Start from the Pacific mouth of the Amur River just north of the China-Russian border. Follow the river across the national boundary as it becomes the Heilong Jiang, then strike west into the dense pine forests of the Khingan Mountains. Cross the patchy deserts that separate the yellow soils of Shaanxi province from the Mongolian steppe, completing your journey in the sandy plains of the Ordos Plateau.
Almost 200 million years ago, a colossal tectonic shift shook through this vast swath of land in northern China, ripping apart its once-thick plant coverage and replacing it with the varied terrain that characterizes the region today.
Changes beneath the surface have had far wider-reaching impact. New depression zones within the continental basin have cooked up vast reserves of brown lignite coal and black bituminous coal, the fuel that has fed China’s surging economy for the past half-century.
China is responsible for over half of the world’s total consumption of coal. At peak times, nearly four-fifths of the country’s electricity comes from burning it. It is little wonder that in China coal has earned the sinister-sounding moniker “black gold.”
As this black gold has lured people and resources from around the country, a constellation of coal cities has gradually spread across the whole of China’s northern areas. At the mercy of the health of the coal industry, these cities — along with their inhabitants — are now reeling from the effects of a severe, possibly terminal decline in the industry.
Slowing economic growth is stunting demand for coal, while at the same time China is beginning, slowly, to embrace clean energy alternatives. Yet as China turns its back on coal, the fates of some 4 million coal miners, their families, and the businesses that depend on them hang in the balance.
Chengcheng County lies in the middle of Shaanxi province, which, while squarely in the middle of China, is considered part of China's sprawling northwest. With its northern neighbor Inner Mongolia, eastern neighbor Shanxi, and China’s northeasterly trio of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning, Shaanxi is a crucial vertebra in China’s coal-producing backbone. The local branch of Shaanxi province’s state mining group in Chengcheng County, the Chenghe Mining Bureau, has employed three generations of Liu Fawei’s family.
Liu’s father, who today lies paralyzed and bedridden, moved to the area in the early 1940s after selling the family’s sole piglet for enough money to escape famine-ravaged Henan province. After over a decade of scraping by at a small, privately-run pit, he became one of the first group of miners to be awarded the stability and status of a position at a state-owned pit. Following the Communist Party’s rise to power in 1949, the nationalization of industry heralded an unprecedented elevation in the status of the workers swept up in it.
Sweeping nationalization did not immediately translate to a surge in productivity, however. The civil war between the communists and nationalists had wreaked havoc on the country’s infrastructure. Damaged power plants were turning to burning soybeans for energy, while in the northeast, home to the most advanced mining technology and most skilled miners in the country at the time, trains were running on wood rather than on far more efficient coal.
Members of a coal excavation team pose with mining equipment in Pingdingshan, Henan province, 1960. China Pictorial/VCG
The country’s first two Five-Year Plans (1953-1962) sought to repair and develop China’s damaged heavy industry. In 1958, as China embarked on the Great Leap Forward — a campaign of rapid industrial growth that is considered by many to have led to a famine that tore through parts of rural China from 1959 to 1961 — production of coal grew by over 100 percent compared to the previous year. Although the industry was unable to sustain such growth for long, the spike in production nonetheless signaled that coal was set to become the backbone of China’s industrial might.
With the launch in 1964 of the Third Front Movement, a campaign of massive industrial development of China’s interior regions, geological survey teams from the resource-rich coal-producing regions of the northeastern provinces were sent westward to prospect for coal. As mines in Shaanxi developed at breakneck speed, hordes of agricultural workers gave up their work in the fields for a life in the pits, following the path that Liu’s father had taken decades before.
Zhao Wenxiang’s late father was one of these workers. As Zhao, one of Liu Fawei’s colleagues at the Chenghe Mining Bureau, recalls, his father made the 180-kilometer journey to Chengcheng County from his village in late 1969 despite efforts by the local cadre to stop villagers from trading the simple and safe work of farming for the exhausting and hazardous work of mining.
The cadre’s warnings were well-founded. Cheap labor has remained a cornerstone of the mining industry’s success, as reflected in the appalling conditions that workers have had to endure over the decades. Miners would descend into the darkness of the mines bare-chested, shovels slung across their shoulders, while coal dust hung around them in the stiflingly humid air. During long shifts down in the pits, miners not only have to endure fatigue, but also hunger.
Yet despite the harshness of their working environment, state-owned mines like those belonging to the Chenghe Mining Bureau flourished during the 1970s, as the government continued to pour money into their expansion. As the mines thrived, the credentials — and pay slips — of miners like Zhao’s father drew the envy of those who had stayed behind in his village. His monthly salary of just over 100 yuan (then around $15) was more than enough to sustain him and his wife and three children back at home.
