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The Producer's Story
China's Road Ahead
by Chris Schmidt


World in the Balance homepage

It's all about averting the eyes, I tell myself, though I can't help stealing a look out the left side window of the lurching four-by-four that's hauling me and my crew up into the Min Mountains of Sichuan Province in Western China. Instantly, I regret giving into temptation. Though we're safely in the right-hand lane, we're still uncomfortably close to a crumbling shoulder alongside a drop of at least 1,000 feet.

Xi Zhinong, our main character in the film and a well-known wildlife photographer, sits in the front passenger seat. He turns around and gives me a reassuring smile. We're on our way to the Wang Lang Forest Preserve, a protected alpine habitat that is home to pandas and other endangered animal species. Xi is clearly in his element up here. He's spent years working in mountains like these, and I try to take comfort from his evident calm as we work our way around another treacherous curve.

Then our car suddenly slows. Ahead, I see a truck-sized pile of boulders lying squarely in the middle of our path. On the right, between the rock fall and the reassuring vertical face of the mountain, I spy a narrow gap just big enough for us to squeeze through. But for some unfathomable reason, our driver has chosen to veer the other way—straight into the oncoming traffic lane and only inches (it seems) away from the drop-off. My guts clench. While I stare at my shoes, the car lurches left, then right, then straightens out and picks up speed. But even after we're clear of this danger I still can't relax, because when we first set out on our journey, our driver, a Mr. Lee, mentioned that he had earned his driver's license only six months before.


Changing times

Relative to the rest of the country, Mr. Lee belongs to an elite class. Fewer than ten percent of China's 1.3 billion people have ever driven a car. Still, there's just nothing fun about pushing up a narrow mountain switchback with a driver who's spent less time behind the wheel than the average American teenager.

Hang on. Scratch that bit about the mountain. It's no fun riding shotgun anywhere in China—even on the no-altitude streets of Shanghai or Beijing. And it's not just me who thinks so. Many ex-pats I've met while traveling complain about local drivers the way some people obsess about the weather: as a fascinating and mysterious force of nature that can put you in the hospital if you turn your back on it.

When I first met Xi, I knew at once that he would be a perfect fit for our project. He and his wife, Shi Lihong, embody the conflicting themes that we're exploring in our film. They are successful entrepreneurs taking full advantage of China's economic boom. They count themselves among the country's growing middle class, and they're thinking about buying their first car. Yet they are also members of a small but growing number of Chinese activists who are working to improve China's environment—increasingly under threat by the side effects of rising affluence such as pollution, resource depletion, and global warming. [For more on global warming and other environmental issues in China, see the interview with Ding Yihui.]

Chinese consumers are showing that the appetite for material goods crosses all boundaries.

In the cities, signs of China's rising affluence are unavoidable. But as we drive deeper and deeper into the mountains, I watch that veneer of prosperity peel away. Poverty still plagues the countryside and keeps much of the nation locked in the past. I tell Xi that I'm grateful to have a chance to glimpse this part of China. He tells me not to blink or I might miss it—change is coming fast. It's shocking to think that nearly all of the drivers that now clog China's urban streets have had their licenses for only a few years, if that. Before 1984, private car ownership was illegal. And it wasn't until 1995 that consumers began to buy autos in significant numbers. This is a young country when it comes to cars.

No doubt there's plenty of hay to be made over whether all those cars are a good thing or a bad thing. Sitting in a Beijing traffic jam with a gathering headache brought on by choking exhaust fumes makes a strong impression. But consumers don't seem to care. None of the personal inconveniences or clear signs of environmental damage have dampened demand one bit. As Orville Schell says in our film, cars "are the highest expressions of the individual's right to go where you want, when you want, with whom you want." In that way, China is becoming a lot like the United States. Chinese consumers are showing that the appetite for material goods crosses all boundaries.


Hot and cold

Eventually the tortuous—and torturous—drive up the mountain road ends and we're in the Forest Preserve. We spend three days hiking in the clear but frigid mountain air shooting several sequences with Xi. The rooms we're staying in are unheated, and only on the last night do I discover that my bed has a heating pad. So when time comes to leave, I'm actually looking forward to the drive back down the mountain. It'll be a two-day journey down 10,000 feet to the city of Chengdu.

Along the way, we stop in Ping Wu, the county seat. We're to spend the night here. Chen Youping, the director of the Forest Preserve, has come down the mountain with us. Apparently he's scheming to put the laowai (foreigners) through an arduous initiation-slash-male-bonding ritual at a hot-pot restaurant—though neither myself nor the others have any idea what's about to hit us.

At the restaurant, in the center of our table is a cauldron of boiling oil flavored with a stomach-searing blend of Sichuan red peppers. This stuff is so potent that when a slow-moving fly foolishly enters the pot's airspace it bursts into flames and drops straight into the mix—where it's completely outclassed by the other delicacies that Chen Youping is tossing in, including duck tongue, duck intestines, and frozen squid fetus.

We’re expected to drink, bottoms up, every time one of our hosts shouts: “gambai!

I begin to suspect that we're in some kind of trouble when I notice that the Chinese in our group all have thimble-sized glasses in front of them, while I and the other Americans have cavernous tumblers near our plates. Out comes the baijo—a clear liquor that we're expected to drink, bottoms up, every time one of our hosts shouts: "gambai!" By the end of the night, I feel as though the food is an anvil, the baijo is a hammer, and my head is a hunk of flattened iron. But by then, friendship and diplomacy have been served, and we're all escorted back to the hotel.

On the way back, the streets are eerily empty of cars. Young couples stroll arm-in-arm down the center line. The occasional donkey cart trundles past. It occurs to me that this place is going to change in profound ways in the coming decades. The booming economy that's transforming Shanghai and Beijing will eventually find its way to places like Ping Wu. Suddenly I feel tremendously lucky to be here—to see this side of China before it's swept away. It's a surprisingly moving moment. A tear comes to my eye, but it smells like baijo, so I wipe it away.


Read more Producer's Stories

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Chris and Xi

Chris Schmidt (right) and wildlife photographer Xi Zhinong in the Wang Lang Forest Preserve of Sichuan Province

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Cameraman Gary Henoch tags along with Beijing's four-by-four club. For China's novice drivers, driving up vertical embankments is a new sport.

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Hydrogen-powered cars may be the wave of the future, but the technology is still decades away from hitting the market.

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Chef

Care for a fried scorpion or beetle? Food vendors in China can be very imaginative.

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Cityscape

The rooftops of picturesque Weishan in Yunnan Province—a place still relatively untouched by the forces transforming China's metropolises

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World in the Balance

Back to the World in the Balance homepage for more articles, interviews, interactives, and slide shows.



Chris Schmidt produced, directed, and cowrote "China Revs Up," the second hour of "World in the Balance." His previous work for NOVA includes "Stationed in the Stars," "The Killer's Trail," and "Great Transformations," a two-hour program in the series Evolution.



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