usual mouthpiece perspective. “China is a country of peace,” he said, as if it was an exception to the war-mongering rule. I decided to give him a break.
“Is there opium in this region?” I asked.
“Some in the mountains,” he said. Then his eyes lit up. “The Opium Wars!”
The valley widened out further beyond Shuangtan and on the other side of the valley, halfway up the mountain, was the freeway-to-be – bridges and culverts all half-finished, with no sign of construction activity.
That is where I came upon Mr Duan, who warned me to safeguard my money. He was wearing a wide straw hat, a rather smart grey shirt, and the traditional home-made straw sandals, seriously retro cool, which will disappear with his generation. He had a small basket with him containing two plastic bags – one with small green plums, the other with green peppers.
“I am going to Shuangtan to sell them,” he said. “Have a plum.” It was sweet and juicy. I tried to pay, but he absolutely refused.
“At 73, you remember the Chairman Mao era very well,” I said. He nodded. “How was life then?”
“Good!” More enthusiastic than the “good” about his life today. I probed why, and I got the sense that it was really because that had been the golden era of his own life. We went on our way.
At the other end of the political spectrum, I had a conversation over dinner later at an open-air restaurant with some people including a girl who had just graduated from high school and was waiting for her university entrance results. The beer on the table was a Chongqing brand – 1958. “1958,” I said. “The year of the Great Leap Forward.”
“The Great Leap Forward?” she asked, puzzled.
She had never heard of one of the greatest disasters in modern Chinese history when Chairman Mao created so much upheaval that millions died of starvation. You have to hand it to the Communist Party. Their ability to make historical events disappear is – cliché alert! – Orwellian.