Energy & Resources

Totally exhausted

What happens when resources run out? Go to Fuxin to find out

Totally exhausted

It's grim up North...

The English poet, William Blake did not have Fuxin in mind when he wrote of his nightmarish vision of “dark satanic mills”. But Fuxin – an industrial wasteland in China’s northern Liaoning province – definitely fits into that category.

Fuxin was the first city in China to be declared “resource-exhausted” when its coal reserves were finally depleted at the turn of the millennium. It thus became a grim pathfinder for the 44 other cities to be declared “resource-exhausted” by China’s State Council.

The label refers to those cities that relied for their economic development on natural resources such as coal, oil or metals, and which have now been stripped bare. Other examples include formerly metal-rich Tongling in Anhui province, and Panjin – also in Liaoning – an erstwhile oil town.

But it is in Fuxin that the process first began, and given its designation as an “economic transformation experimental unit”, the city also offers a case study of what happens when the resources run out.

The city was ‘born’ in Mao’s first five year plan in 1955, when it gained four of the nation’s 156 ‘national key projects’. One of these was the Haizhou Mine, which quickly became the largest open pit in Asia; another was the Fuxin Power Plant, which used Haizhou for its coal, and established itself as the largest coal-steam electric plant in Asia.

In an interview with CCTV, retired miner Wang Guoxian remembers walking to work in 1969 when Fuxin was in its heyday and the black smoke discharged from the power plant was “a symbol of prosperity”.

But as CCTV points out on its website: “As with the coal, disasters were also waiting to be dug out.”

After churning out 650 million tonnes of coal, the mines were empty. And with no more coal, the power station slipped from the first rank too, reduced to a variable load plant.

A heavy reliance on these two industries meant that suddenly Fuxin faced an unemployment problem nothing short of disastrous. The city of 800,000 quickly lost 200,000 mining jobs, with an indirect impact for half of all residents. The social effect was predictably severe. The city was ranked as ‘the most unstable place in Liaoning’ by the Public Security Bureau and saw a rise in crime that included four train robberies.

Even today, the unemployment situation remains miserable, with an executive from the Economic Transformation Unit noting that miners have “no special skills” and so are tough to retrain. Former miner, Wang notes that three of his sons hardly make ends meet, doing odd jobs as decorators.

With the mines now bankrupt, the local government’s finances are also in poor shape. Bureaucrats can only afford to invest Rmb10 million annully on new urban infrastructure. The budget for maintenance does not even reach a fifth of the national average in percentage terms – which explains the lamentable roads. As if all that weren’t bad enough, the years of reckless mining have left groundwater polluted, and caused chronic subsidence. When householder Yuan Dazhong was renovating recently, he discovered that his property sat on a slither of rock above “an endless black hole”. Other houses have actually “disappeared” into Fuxin’s hollows, as well as trucks and even children.

From any number of dimensions, Fuxin provides a cautionary tale. Against China’s positive achievements – such as the construction from scratch of the Manhattan-like Pudong district in Shanghai – Fuxin is an unhappy counterpoint. Its black holes – both real and metaphorical – should give pause to anyone dizzied by China’s growth story.

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