Children of Coal: Life After the Collapse
Earlier this week, China announced plans to rejuvenate the country’s northeast, a vast expanse of land made up of Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin provinces. There, an economy grounded in heavy industry is feeling the brunt of the country’s dwindling growth rate.
Shuangyashan is the epitome of the region’s desperate need for a breath of new life. Lying just over 100 kilometers south of the Russian border, the city takes its name — “Double Duck Mountain” — from the pair of fowl-shaped hills that lie beyond its suburbs.
But that isn’t what Shuangyashan is known for.
Like many other cities in this area of Heilongjiang province, Shuangyashan was born from coal. Thanks to the region’s thick seams of high-quality coal buried hundreds of meters beneath the ground, Shuangyashan was once a prosperous and bustling place.
On weekends, the city’s movie theater would offer free screenings to residents. Outside, dozens of children would sled up and down the layer of ice that covered the roads. In the cold air, their cheers and laughter would resonate between the buildings, only dissipating when their parents returned from the mines at the end of the day. The smoke rising from chimneys was a sign for the children to head home for warm family dinners.
Those were the days when mining was an enviable occupation. “One black face feeds 10 white faces,” the locals would say, in praise of those who slaved away deep underground. The job of a miner was a hard one, but it was stable and put food on the table.
The same cannot be said now. Following coal’s “golden decade” — as it is commonly called — from 2002 to 2012, demand has plummeted amid a slowdown in China’s economic growth and government pledges to cut carbon emissions. Coal is dying a slow death, and it is taking cities like Shuangyashan with it.
Attending the city’s Heilongjiang Vocational and Technical College of Coal was once a matter of course for the region’s young generation. Its guiding principle of “Students first, delivery first, employment first” promised graduates a bright future in a thriving industry. But following coal’s recent collapse, the school’s alumni are facing a landscape that’s very different from the one they were promised.
Here are the stories of four young graduates from the College of Coal. Their lives tell the story of a fading city, a dying industry, and a volatile economy.
Zhang Tianqi was born in 1987 to an ordinary mining family. Since Zhang’s great grandfather came to the northeast decades ago, every generation of the family has made its living from the mines. In 2004, a couple of years into the industry’s golden decade, the family sent Zhang to the College of Coal, with their eyes set on a stable job at a state-owned coal company upon graduation.
Zhang’s five years at college were the happiest of his life. Surrounded by young men like himself, his life revolved around three things: playing sports, joking with friends, and chasing after girls. Never afraid to jump into the fray when fights between groups of students broke out, Zhang was held in high esteem by his cohorts. His reputation as a loyal, trustworthy friend earned him the role of class monitor in 2004, despite his spotty academic record.
But Zhang didn’t need to worry about excelling academically. He didn’t need to worry about anything at all. All he needed to do was get assigned to a decent job after graduation and find his own place to live.
Zhang got his assignment. Soon after graduating in 2009, he found himself sitting, in near-pitch-black, on the transportation belt that took the miners to the extraction level. To this day, he can remember every detail of the first trip. “I felt like a plate of sushi on one of those circular belts, heading straight into the mouth of a monster hiding in the shadows.”
But there was an even greater fear that hung over Zhang. “Living in a mining town, you see and hear of too many deaths down in the mines,” he says. With another of his colorful metaphors, he likens the job to Russian roulette: “You could never guarantee that you wouldn’t be the next one to get a bullet to the head.”
Following a two-month probation period, Zhang, to his relief, was transferred from the pits into the technological planning section as a technical supervisor. Things were looking good. As one of the last batch of the College of Coal’s students to be given immediate placement upon graduation, Zhang had got lucky. And now, in a straightforward, relatively safe job, he had his eyes set on starting a family. Zhang imagined a wife, children, and a holiday away twice a year.
That was before the industry collapsed and companies began stalling on salary payments. During a period of worker strikes and demonstrations, it was only in the middle of March 2016 that Zhang received pay slips for November and December of the previous year.
Nevertheless, Zhang went through with his plans to marry. The wedding, in late January 2016, was a chance for him to see the old gang again. Seven years later, his friends’ faces had aged, but it was the changes in their ideals and aspirations that made the deepest impressions on him.
An hour before he walked down the red carpet with his bride, Zhang toasted his way through the many old friends who had come to celebrate the big occasion. The voice of Xia Yan, Zhang’s closest friend from his years at college, rang out from behind him: “Tianqi, coal is in the dumps, but you still got the guts to get married?”
As it turned out, the wedding went a considerable way toward cushioning the blow of the delay in Zhang’s wages, thanks to the copious hongbao — red envelopes filled with money — given to the couple by supportive friends and family.
