Boom and doom: the Yellow River corpse merchant

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'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

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Jordan Pouille is based in Beijing and runs a blog, in French, on Mediapart's 'Le Club' section.