BESIDE THE MAIN highway heading eastwards from Lanzhou, a hill of sandy soil towers 200 metres high. Motorists on their way to Xian and Beijing do not give it a second glance. But, when they return to Lanzhou, the mountain may not be there - two developers are competing to remove it in what they call a mixture of environmental protection and commercial development.
The story of Daqingshan (Big Green Hill) illustrates two things: the danger posed by the dirty air of Lanzhou, one of the world's most polluted cities, and the ingenuity of businessmen looking to make a fast yuan. Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province in northwest China, is surrounded by mountains that trap the air from its steel and petrochemical plants, so that it has almost no wind.
The idea of removing the hill was first proposed in 1995 by a local developer who argued that doing so would make a corridor for the pollution to escape. The Government accepted the idea and he started work in May 1997. He aimed to complete the project by the end of 1999, with an investment of 99.6 million yuan (about HK$93 million). But he stopped work in 1998 after removing just 30 metres, having run out of money and become doubtful about the viability of the project. There were also objections from local people and academics who said that removing the hill would not help to reduce the pollution at all.
'It seemed like a good idea at the time,' said Guo Kun, vice-governor of Gansu. 'We had not done much research on the idea. So last year we spent 3.5 million yuan to commission a major academic study on how to reduce the pollution. We might try the idea of a corridor to remove pollution somewhere else.' Back at the site, however, enthusiasm for the project is strong. Next to the road stands the original advertisement alongside strips of sandy earth that have been cleared. People are using the site as a rubbish tip.
An office on a hill across the highway belongs to a second firm named Lanzhou Dawson Land Development. A visit finds the staff eating their dinner out of iron bowls and company president Wen Yanhui taking a nap with his clothes on, under a thick quilt. On the wall is a copy of the business licence the company obtained in January.
Mr Wen leaps out of bed and, fortified by a cigarette, is eager to explain his plan. 'We will remove the mountain and turn a 200-hectare site into an estate of 500 villas and pleasure garden, with swimming pool, tennis courts and other amenities. It will be 60 per cent covered by grass and trees. The kind of clients we are looking for are scientists who work in hi-tech companies and will want the kind of high-quality setting we will create.
'We plan to invest 500 million yuan over five years, of which 100 million will go to removing the mountain. That will take two years.' But since his company has registered capital of only US$2.5 million (about HK$19.5 million), how will it finance such a big project? 'We will take it one step at a time, financing it as we go along. We have backing from our head office in Canada, set up by an overseas Chinese.' Gansu is one of the poorest provinces in China. It seems rather far-fetched to have software engineers driving BMWs and paying millions of yuan for California-style villas.
The road past Mr Wen's office reveals more conventional ways to improve the environment. Several hills belong to the army and men are lined up, spades in hands, fixing infant trees in the sandy soil.
'Lanzhou is surrounded by hundreds of hills and mountains. How will removing one solve the pollution problem?' asked Wang Xiumin, a foreign trade official. 'It is a crazy idea and not scientific.' Mark O'Neill is a member of the Post's Beijing bureau