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How The West Was Being Won


This was an article I wrote back in 2008 for a teen magazine as part of a series entitled "Unsung Heroes" of people I know. I am sharing this article because I am excited to be visiting Kenny & Rebecca with David soon, and want our friends to know who they are and how they have inspired us.



 

When I first arrived in Beijing, as I introduced myself to people and started talking about my interests, the name Rebecca Lin (张凤吟) would come up repeatedly. She seemed to know everyone in my various circles of interest, from church to IT to charity. As a “new kid on the block”, I was looking for a mentor, and as people knew more about my interests, they would keep mentioning that “you should get to know Rebecca”. Finally my friend Shirley grabbed me after church service one Sunday and led me over to wait by two women who were really deep into their conversation. One woman was gesticulating wildly and laughing with abandon at the same time. She finally gave her friend a big hug before saying goodbye. Before something else got her attention, Shirley introduced me to her. Rossana is new to town, and is looking for friends and mentors. She’s really interested in learning more about prayer. That “magic word” seemed to do the trick, and Rebecca went on to ask many more questions about my background. Finally, she invited me to a weekly meeting where she gathered with a group of friends to learn about prayer and to practice the art of prayer.


My friendship with Rebecca began on that humble note. For the first few months, I had no idea who she was and what she did for a living, only that she was a lady who was interested in prayer. Later on, her story began to unfold, and I learned about the story of her husband Kenny Lin (林光信), and what an incredible journey this amazing couple had walked. To understand the full context, I need to back up a few decades.



In 1966, Saylin Wen(温世仁) and Kenny Lin both started their studies in the electrical engineering department at the National Taiwan University (台湾大学). Mr. Wen would graduation and move on to found his own company , Inventec, which made him tremendously rich. As the mainland Chinese economy opened in the 1990s, business opportunities, plus his own curiosity, led Wen to spend more and more time on the mainland. In 1992 his company, Inventec, built its first mainland factory, in Shanghai. During the 1990s, Wen had traveled incessantly through China’s industrial areas. In the summer of 2000, he had his first exposure to the driest and perhaps most challenging of the western regions: Gansu province. At an economic conference in Gansu’s capital, Lanzhou, he heard officials compare China’s development of its western frontier to the development of the American West, a process that would unfold over many generations. Wen strongly disagreed. He stood up to say that even a 50-year target was unacceptable.


He had a new idea: western China would have to become fully modernized—brought into parity with Shanghai and Beijing—by 2010. Soon he had written a manifesto called Develop Western China in Ten Years, which was published in English and Chinese, and he steered Inventec’s money toward sites in the west. He also learned that he would have an unexpected ally: his old classmate Kenny Lin.


Yellow Sheep River


In the years after college in Taipei, Kenny went to the United States, earned a doctorate, and had a successful 20-year run as an engineer, researcher, and manager, winding up at Bell Labs, where many of the nation’s top scientists did research, and then NYNEX . He married Rebecca, became a U.S. citizen, and raised two children. But China’s opening under Deng Xiaoping attracted him, and after investigating various possibilities, he left the United States and in 1993 started a software center in Tianjin, outside Beijing, for his friend Sayling Wen’s Inventec company.



One of Kenny’s engineers in the Tianjin software facility had spent a year as a volunteer teacher in a remote, desolate village in Gansu province called Yellow Sheep River. Economically the people of Yellow Sheep River survived by grazing sheep on already overgrazed, dry, and rapidly eroding hillsides, and by growing wheat and potatoes when there was enough rain. The people of Yellow Sheep River came into virtually no contact with the world beyond their little gorge, except when young men and women who had fled hundreds of miles to take factory jobs returned for a few days each year during the Chinese New Year holiday to see their hometown, and often the children they had left behind.



In a book entitled Yellow Sheep River recounting that visit, which he wrote during a two-week burst, Kenny described the hardships of the life he had seen in the hinterland—and also a solution that had come to him. It was a solution in the same spirit that had already motivated his old classmate Wen, though at the time he had no idea of Wen’s own interests.


The hardship that stunned him most was the powerlessness of rural people against brute natural misfortune. A bright and promising young girl had made it through elementary school—but then a drought dried up the crops, and her peasant parents pulled her out of school because they didn’t have money for the fees. In an hour-long video documentary Kenny made to accompany the book (available at YellowSheepRiver.com), he showed the peasant parents saying they mainly wanted to get the girl married off as soon as possible. (An uncle then gave her money for school.) Another boy was shown sobbing about the dim fate that awaited his younger sister, who had been pulled out of elementary school to save money and would remain uneducated like their parents. “Oh God, help these simple and innocent children out of the poverty, deliver them from the tortures of the lack of rain,” Kenny wrote.


