Tom Phillips / The Telegraph – 2015-08-27 22:08:07
RED MOUNTAIN COMMAND BASE, Xinjiang (November 7, 2013) — Travelers to this remote and rugged nook of northwest China will find no trace of the Red Mountain Command Base on their maps. Guidebooks make no mention of its name.
Past a deserted checkpoint policed only by a pair of two-humped Bactrian camels, the only clues to the extraordinary past of this one-street settlement are the fading slogans daubed on its run-down buildings.
“Work Hard. Be Loyal To The Party. Be Loyal To The People,” they declare. “Long Live Chairman Mao! Long Live The Communist Party!”
Nearly half a century ago, the base was one of the most highly classified locations on earth: a heavily-guarded compound in Xinjiang province where scientists toiled day and night to catapult Chairman Mao’s China into the nuclear elite, alongside the US, the USSR, France and Britain.
With the US and the Soviet Union locked in a Cold War arms race, Mao decided China needed a bomb of its own to fend off what he saw as imperialist bullying.
And it was here, on the sand-swept fringes of the Taklamakan desert, that some of China’s most brilliant military and scientific minds gathered to plot a nuclear revolution of almost inconceivable speed that would change their country forever.
In 1964, just five years after the command centre was set up, PLA scientists detonated China’s first atom bomb at a nearby testing site — a 22-kiloton blast that set the desert sky alight and sparked jubilant celebrations in Beijing.
Today, almost 50 years on, the top-secret facility where the test was partly conceived lies largely abandoned.
The clay-coloured dormitories and offices lining its main street are nearly all derelict, their windows shattered, their floors carpeted with sheep dung and weeds sprouting from their roofs.
Broken tiles litter the ground outside, beneath washed-out murals that once urged passers-by to “Firmly Support the Proletarian Command”.
Extraordinarily, after years of neglect, plans are now afoot to transform this scruffy compound into a 300 million yuan (Â£30 million) “red tourism” destination. When completed it will boast a Communist-themed shopping precinct, a spa-like resort for weary soldiers and even paddocks where the offspring of visiting cadres can hone their horse-riding skills.
Ambitious blueprints for the theme park, which is intended to be completed for next year’s 50th anniversary of China’s atomic debut, foresee its future as “an internationally-acclaimed nuclear travelling site, a peace-themed scenic spot, a national patriotism education base â€¦ [and] Xinjiang’s number one destination for red tourism.”
Chinese visitors will be greeted by a display of military vehicles, a “Red Culture Shopping Street”, a refurbished air-raid shelter and a performing arts centre.
Active or retired members of the army will be invited to kickback at the “Soldiers’ Dignity Resort” while patriots will be able to ponder the sacrifices of their Communist heroes at the “Fathers of China’s Nuclear Programme Memorial”.
A “wetland reserve” is being created for nature lovers and film-buffs will find a multimedia exhibit inside the base’s abandoned cinema.
“We need to let people know that this part of history exists . . . because history is vulnerable and easily forgotten,” said Zhu Yufan, the award-winning landscape architect behind the project.
China’s dramatic transformation from an impoverished agricultural weakling into a muscle-flexing member of the nuclear club began in 1955 when Mao unveiled plans to march into the “atomic age”.
Exploratory teams from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were deployed to scout the region around the ancient Silk Road trading route for potential test sites, and by 1959 two key facilities had been established.
The first was Malan, a military base that would serve as the headquarters for Lop Nur, a sprawling desert test site, larger than Ireland, where at least 45 nuclear tests were conducted between 1964 and 1996.
The second was the Red Mountain Command Base, a far smaller compound around 21 miles to the northwest of Malan in the Tian Shan (Heavenly) mountain range, from where activities at Lop Nur were initially coordinated.
Red Mountain housed the top brass of China’s nuclear programme including Zhang Aiping, who ran it during the late 1950s and 1960s and later served as Deng Xiaoping’s defence minister; Cheng Kaijia, the Edinburgh-educated physicist who was a key driver of early nuclear tests, and Zhang Yunyu, Lop Nur’s first commander.