Mining areas like those belonging to the bureau were symbols of China’s thundering industrial development, and they came to be ideal opportunities for the government’s attempts to reclassify vast numbers of rural residents as urban citizens. By 1987, at the height of the campaign, Zhao, along with his siblings and his mother, followed his father out of the countryside and into the mining area. Mining areas, once isolated and void of any activity other than the clamor of machinery, gradually became independent, fully fledged communities, replete with schools, hospitals, and leisure facilities.
Miners are blasted with artificial “sunlight” in Fushun, Liaoning province, in northeastern China, 1957. The treatment was believed to replenish the miners’ depleted calcium levels. FOTOE/VCG
While they may have shared many of the same features and facilities of other urban centers around the country, these cities still revolved to a great extent around the matter that had borne them: coal. In 1987, Liu Fawei went to study at a technical school established by the Chenghe Mining Bureau to funnel further manpower into the local industry. After graduating, Liu joined the same mine as his father, though his duties as an electrician required more technical expertise than his father’s role as a low-level miner.
In the same year, then-19-year-old Zhao Wenxiang was recruited by one of the many mining companies that would sweep the campuses of high schools when graduation was around the corner. His initial excitement about following experienced miners underground soon gave way to mental and physical exhaustion.
In the 1990s, most of the work in pits around the country consisted of blast mining. Teams like Zhao’s would spend over an hour descending to the extraction area, where they would shovel coal by hand on to a simple leather conveyor belt that took the extracted material up to the surface. Now 47, Zhao describes the feeling of working in those conditions as that of a bird with its wings clipped. The work was never-ending. However hard he tried, he would never be able to fly.
Data provided by the World Bank shows that, by 1995, annual production of electricity from coal had reached over 744 million megawatt-hours, almost double the amount just seven years before. As coal supply struggled to meet demand, the industry entered yet another period of state-led acceleration. Mines of all sizes shot up around the country. By the end of 1996, there were over 60,000 mines in operation nationally, of which nearly 90 percent were small-scale mines.
A miner hauls a load of coal up to the surface from an underground mine in Guizhou province, southwestern China, Sept. 16, 1996. Yu Wenguo/VCG
The scales had tipped too far. It was not too long before the government realized that the push for increased capacity had overshot its target. By 1998, China was facing a massive surplus in production. In order to cut capacity, the government began restructuring state-owned enterprises on a massive scale. The ministry for the coal industry was abolished, and management of key mines around the country was handed over to local governments.
Annual production plummeted in 2000 to an 11-year low, as over half the mines around the country closed, causing huge numbers of miners to lose their jobs. Of the 21.4 million people who lost their posts across all manner of industries between 1998 and 2000, more than a million were from state-owned coal enterprises.
Zhao’s aging father was one of them. Following his layoff, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. In a matter of months, the illness took his life. To this day Zhao believes that his father “died of grief,” having been forced out of a job he had devoted himself to for decades.
By 2002, supply and demand were beginning to reach a new equilibrium, helped in part by China having joined the World Trade Organization the previous year. Encouraged by rises in annual profits of up to 80 percent in many state-owned mines, the Chinese government started to auction off mining rights, causing investors from the electricity, petroleum, and tobacco industries to clamor for a piece of the action.
Workers sort through reserves of coal by hand at a mine in Fuxin, Liaoning province, Nov. 23, 2007. Miao Ao/VCG
After decades of turbulence, it finally seemed that Chinese coal had entered its golden age, and for miners around the country this meant a huge jump in wages. As a member of the transport team, Zhao did not enjoy the same remuneration as those on the front lines, but he could still expect to take home a comfortable 70,000-yuan (then approximately $8,500) wage package each year during the boom. By 2004, he traded in the bicycle he’d ridden for years for his very own motorbike, and by 2009 he was the owner of a black 100,000-yuan Great Wall Motors sedan.
Even the financial crisis of 2008 did little to upset the industry’s thunderous progress, thanks in part to huge injections of state capital. While the world’s other major economies suffered under the effects of the crash, the high-quality coal reserves of the northeast were enjoying unparalleled productivity. At the state-owned Heilongjiang Longmay Mining Group, the largest coal firm in the whole of the three northeastern provinces, the price for high-grade coking coal shot up from 600 yuan per ton in 2005 to 2,000 yuan per ton in 2008.
During these golden years, the Chenghe Mining Bureau increased investment in the facilities for miners’ families living in Chengcheng County. Liu Fawei’s and Zhao Wenxiang’s families were both given new apartments in the Sunshine Place housing complex, which featured its very own kindergarten. Just next door to them sat a well-equipped hospital built by none other than the mining bureau itself.
