By Jordan Pouille, Mediapart's China correspondent, in Lanzhou.
Wei Jin Peng has been up since 6 a.m. Ill-shaven, cigarette dangling from his lips, this family man has mounted his little Lifan motorbike, ridden past the elderly ladies doing their collective morning gym, past the five kilometres of apple and pear trees, and crossed an old suspension bridge. Beneath the bridge, his faithful companions await him: five dogs as big as Rotweillers, whose barking is echoed by the mountains. The beasts are guarding Mister Wei's loot: twenty or so corpses floating near the riverbank, gathered in this corner of the Yellow River (Huange He), sheltered from prying eyes and the current.
IN PICTURES: Click here to see photo file. WARNING: Some people may find the contents upsetting.
By 6.30 a.m., Mr Wei has already emptied his bottle of jasmine tea. He turns on his powerful torch, puts on his washing-up gloves, and makes his way to his ageless rowing boat. It is already loaded with hundreds of plastic bottles picked up from the river the previous day. He will be selling them by weight to a recycler come especially from Lanzhou, a city of 1.4 million inhabitants 20 kilometres away, capital of the province of Gansu.
Wei Jin Peng's rounds can begin; first towards the flotsam that has gathered near the dam during the night. "Generally the bodies are underneath, 30 centimetres deep" says Wei. "They aren't bloated with gas yet. It takes them a fortnight to surface." Wei Jin Peng vigorously stirs the rubbish with his paddle until he hooks a body. This morning it is a small pig, which he will give to his dogs for lunch.
"Last year, at this exact spot, I discovered a young woman with a baby tied to her breast," he recounts. "After three days, the police found the name of the father and I'm the one who broke the news to him. We buried them further up, behind that mountain."
This is the same mountain he climbed another time, in the rain, to reach the nearest police station, carrying the headless body of an adolescent on his shoulders: "I slung it over my shoulder and dropped it on the inspector's desk," he recalls with bitterness. "I was really angry, because not a single cop, not a single official had deigned to come and get it themselves... and, as far as I know, they haven't found the murderer."
Wei Jin Peng continues his rounds, letting his boat be carried by the current. "Sometimes the bodies find their own way to this hiding place. You need only bend down to pick them up. It's less tiring than picking pears," says Wei. Like this morning - the body of a young girl of average size is spread-eagled in the water: bare-foot, vintage jeans, lace blouse, and hair tied in a ponytail with an elastic band. Her face remains invisible, turned towards the depths. "I'll see to her later, once the sun has risen," he says.
'500 bodies' lie unclaimed below the water
Wei lights up a new cigarette as he observes the corpse, and goes into his cabin beneath the bridge. He will return to search the young girl at midday, in the hope of finding an identity card, or a mobile phone, the SIM card of which, waterproof, will reveal the parents' number. If not, he will place an ad in the local newspaper, with his mobile phone number and a detailed description of the body.
This is the same phone number you see painted in giant yellow and red figures on the mountainside as you approach the village of Chang Po on the 115 bus.
At 55 years old, Mr Wei is what is known as a corpse fisherman - a trade that appeared with the construction of the new hydro-electric dams on the Yellow River. The Lanzhou Dam was inaugurated ten years ago and supplies the big factories in the city twenty 20 kilometres away. Seeing the bodies pile up against the dam, two families settled down nearby to share what the river brings.IN PICTURES: Click here to see photo file. WARNING: Some people may find the contents upsetting.
Once the corpses have been identified, they can be sold to the grief-stricken families. "The other fisherman is a guy from the mountains who doesn't even know how to swim. He's a lout who asks the families for crazy sums of money. And he doesn't take care of the bodies. He damages them with his hook. Don't go to see him. You don't want to get into trouble," Wei warns. He also sells the bodies to the families, but his prices, he claims, are adapted to the clients' means. "I bill a peasant 500 yuans [62 euros], a mingong [immigrant worker] family 2,000, a family from Lanzhou 3,000, and a boss 5,000."
Wei Jin Peng does not like bosses. "Often they refuse to pay, or haggle for hours... in front of the families. It's pathetic," he says. In the end, only a third of the corpses can be reclaimed by the families. All the others sink into oblivion in the depths of the Yellow River. "There are at least 500 of them down there. What a waste."
But where do all these bodies come from, piling up in Wei's net? Mainly from Lanzhou, the economic lung of north-east China, up-river. "Among the 200 bodies picked up over the year, I get two types: old age pensioners and migrant workers. Nearly all of them are women. No doubt they can't stand life in the city, or get mixed up with thugs, who get away with anything there."