All the “initial decisions” related to China’s nuclear programme were taken here, according to China Builds the Bomb, a study of the period by John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai.
China’s nuclear pioneers achieved their mission with breathtaking speed. At 3pm on October 16, 1964 Beijing detonated its first atom bomb, around 100 miles from Lop Nur.
The CIA warned that “Communist China” was making a bid “to achieve Asian hegemony”, according to a recently declassified report, while Lyndon Johnson, the US president, condemned Beijing’s “nuclear pretensions” as “both expensive and cruel to its people”.
But for Chairman Mao it was just the beginning. Three years later, in June 1967, his country moved up a rung in the arms race, becoming a thermonuclear power after a hydrogen bomb was tested at the same site. By the time Mao died in 1976, a further 17 tests had been carried out at Lop Nur, cementing China’s status as one of the five officially declared nuclear weapons states.
Testing, much of it by now underground, continued until 1996, when China signed the comprehensive test ban treaty.
According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute earlier this year, China now possesses around 250 of the world’s estimated 17,270 nuclear weapons and appears to be expanding its nuclear arsenal.
The Red Mountain base itself was officially deactivated in 1986, according to a recent state media report, and a measure of rural tranquillity returned as herdsman occupied buildings vacated by scientists and soldiers.
That has now changed as construction workers race to finish the museum. The former base has become a hive of activity as teams of plasterers and solderers worked on a half-built visitors’ centre and a gigantic steel statue of the desert flower, after which the Malan base was named.
Professor Zhu, from Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, said he hoped his project would be completed by the end of this year.
Still, despite the massive investment it is not clear how many tourists will be brave enough to take on the six hour drive to the museum through Xinjiang’s desolate and parched landscape.
Nor is it apparent whether visitors will be told the full story of China’s nuclear triumphs. A “Political Department Exhibit Hall” will display the official narrative but there is no indication its displays will delve into the long-hidden controversies surrounding the tests’ human cost.
As early as 1981 Beijing-based diplomats began whispering about fears of a hidden nuclear catastrophe in Xinjiang.
Citing one local official, Canada’s Globe and Mail reported “lung, liver and skin cancer has greatly increased in the area, touching off increased fears of [nuclear] contamination”. A number of cancer patients had been sent to Beijing for “special study”, the newspaper added.
In the absence of any public investigation such concerns have persisted. In 1998, a team of Channel Four journalists accused Beijing of a systematic cover-up after they obtained evidence pointing to a dramatic rise in the number of cancer cases in the region since 1965, the year after China’s first nuclear test.
“Basically, cancer is everywhere in Xinjiang,” one local doctor told the programme, adding: “We can’t do research into it. It’s not allowed.”
Beijing rejected that report as “sheer fabrication”. But a 2008 study by a Japanese scholar claimed up to 190,000 people may have died from illnesses linked to radiation.
Local officials say there is no risk of lingering radiation at the Red Mountain theme park and some tourists are already making the pilgrimage to the birthplace of China’s nuclear arsenal.
But despite the hopes of the museum’s creators that it will become a world-renowned resort, the old habits of secrecy and suspicion die hard.
Despite the presence of other tourists, The Telegraph was expelled from the museum’s grounds by PLA soldiers who claimed the former base was “still a forbidden area”. Three unmarked cars carrying undercover security agents then tailed this newspaper for 48 hours and over 300 miles until it had left Xinjiang.
Zhang Tie, head of the local tourism bureau, declined to be interviewed and Prof Zhu said he did not know if foreigners would be allowed to holiday on Red Mountain.
But the architect said he hoped the attraction would help young Chinese reconnect with their country’s past.
“People should really face up to history — nuclear has a special place in our country,” he said. “It also has a very special place in Chinese people’s hearts.”
Additional reporting Jiehao Chen
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