A mine owner displays his Hermès designer belt in Shenmu, Shaanxi province, July 22, 2013. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone
The apparent benefits that coal was bringing not only to miners’ wallets but also to their quality of living were enough to guarantee a steady flow of fresh talent into the pits. When Liu Fawei’s son Liu Pingan graduated from the Chenghe Mining Bureau’s school of technology, national coal prices had just hit an all-time high. It was 2011, and one ton of steam coal was fetching 860 yuan on average. The beginning of Liu Pingan’s career in the mines — albeit as a low-ranking member of the security staff — was looking even rosier than that of his father or grandfather.
If the Longmay group once represented the giddy heights that coal reached during its golden age, then it now tells the story of how the industry has begun to crumble.
A sustained depression in the coal market has taken hold following the gradual slowing of China’s economic growth. By the end of 2015, more than 90 percent of China’s coal enterprises were incurring losses. Mines in the northeast, bursting at the seams with miners following the glorious boom of the 2000s, were suddenly faced with massive overhead and dwindling revenue. In 2015, following the previous year’s losses of nearly 6 billion yuan, Longmay launched the first phase of a staff transfer plan, in the hope of pulling the company out of its predicament by reducing labor costs.
A worker sorts coal at the depot of a private mine on the outskirts of Jixi, Heilongjiang province, Oct. 23, 2015. Jason Lee/Reuters/VCG
One of the workers facing the prospect of transferal is Zhao Duo, a soft-spoken 24-year-old who works at a Longmay-owned mine in Qitaihe, a coal city that sits in the beak of the chicken that China's appearance on a map is often likened to.
Zhao joined the mine as one of the last groups of miners to be funneled into Longmay after graduating in 2014 from a mining course at the Heilongjiang University of Science and Technology in the province’s capital, Harbin. Memories of the dining table overflowing with sumptuous food in the years leading up to 2012 — the literal fruits of his father’s then-healthy salary — were soon replaced by the sobering reality of cuts in wages and the possibility of forced transferals. Zhao does not complain, however. Through a persistent smile, he says that he will stay on in Qitaihe until his position becomes untenable. Everything he has is there.
A driver dismounts from a loading vehicle at the depot of a private mine on the outskirts of Jixi, Heilongjiang province, Oct. 23, 2015. Jason Lee/Reuters/VCG
Other miners have taken a more proactive approach, looking for part-time work to supplement their dwindling salaries and provide a back-up should they lose their jobs completely. Eighty kilometers south of Qitaihe is Jixi, another of Heilongjiang’s great coal cities. In deep winter, the temperature drops to 20 degrees below zero, yet crowds of part-time cab drivers line the streets, waiting for prospective passengers looking to make the journey out of town to the nearby coal pits for a day’s work.
One of the drivers is Yin Fuqiang, a 48-year-old worker at the Jixi Mining Bureau. A month into 2016 and the mine has yet to pay out wages owed to workers from the previous year, leaving Yin with no choice but to work as a cab driver in his spare time to supplement his family’s income.
After the bridge of his nose was broken by a collapsed roof-beam in the mines, Yin was transferred away from frontline work to an administrative position. Though decades in the pits have left his lungs riddled with miscellaneous chronic ailments, Yin's hand is never without a cigarette while he is driving. For him, smoking is an indispensable means of keeping stress and resentment at bay.
Like Zhao Duo, Yin Fuqiang has refused to sign up for the staff transferal that his mine had been pushing for. Though a transfer might equate to a form of promotion, he is unwilling to abandon the skills he has amassed over the years and follow hundreds of thousands of other miners into unrelated sectors like afforestation, land reclamation, and agriculture. Despite the damage that the industry has done to his body and the difficulties that delayed wages have brought on his family, Yin remains loyal to coal.
But not all miners are content to keep their heads low and weather the storm. Delays in the payment of wages at state-owned mines have been sparking protests in many mining communities around the northeast from as early as July 2015.
The most recent spate of worker action took place in March 2016 in Shuangyashan, Heilongjiang, when workers gathered around the Longmay Group’s headquarters to protest wage cuts and delays. Images of banners scrawled with messages like “We must live, we must eat” soon made the rounds on social media platforms like microblogging site Weibo.
Exposure of miners’ discontent may have been concentrated in the northeastern mining communities, but the stalling of the industry and the tension this has caused between mines and miners are being felt across all of China’s coal-producing regions. In 2015, when 37 of China’s publicly traded coal companies released their third-quarter earnings reports, Shaanxi’s coal firms led the list of those with the heaviest losses. In one quarter alone, firms across the province suffered a collective negative profit of over 1.8 billion yuan.
It took Liu Fawei in Chengcheng County six whole months to receive his wages from June 2015. In the months that he was not receiving any income from the mine at all, Liu did not miss a day of work, concerned that any transgression would jeopardize his job — and, consequently, the well-being of his family.