His immediate impulse was direct charity. On his first visit, Lin pledged 2,500 yuan per month to pay for meat in the school lunches and for fuel to boil drinking water. But he believed in “teach a man to fish”–type help rather than long-term charity, and so he conceived his scheme.


The villagers’ fundamental problem was their isolation. The Internet could solve that! Kenny’s branch of Inventec could give more computers and software to the school. It could work with the local government to bring in a broadband line and set up a computer center that everyone in the village could use. The students could take courses far beyond the range offered by their impoverished school. They could communicate with people they had not known all their lives. The local farmers could use the Internet to learn about the weather and market conditions. Local craftsmen could offer items for sale to distant customers. Working-age people could look for good factory jobs elsewhere. “The shackles that had bound their spirits had been taken off,” Kenny wrote after he had, within a few weeks of his first visit, established the computer center, declared Yellow Sheep River an “Internet village,” and created the Yellow Sheep River Web site.


Town & Talent Co. Is Established

It was just after his momentous first trip into the mountains that Kenny saw Sayling Wen again. The year 2000 was the 30th anniversary of their college graduation, and Wen sent a note to his classmates saying that he was now so rich, he’d throw a celebration in Shanghai for the entire class and their families at Christmastime and pay their way. (His choice of Shanghai for a reunion of Taiwanese alums is an indication of the near-total integration of the mainland and Taiwanese economies.) On Christmas Day, he overheard Kenny Lin say that Yellow Sheep River now gave purpose to his life. Neither man had known about the other’s recent interest in western China. Both had converted to Christianity, and both thought of helping western China partly as a spiritual obligation.


Wen told Lin about his vision of parity with the big cities within 10 years for these destitute areas and said that the “Internet village” was the model he had been looking for, since it could leapfrog the long process of industrialization and bring villagers directly into the telecommunications age.


Very soon, Wen had founded and funded a new company and put Kenny in charge. Its name in English is “Town and Talent Technologies.” (中文是千乡万才:Chinese means 1000 villages and 10,000 talents). Had Kenny brought the Internet to one village? It should come to a thousand villages. Might it cost $50,000 to equip, operate, and maintain each village’s new computer center? Then Wen should commit $50 million, to cover all thousand villages.


Yellow Sheep River Conference Center


Yellow Sheep River Conference Center


Plus an extra $4 million, for what Wen saw as the crowning touch: a five-star luxury conference center in Yellow Sheep River itself, kind of an Aspen or Jackson Hole without the rich people. There Chinese visitors from the rich eastern cities could see how their countrymen lived, and so could visitors from around the world. Wen kept adding new specs and features to the resort. A conference room with special acoustic tile and high-end video projectors. A swimming pool with the latest “antiwave” design to prevent needless ripples, plus a gym. Naturally, broadband in all the rooms.




Wen used his connections and pull to interest governmental and industrial groups in the project, and he kept encouraging and funding Kenny’s work. Then he dropped dead.


In December 2003, as Town and Talent was setting up Internet projects at more than 50 western schools and as the external structure of the resort was being finished, Sayling Wen suddenly suffered a stroke. He was taken to the hospital and within three days had died, at age 55. Kenny Lin was devastated for his friend, and he was also in trouble. Wen had given him only $1.2 million of the promised $4 million total for the resort. Finally, in March 2004, after three months of Lin’s pressure and pleading, one of Sayling Wen’s brothers agreed to provide the missing $2.8 million.


Connecting to the World Wide Web

A second legacy of Sayling Wen is the Town and Talent company, with its plan to bring the power of the Internet to isolated villages. The strategy behind that plan has also changed significantly since Lin’s first trip to Yellow Sheep River, eight years ago. Then, he thought the Internet could best help the young people of Gansu by helping them move away. They could learn what they needed to know to take factory jobs, and then be matched with big employers in the big cities. “Outsourcing labor to factories was a big economic success,” Kenny says, “but ethically, we couldn’t be responsible for what happened to the kids. They were country children. They didn’t know how to handle money in the big cities. They didn’t know how to make friends or even cross streets.”


Now Town and Talent’s strategy is the reverse. It still wants to help children leave subsistence farms, on land that was barely farmable even before the drought and has been overused to the point of exhaustion. But instead of speeding their departure to the east and further straining family and social ties, it is trying to use the Internet to create new jobs in western China’s cities. The idea is to attract jobs that might otherwise end up in Shanghai, Hangzhou, or some other booming eastern Chinese city. Town and Talent has set up programs in more than 150 schools in western China to train students in using computers (which it donates) and the Internet, so they will have a better chance of holding tech jobs or starting companies of their own.


The final legacy is outright philanthropy, the current version of Sayling Wen’s obviously impossible dream of modernizing the west within 10 years. The Town and Talent company devotes 10 percent of its efforts to a project whose English name is “West China Story” and whose goal is to connect students in remote villages with the outside world.


In this program, middle-school and high-school students in distant areas apply for a kind of work-study grant. The standard amount (around 1000 yuan) covers most of their yearly school expenses, food, and dormitory costs and so can keep them enrolled even when times are bad. In exchange they must, essentially, become bloggers. At least 10 times per year, they are required to research, write, illustrate, and post on the Web a report on some aspect of their lives in the countryside. The idea is to remind them that they are earning their way and not being given a favor, while at the same time teaching them modern Web-site-design skills. In addition, teams of students put up elaborate multipage Web sites—on the prospects for wind turbines in perpetually gusty western areas, on the history of irrigation systems in the Yellow River basin of Ningxia—some of which have won prizes in international high-school “cyber-fairs.”


The essays are available at WestChinaStory.com; they are in Chinese, but the students correspond with site visitors in simple English as part of their training. Many of the pictures are eloquent, regardless of language. (Town and Talent gives each school one digital camera, which the students share.) Some 2,200 rural students now earn their keep through this kind of blogging, supported by half a million dollars in donations mainly from Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States, and a few businesses in mainland China.


The Dawning of A New Era

When I became friends with Rebecca, it was shortly after Saylin Wen had died and the couple was going through a tumultuous time trying to cope with the sudden change in direction and plans. Kenny had already quit his job as the VP of Inventec in Tianjin to devote all of his time to Town and Talent, which means that the family’s lifestyle went through a drastic change. Rather than acting alarmed or worried, Rebecca moved the family into a small apartment in town, changed their lifestyle, and happily supported Kenny’s every decision. She had been praying for her husband to become a Christian for years, and saw everything as a big answer to her prayers, including his feeling the call to leave IT and become a full time philanthropist.


The death of Saylin Wen also opened the doors for others to jump in to help. After computers were put into the schools, volunteers were needed and welcomed to go teach everything from computers to English. Rebecca helped us to arrange for us to teach English together as a family to the kids in Gansu. As the digital centers were being set up to give graduates access to the jobs listed over the internet, Town and Talent was looking for investors to underwrite the installation of each center for a local owner. As a young family, we could not afford the cost of a full center, and yet wanted to get involved. Kenny and Rebecca approached us with a less costly idea, tailored to our family’s available funds and continued desire to be involved. Kenny asked us to consider “adopting” a school to underwrite the costs to purchase 50 pigs, sheep, and yaks to situate in a field next to the school. The students can learn animal husbandry as a skill so that those who graduate and don’t continue on to college would gain practical life skills to run a business while the costs of running the school would be covered by the profit generated by selling the grown animals. By adopting the school, we also were welcomed to help put together the school library by purchasing books and magazines as well as help fund the repairs for the school’s water pump.


Low Key Couple

Kenny and Rebecca introduced us to the Shabbat meal shortly before we left Beijing


Kenny and Rebecca have lived their lives in relative obscurity. While other foreign ex-patriots were enjoying a lifestyle comparable to their compatriots back home, Kenny was keeping fit riding his bicycle to work and plays his violin as a pastime rather than take expensive vacations to resorts around Southeast Asia. Rather than visiting various 5 star hotels and restaurants, he and Rebecca eat simply and are in top health. You won’t see his name in professional journals, in news reports, or in award ceremonies. But he and Rebecca have changed my life and the lives of my family forever, as well as the lives of thousands of schoolchildren in the West. The light on Rebecca’s face comes not from expensive jewelry but from the glow of inner happiness. There’s an old Jewish proverb that says that “those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.” I have seen this lived out in this couple’s life right alongside me. Their lives inspire me to live meaningfully, for what really counts, and not some fad that will be here today, gone tomorrow.






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