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The city where China built its atomic bombs, dark memories haunt the ruins

The site celebrates the patriotism of thousands of scientists and labourers, but dark aspects of its history go unmentioned

Chris Buckley & Adam Wu | NYT 

ruins, atomic city, china

Among the yak herds and Tibetan Buddhism prayer flags dotting the windswept highlands of northwestern China stand the ruins of a remote, hidden city that vanished from the maps in 1958. The decaying clusters of workshops, bunkers and dormitories are remnants of Plant 221, also known as China’s Los Alamos. Here, on a mountain-high grassland called Jinyintan in Qinghai Province, thousands of Tibetan and Mongolian herders were expelled to create a secret town where a nuclear arsenal was built to defend Mao Zedong’s revolution. “It was totally secret, you needed an entry pass,” said Pengcuo Zhuoma, 56, a ruddy-faced ethnic Mongolian herder living next to an abandoned nuclear workshop, whose family once supplied meat and milk to the scientists. “Your mouth was clamped shut so you couldn’t talk about it.” That changed in the 1990s, when “Atomic City,” as it is now billed, became a patriotic showpiece, celebrating the scientists and labourers who worked in the harsh, breathtaking conditions on a plateau 11,000 feet above sea level. They built China’s first atomic bomb, detonated in 1964, then its first hydrogen bomb, tested in 1967, and they helped develop missiles to carry the warheads. Today, veterans of the project proudly speak of how they helped to forge China’s nuclear shield. A museum, still forbidden to foreigners, tells visitors that the weapons were made to fend off American and Soviet aggressors encircling China. A statue of Mao gazes paternally over the square of the main town, where thousands of people still live. “At the time, China’s social conditions and position were a bit like North Korea now,” said Liao Tianli, a writer who visits Jinyintan once or twice a year and has interviewed scientists who worked on the project. ” Yet even as the scientists have won recognition for their work, lifting some of the secrets of Plant 221, other dark parts of its past remain muffled in official silence and censorship. Building nuclear weapons here came at a grievous cost, and a few survivors and researchers have tried to exhume the layers of history unmentioned in the memorials and displays. ruins, atomic city, china The herders and farmers who were moved for the project endured starvation, executions and brutal expulsions.

Political paranoia engulfed the project itself, and thousands of scientists and technicians were persecuted. Some veterans have said that the nuclear workers were not adequately protected against radiation, or given effective care after they fell ill from cancer. “If nobody spoke out, then this episode of history would still be buried,” said Wei Shijie, 76, a retired physicist who worked in a detonation and explosives workshop at Plant 221 during the 1960s. He wrote a lightly fictionalised memoir describing the persecution of workers there, and he has called for better medical care for retirees from the project. “Behind the halo of building the two bombs and launching a satellite, many people made agonising sacrifices,” Wei said. “Much of that sacrifice was unnecessary.” The beauty of Jinyintan has been celebrated in song, and in a film from 1953. In warm months, the grasslands burst into luxuriant green, and Tibetan and Mongolian herders have for centuries guided yaks and goats over the pastures. But after 1958, Jinyintan disappeared from Chinese maps. Scientists and their Soviet advisers, who helped China with its embryonic atomic program until the two Communist powers’ bitter split in 1959, chose the site, and thousands of Tibetans and Mongolians who lived here were the first to be sacrificed for the project. The Plant 221 museum says those herders moved voluntarily, helped by the government and rewarded with thousands of sheep. But the bucolic images are belied by the account of a police officer who investigated what happened.

© 2018 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sat, January 20 2018. 20:45 IST