Hi son Liu Pingan was unable to realize the hopes he had at graduation for a stable and well-paid career in the mines. Now 29, and married with twin boys, he doesn’t share his father’s patience. In October 2015, he made the 900-kilometer journey to Chengdu, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan. Like many young miners, he was leaving stagnating industry behind to find work in a city with a more diverse economy. Yet with such narrow qualifications and work experience, Liu could only find work doing odd jobs for a shoe vendor. The money barely covered his own rent and meals, and it certainly didn’t leave him with anything to send back to his family.
Several months later, Liu Pingan has succumbed to the calls of his parents to move back into the family home with his wife and sons and give the pits another try. Though Liu may be making a fraction more than he did in Chengdu, his and his father’s mining salaries are barely enough to sustain the most basic needs of the household. The tiny two-bedroom apartment now houses eight people: Liu with his wife and two sons, his young sister who has not yet left school, his parents, and his bedridden grandfather.
The mining industry pulled the Lius out of poverty, and the older members of the family are too loyal to give up on it, despite the insufficiency — and delays — of the wages. For those like Liu willing to explore the world outside the mines, they have struggled to find work where they can apply their limited expertise.
Following a June 2015 pledge by the State Administration of Work Safety to tackle issues of safety and conflict between high labor costs and dwindling productivity, some state-run mining firms are looking to automatize the mining process.
Against the backdrop of plummeting coal prices around the country, the Hongliulin mine in Shenmu County, 500 kilometers north of Chengcheng County, managed to turn a profit in the year 2015, according to the mine’s head of publicity Wang Zejun. Using fully mechanized extraction, the small-scale mine produced more coal last year than all the mines affiliated with the Chenghe Mining Bureau, despite employing less than a tenth of the staff.
The advanced mining equipment used at the mine is imported from the U.S. and Germany, and it has increased demands on the technical qualifications of the miners. Small, young, and highly qualified, the workforce in such mines strikes a hard contrast with that of the majority of mines, which have relied on the traditional labor-intensive model.
Aside from the attack on human labor that the policy of mechanization represents, industry observers also predict that China is entering an era of “de-carbonization.” While market forces were the principal instigators of previous fluctuations in the industry, a sinister shadow — hitherto largely absent in political dialogue — is looming over the current decline: pollution.
China’s north is punctuated with coal-fired power plants, like the Haibowan plant on the outskirts of Wuhai, Inner Mongolia, Dec. 6, 2009. Jason Lee/Reuters/VCG
Burning coal produces carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and harmful particulate matter small enough to enter the lungs, and it is widely regarded as the key polluting factor in smog formation. The smog that lays siege to Beijing and its surrounding provincial cities is causing rising anguish among residents, as the severity of the health risk that such smog poses has become more apparent in recent years.
A miner examines a CT scan of his abdomen in Qitaihe, Heilongjiang province, Jan. 2016. Yang Yi/Sixth Tone
In both Shaanxi and the northeast, solar plants and wind farms have already begun to dot the landscape. Towering turbines stand on the ground that covers, hundreds of meters below, the emptying shells of pit mines that once teemed with activity.
China’s pledge at the Paris Climate Change Conference in November 2015 suggests that saying a final farewell to coal remains a real possibility. According to statistics released by the National Energy Administration, in 2015 the country’s total grid capacity for wind and solar energy reached 186 million and 40 million megawatt-hours respectively, increases of 21 percent and 57 percent on the previous year. In February 2016, the government announced that in the coming three to five years, there will be a total reduction in coal production of 1 billion tons, through both cutbacks in capacity and a further series of restructuring. The position of coal-fired power plants, for so long the primary generators of energy in China, is being gradually weakened by renewable forms of energy.
A commuter train carrying miners travels past wind turbines in Shuangyashan, Heilongjiang province, Jan. 11,2016. Zhou Pinglang/VCG
Though in decline, the mining industry continues to make its mark on the land and its people. A March report released by Greenpeace found that although coal production has been in decline since 2014, ongoing mining activity across China is draining drought-prone areas of water on a colossal scale.
Despite reforms in safety regulation, China’s mines remain the most dangerous in the world. Accidents with dozens of fatalities appear in headlines almost monthly, with the most recent being a late-night incident that caused the deaths of 19 miners at an underground mine in northern Shanxi province.
Yet despite the human tragedies, the environmental cost, the unpaid wages, the strikes and protests, the individuals and families who have built their lives around the mines are reluctant to give up hope on the prospect of a return to the heady days of coal’s golden age.
Between puffs of his cigarette and tortured coughs, Yin Fuqiang speaks of his hopes for coal’s future. “Whether coal will ever see spring again, that is a question only the state can answer.”
A Chinese version of this article first appeared on the Oriental Morning Post, a sister publication of Sixth Tone.
(Header image : Coal miners stand in a truck in honghe, Yunnan province, Dec.17, 2011. Zhang Yujie/VCG)