It wasn’t a conventional hit and run. A group of Mongolian herdsman had been blocking a road in West Ujimqin Banner, to protest against the impact of a nearby coalmine. But when a coal truck arrived at the protest, its Han Chinese drivers refused to stop, killing 35 year-old protester Mo Rigen.
Then they drove on.
As news spread, riots began fanning out across the Inner Mongolian region, with ethnic Mongolians venting their fury at Mo’s ‘murder’.
However, as an excellent investigative article by Caijing magazine points out, the grievances of the local people go far beyond one man’s death. Mo’s case merely catalysed long-simmering anger about the destruction of a traditional way of life, as well as the seizure of prairie land by mining companies.
The herders are angry about the growing number of coal mines in the region. With the cooperation of local governments hungry for revenues, the new projects are displacing herders from land they have roamed for generations.
Inner Mongolia is now the country’s biggest source of coal, having overtaken Shanxi in production volume two years ago. Last year it mined 782 million tonnes of coal – that is, 24% of China’s total.
The economic planning agency the NDRC has designated West Ujimqin Banner as a “key energy” base. But of its 22,960 square kilometres, 88% is natural grassland. Of the 72,376 people who live in the area, a little over half are involved in animal husbandry. They are the sort of people who were out on the road with Mo Rigen protesting about the expansion of the mining sector.
The project stoking most of their anger is the nearby Jirin Gol Coal Mine, which is designed to produce 18 million tonnes a year. As tends to be the case, its owner is not a local, but Wang Chuncheng, a Han Chinese from Fuxin in Liaoning province.
Wang’s story is a typical one of entrepreneurial success. Born in 1963 he started out selling eggs. But he established Chungcheng Group in 1994 after successfully restructuring the Xinqiu Open Air Coal Mine in his native city. Now he is a major player in Inner Mongolia, building the Baixin Railway between Xilin Gol and Fuxin (the longest privately-financed rail line in the country). Locals grumble about the 496km railway line too, with government giving right of way to it (as well as roads), even though they “greatly impact the prairie” says Caijing magazine. Herders have been forced to make way for the new development. They have little recourse: as the magazine points out, the Grassland Law gives herdsmen the right to use grassland, but does not give them ownership of the land itself.
A good example, says Caijing, is the Baiyinhua Coal Mine and Thermal Power Plant, also in West Ujiimqin Banner.
In 2005 the local government said the new project would be built on a plot of land collectively farmed by herdsmen. They were compensated Rmb2,000 per mu (a fifteenth of a hectare) and told to move on. But the land was then sold on to the project’s developers at Rmb230,000 per mu. The plans also “took no account of the grassland ecology” and severely depleted local water resources, says Caijing.
Leaders in Beijing are said to be aware that the local government’s push for mining investment has been generating local tension. Last December Liu Zhuozhi lost his job as vice-chairman of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Liu was closely identified with promoting the mining boom, so the firing was thought to signify Beijing’s displeasure.
But the recent unrest will have pushed the situation in Inner Mongolia higher up the agenda. The official Xinhua news agency admitted that the death of the herder had “led to heightened concerns over industry practices in the resource-rich region’s mining sector”.
The local government was also said to be considering a compensation scheme for residents and herders who suffer from “excessive noise and dust” created by mining and the transport of coal, the report added, without giving details.
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