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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Visiting China's nuclear past: A remote atomic research base, long a forbidden zone, is resurrected as a 'red tourism' attraction.

September 2, 2007

XIHAI, CHINA -- When word came on Oct. 16, 1964, that China had detonated its first atomic bomb, thousands of scientists and soldiers ran onto the grasslands here, leaping and shouting and weeping with joy.

It was a triumphant moment, the tears washing away the humiliation of the Soviet Union's withdrawal of support and the crumbling of China's economy, which had left millions dead of starvation. Yet most of the 30,000 people stationed here -- at what was known as Factory 221 -- didn't know that it was their research and work that had catapulted China into the ranks of the nuclear powers.

For three decades, Factory 221 was a forbidden zone, shrouded in secrecy. Now, government officials are moving to turn this shuttered weapons base in China's remote northwest into a major tourist destination. It is part of a growing push to educate citizens and stoke patriotic fervor by promoting "red tourism."

On a recent morning, tour guide Han Jinmei strained to swing open a 3-ton steel door with three heavy locks that is 30 feet underground. It's explosion-proof, poison gas-proof, Han said, as she stepped inside a corridor leading to base headquarters.

In one room was an old radio-telephone switchboard, cables running down it. Another room had a 1.8-horsepower electrical generator. Its engine came from the Soviets, Han said, adding quickly that everything else in the underground chamber had been made in China. She shined a light on a red label stamped on the top of a carrier-wave communication machine.

"The tag proves it was domestically made," she said. On the small label were words from Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung: "The force at the core leading our cause forward is the Chinese Communist Party; the theoretical foundation that instructs our thought is Marxism and Leninism."

The subterranean command center opened to the public in April. That month, workers began construction on a $10-million "Nuclear City" museum. Officials also plan to restore some of the assembly factories, bunkers and old sentry posts, said Bei Jing Cai Rang, a Tibetan and vice director of Haibei Tourism Bureau, which oversees Xihai.

Behind most of these investments is China's Propaganda Department.

Beijing wants "to arouse visitors' national pride," said Dai Chaowu, professor of history at Nanjing University. He said the project dovetails with another top priority of the central government: economic development of China's west, which has badly trailed the rapid growth on its east coast.

Tourism is a big part of China's Go West campaign, and few areas have as much potential as this region, on the gorgeous Qinghai-Tibet plateau, 11,000 feet above sea level, and within an hour's drive of Qinghai Lake, China's largest salt lake.

It already has benefited Yun Sen, a 37-year-old Tibetan who set up a little roadside stand inside his yak-hair tent, selling roasted lamb for $2 a pound and yak-milk tea for 65 cents.

"I'm glad the government is developing; I'll get more tourists," said Yun Sen, who lives with 20 other families in a Tibetan village near Nuclear City.

Once these grasslands were dotted with Tibetan tents. But 1,715 nomadic Tibetan families were forced to move in 1958, according to the Chinese government, as scientists and engineers, recruited from all over the nation, began their covert operation.

Mao had counted on the Soviets to help China build its nuclear weaponry, but amid a schism between the two communist lands, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reneged on his offer in June 1959. Within months, the last of the Soviet experts had left, taking with them blueprints and shredding drawings. Despite the rebuff and mass starvation from disastrous agrarian policies, Mao pressed ahead with Factory 221, believing nuclear weapons would make China a world power.

Shi Chuangui, a technician and Korean War veteran, arrived on base in the winter of 1963. He came clear across the country, from Liaoyang province in the northeast, leaving behind his wife, who would follow two years later. Shi was stationed to sub-factory No. 2, which experimented with dynamite. "This place vanished from the map," said Shi, now 76. "We didn't have an address, only Mining Area, Mailbox 210."

During the harshest period, Shi remembers shivering in the minus-20-degree winters and going to sleep hungry. Workers were given a ration of buns made of highland barley, but that wasn't enough. "Sometimes we had to dig [and eat] wild grass," Shi said, "or catch fish from the lake or plant potatoes in the grassland to fill our stomach."

His monthly pay back then: 82 yuan (about $11 at today's exchange rate), including 18 yuan for not telling anybody about anything he was doing.

When the uranium-enriched bomb exploded that October afternoon, nobody from Factory 221 saw the blast: It was conducted in the Xinjiang desert, about 600 miles northwest. Then-Premier Zhou Enlai announced it to the nation that night, stunning the world, including the United States, which developed an atomic bomb in 1945.

Shi cried upon hearing the news. "I suspected the bomb was from our factory," he said. Though he didn't know for sure, Shi said he believed that his team may have had a hand in making the bomb. "I was so happy," he said.

Factory 221 shut down in 1983. Today the brick walls of Shi's TNT workshop are covered in soil, lost in the 600-square-mile area in the Jin Yan Tan Grassland where the base was built. Ruins of other buildings stand like the remains of an ancient city. Tall chimneys rise from the ground. Railroad tracks are buried in weeds.

Among the other exhibits open to the public now are a bunker with portholes for scientists to observe test explosions and a small museum housed in what was once the library of the research center.

Nuclear City has been officially open to the public since 1995, but tourists have been slow to come to Xihai, a town of 10,000 that grew out of Factory 221.

In recent years, though, the central government has plowed tens of millions of dollars to build roads and for preservation efforts. Scores of government officials have settled in Xihai, to assure people that they faced no danger from nuclear waste. Officials have said radioactive waste was buried 30 feet underground in a pit about five miles from Xihai.

Government-controlled media have said the nuclear bomb research and production were carried out with strict safety precautions and without radioactive harm to anyone. But those who worked there tell stories of experiments gone awry and many workers and their offspring falling victim to various diseases.

Liu Hongming, a technician at Factory 221 from 1963 until it closed, remembers four colleagues dying in an explosion in 1969.

"It was always a dangerous job," said the 71-year-old, who now lives in Xining, about 60 miles from Xihai.

But it was all worth it for Liu.

"I'm still very proud of those years," he said. "Now that Nuclear City is open, more people can share those days with us."

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