Piled up on the chest of drawers of his tidy house in the village centre are dozens of documents with photos and phone numbers. These are the numerous missing persons notices sent out by families in search of loved ones. Among them is that of Jing Bei, a beautiful young woman aged 25, who was a waitress in a chic Lanzhou restaurant. She disappeared without trace one evening in September. Contacted by phone, her husband, a car-washer, appears desperate: "I've been to see the police several times, but they don't even want to investigate," he says. "They say there's no indication that this is a murder or a suicide. They say she may have left the city of her own free will... but to go where? And leaving her kid behind?" As for Mr Wei, he swears she is not to be found in the river.
'The old lady took two days to throw herself off...No doubt she had to die.'
To the north of Lanzhou, at the foot of Bai Tai mountain, Xiao Hei sells, for five yuans (0.6 euros) each, sweet potatoes roasted over charcoal in a steel barrel mounted on an old trolley. Every day he sets up shop on the Zhongshan Bridge, known as the German Bridge. This construction, the first on the Yellow River, owes its nickname to its German builders, Telge and Schoeter, who, commissioned by the emperor in 1907, set up in Tianhin. "Everything was imported from Germany, right down to the nails!" Xiao Hei exclaims.
A major tourist attraction, this bridge is also a favourite spot for prospective suicides. Xiao Hei sees them every week. "Last weekend it was an old lady. It took her two days to throw herself off. At first she couldn't climb over the railings. The next morning she managed, and the current carried her away." Did he try to stop her? Xiao Hei seems surprised. "What's the use? No doubt she had to die."
Young migrant workers from Lanzhou also like to venture onto the bridge on the one and only day off they get per week. Holding pink or blue candyfloss, they chat or contemplate the sunset, the refinery chimneys in the distance, the cable car making its way up to the mountain peak; and the brown, muddy water churning beneath their feet.
Among them, Cheng Li, aged 19, and Zhouyan, 17. They are from Henan, a poor province in the east of China. They work for Lanzhou Shi Hua, a large chemical fertiliser plant. The pay is 980 yuans a month (125 euros), overtime included. The pace is infernal: 6 days out of 7, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.IN PICTURES: Click here to see photo file. WARNING: Some people may find the contents upsetting.
For the past five days, Zhouyan has been depressed. "As she's the youngest, she's become the boss's punch-bag. He insults her in front of all our colleagues, repeating that's she's a good-for-nothing, or that she wears make-up like a whore. Now he's threatening to take away her right to the Chinese New Year holidays." Zhouyan says nothing. Despite several attempts, it is impossible to make her smile. "This morning I had a really hard time getting her out of the dormitory. Her mother would like her to go straight home to the village, but there's no work there. People there are still very poor."
Offering one of the lowest minimum salaries in China - 670 yuans (80 euros), compared to 1,100 yuans (150 euros) in Shenzhen - Lanzhou now attracts factories from the Guangdong province and can boast of a two-figure growth rate. Its petrochemical and textile industries are flourishing. This year it is even due to become Geely's latest outpost; the car manufacturer known in Europe for having bought up Volvo is aiming to export massively from Lanzhou to Eastern Europe.
'Foreign journalists can die too!'
For over ten years, the city has been considered one of the most polluted in the world. This pollution is plain to see when the ‘city bowl' is viewed from one of the Taoist temples built on the surrounding heights. Only skyscrapers and cranes pierce the thick, yellowish cloud enveloping this city traversed by the river.
The authorities have even seriously considered flattening one of the mountains in order to allow wind to enter the city. But fear of dust and frequent sand storms has put a brake on their enthusiasm. The current digging of long tunnels for the future high-speed train due to link Lanzhou to Chengdu, the Sichuan capital, has already added its share of problems.
The giant milling machines that are hollowing out the neighbouring mountains are creating immense dust clouds that can cover the leaves of trees in a matter of hours. Added to this is motor vehicle pollution. Even though taxis and buses are now fuelled with natural gas in order to limit CO2 emissions, the number of cars is going up 20% every year.
The growing number of dams on the Yellow River offers an alternative to coal-fired electricity generation and a coal-based economy. But by collecting the corpses, they are literally exposing to the light of day the sinister fate of hundreds of the workers who are the motor of this unbridled development. "Obviously the French would be very shocked if piles of bodies were to be found floating in the Seine, but here it's all part and parcel of daily life, and nobody pays much attention," comments Zezhong Dou, a journalist on one of the province's 11 dailies.
He receives me in his home, in an old building next to the newspaper's offices, owned by the Communist Party. Having looked at each of the photos from our report (see slideshow), Dou turns to his colleagues: "It's not just workers who can die anonymously. Foreign journalists can too!" Guffaws and swigs of Baijiu rice liquor.
Dou's face straightens: "If the police don't investigate these hundreds of deaths, it's not up to us city journalists, and certainly not foreign ones, to poke their noses into the affair." He prefers to dwell on some archaeological discovery that will be making the front-page headlines of his paper the very next day. Dou walks us to the door. "You shouldn't publish this sort of information," he warns, "it's never good for business."
English version: Chloé Baker