Combined with the spoils of the wedding, Zhang estimates that he now has around 200,000 yuan (nearly $31,000) in savings, which he still hasn’t decided how to spend. He is faced with two options: hang on in coal and use the money to bribe his way into a more senior position, or use the savings to fulfill his dream of managing his very own 7-Eleven. The chain has always had a special place in Zhang’s heart; “7-Eleven” was the first English word he learned, and it was where he would go for midnight condom runs in years past.
With the latest round of personnel restructuring at the mine, Xia Yan lost his job. Since then he’s been staying in his wife’s pharmacy, looking after the shop during the day and — as per his wife’s demands — sleeping on the floor at night to serve any late-night or early-morning customers.
Despite the humble circumstances of his current life, Xia, 29, is well-known around the neighborhood. This is partly because his father, known in the town as “Boss Xia,” worked his way up from a low-level miner to manager of the locality’s entire mining operation. Even the younger Xia once enjoyed his own antiquated moniker: “Master Xia.”
In 2004, as the Xia household was beginning to make a name for itself, the then-18-year-old Xia was sent by his parents to the Harbin Vocational and Technical College of Power in Heilongjiang’s capital. In Harbin, the well-connected owner of a mining firm took Xia under his wing. Xia transported coal for his new “godfather,” pocketing a healthy 24,000 yuan for every load.
It was easy money, but Xia’s parents had aspirations of a higher-ranking position for their son. In 2007, they called him back to Shuangyashan and sent him to the College of Coal, where he would become close friends with Zhang. To his parents’ delight, upon graduating Xia was assigned to the procurement department of the Shuangyashan Mining Bureau. With underhand payments from machinery vendors bidding for buyers, Xia could expect to receive kickbacks of up to 10 percent on every deal. With transactions in the tens of millions of yuan, it was a lucrative position.
Xia was living the high life. The proud owner of a Honda Accord, he would turn up to Shuangyashan’s hottest clubs dressed head to toe in a Kappa tracksuit, a gold chain around his neck and a girl on his arm.
In Shuangyashan, Xia was not alone. During the golden decade, this was a lifestyle embraced by many young men.
At the time, the national average for the number of workers employed to produce 10,000 tons of coal stood at 15.8. Xia’s company was employing 48. “Children with well-connected parents would be on payroll even though they were studying out of town, and young men in their 20s were retiring and collecting their pensions,” he recalls. When he wasn’t making millions in under-the-table commissions, Xia was getting paid to play video games at home.
For the Xias, paradise came to a sudden end when a cerebral infarction left Xia’s father partially paralyzed. Unable to work, his status as the “boss” began to crumble — and his wife’s decision to leave him only exacerbated matters.
The effects of his father’s downfall were felt by Xia Yan, too. His then-girlfriend broke up with him, and apart from Zhang, who still called him “bro,” many of his friends began to desert him.
Xia’s father opened up a small inn at the entrance to the mining zone, charging 10 yuan per night for the miners who chose to spend the night next to the mines. On Jan. 27, the day after Zhang’s wedding, Xia went to visit his father with Yang Kun, one of the few friends from college who had stuck by him through the family’s troubles.
Wrapped in a thick winter coat, the old man was sweeping snow in front of the small, single-story inn when they arrived. “Xia Yan is finally sensible enough to make friends with people who wear glasses,” Xia’s father said in Yang’s direction when he saw the two young men approaching. “Before, he would spend all his time hanging out with showy good-for-nothings.”
“He was just a kid back then,” Yang replied in defense of his friend. Like so many others, Yang had grown up listening to tales of the mighty “Boss Xia.” Now he struggled to reconcile that legendary figure with the disheveled old man who stooped before them.
“I used to gamble,” the fallen magnate told them. “The amount of cash I lost alone — maybe not in 100-yuan bills, but in 50-yuan bills — you could bury yourself in it.” After a brief chuckle, the three of them fell into a long silence.
“The problem with the Xias was that they didn’t make hay while the sun was shining,” says Yang Kun of the Xia family’s fall from grace.
In the eyes of all the other students of the coal mining class of 2004, Yang, now 28, was only ever motivated by money.
Earning extra cash was on Yang’s mind as soon as he started at the College of Coal in 2004. He served drinks at a bar, took orders at KFC, ran a small phone accessory stall on campus, and even tried peddling clothes he’d bought in bulk online. This last endeavor failed when he realized he’d spent 1,000 yuan on a bunch of damaged foreign clothing that would be impossible to shift.
