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As the bus pulls away, Wang stares ahead into the middle distance while his wife, Sun Jing, buries her head in her arms. Neither dare glance out the rear window at what they are leaving behind: their two-year-old daughter, named Siting, nestled in the arms of Wang's father. It was barely a year ago, just ten days after Sun had finished nursing, that they first left their daughter. When the couple returned home two weeks ago, they proudly unrolled a thick wad of cash—their annual savings of nearly $2,000. The money will feed their parents and daughter for another year, but Siting didn't comprehend. Recoiling from the two strangers standing in front of her, she scrambled over to her grandmother and peered out anxiously from between her legs. For two weeks, Wang and Sun have used hugs and sweet biscuits to win their daughter's trust. She has finally learned to call them "mama" and "baba," but when they boarded the bus to leave for another year, the girl showed no emotion. "It's hard to bear," says Wang, laying a hand on his wife's arm as she wiped a tear off her cheek. "But there's no other way for us to give our daughter a future."

Pursuing a better future takes Iron Man and his wife through the three northeastern provinces—Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning—that make up the region once revered as the "cradle of industrialization." Their odyssey from the depressed northern reaches of Manchuria to their final destination near the glittering port city of Dalian in the region’s more vibrant south mirrors, in many ways, the government's own ambitious plans for the northeastern rust belt. In 2003, shortly after coming to office, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao unveiled a program to turn the Northeast into China's next engine of development. In the hands of American marketing gurus, the campaign slogan, "Revitalize the Northeast," might well have been the "Manchurian Mandate." The road to salvation, for the region as well as for Iron Man's family, will demand sacrifices: a break with the past, a voyage into the unknown—and no guarantee of success. But the journeys, at least, have begun.

Why would China's leaders stake their legacies on the dubious prospect of resuscitating a region overtaken by history? Part of the answer lies precisely in Manchuria's historical symbolism. Though first developed by Japanese and Russian colonists, China's Northeast was championed by Chairman Mao as the soul of the communist industrial revolution. During the early years of the People's Republic, vast armies of workers were deployed to man the new state-run mines and factories, churning out coal, steel, and oil, along with cars, trucks, ships, and missiles—all the products that would finally, after several thousand years of agrarian life, turn China into an industrial power. By the early 1980s, the Northeast produced 16 percent of the country's industrial output with just 8 percent of the population, making it one of the richest regions in an ostensibly egalitarian society. Iron Man ruled.

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