Yang’s quest to find a healthy source of income continued upon his graduation in 2009, when the coal industry was still in its upswing. After some searching, he secured a spot in the extraction team of a local mine as an underground technical supervisor. His job only required him to go down into the pits 18 days out of each month, yet his salary was among the highest of all front-line workers.
Soon after Yang started his job, he experienced every miner’s nightmare: a collapsed tunnel. For 30 hours he was trapped alone in the darkness with nothing to do but look at his watch, play with the mine’s resident rats, hum to himself, and hold on to the hope that he would eventually be rescued.
Yang was rescued, and he continued to work underground for almost three more years. In late 2012, however, he was transferred without warning to the equipment installation team, followed by a cut in his 7,000-yuan monthly salary to a mere 2,000 yuan. He found out later that he had been replaced by someone with a better portfolio of guanxi — connections with the people who matter.
Shortly after his demotion, Yang happened to hear that a friend had started a business in Beijing doing recruitment for adult education programs. In 2013 Yang joined him and began making some extra money to compensate for his inadequate mining salary. Two years later in 2015, he rented a 15-square-meter office on Shuangyashan’s main strip and started his own adult learning recruitment practice, earning 60,000 yuan in his very first year. In the same year, another 60,000 yuan he had put into a high-interest loan scheme generated 140,000 yuan in interest alone.
While still technically an employee of the mine, Yang is almost never there — a fact that once caused tension with his father, who remains a staunch supporter of the mines. “He doesn’t argue with me anymore now that the Mining Bureau is collapsing,” says Yang, whose ventures are earning him about three times more than what his father makes in the mines.
“People in my dad’s generation have been holding on to the same bowl for years,” Yang says of his father’s dedication to the “iron rice bowl” — a steady, state-paid job. “They’ve become sentimental and can’t bring themselves to leave.”
“But when you can no longer fill your stomach,” he says, “you need to put that bowl down and pick up another one.”
A smile cracks on Ru Dongying’s face as she is greeted by the cashier: “Welcome to KFC, please place your order here.”
Ru, 29, is happy not just because of the prospect of the sandwich that is about to fill her stomach, but because being here fills her with memories of her college days.
When KFC’s first store opened in Shuangyashan in 2006, Ru Dongying and Yang Kun — both students at the College of Coal at the time — were two of the first to apply for part-time work as cashiers.
Coal has always been the pivot of Shuangyashan’s economy. As such, the employment options for the city’s young people were extremely limited. So when a company arrived that was taking on workers by the hour, it was a breath of fresh air for people like Ru, who had grown up around others whose rigid working hours in the mines left little room for flexibility. “It was my first brush with capitalism,” says Ru. “I liked it.”
Ru is glad to be distracted by nostalgia. It is Jan. 14, 2016, and after eight years of service, she has just tendered her resignation at the Shuangyashan Mining Bureau’s Mechanical and Electrical Co. Ltd.
Following her parents’ wishes, Ru entered the state-owned company after graduating with a technical diploma in secretarial studies from the College of Coal in 2008. Her job as an entry-level administrative worker on the company’s party committee was exhausting and low-paid — in her first month she made just 330 yuan. After obtaining an undergraduate degree through a two-year distance-learning program, however, Ru was promoted in 2011 to a more senior role within the party committee: deputy section chief. With the occasional sideline work, she was bringing home a comfortable 4,000 to 5,000 yuan each month.
When the mining bubble burst in 2012, however, Ru’s wages were swiftly cut, and delays in salary payment became the norm. On the months she was paid, she would get no more than 2,000 yuan.
In November 2015, Ru needed a break from Shuangyashan’s bleak winter, so she took a short trip to Hong Kong. On her return, she had intended to take a further month off from work to take a course in video post-production. She recorded videos for friends’ weddings in her spare time, and she hoped to turn her hobby into an income-earning vocation.
As she got off the plane, however, she received a text message from her manager informing her that the company was restructuring, and that she would be required to participate in internal competition if she wished to stay on. Her father, the deputy director who had been with the company for 36 years, received the same text.
There and then, Ru decided to part ways with coal. “Even if the industry does pick up, it won’t be until seven or eight years from now,” she says. “I’ll be going on 40 by then.”
For now, Ru’s dreams of becoming a freelance videographer are on hold. Since her resignation, she has been reassigned to the city’s sanitation department.
“I used to be a deputy section chief, and now I’m in charge of a group of old grannies and grandpas sweeping the streets.”
“You have to laugh about it.”
(Header image: Snow covers the ground at a coal preparation plant in Shuangyashan, Heilongjiang province, Jan. 9, 2016. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone)