The Past And Future Of Coal In China

Nov 8, 2017
Originally published on November 8, 2017 8:11 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump's visit to China this week is offering a chance to compare two nations. Both are focused on trade. Both have presidents who strike nationalist themes. President Trump talks of promoting the coal industry. And this is where it gets interesting because both nations focus on coal but differently. Our co-host Steve Inskeep just spent several days in China's coal country, and he's with us. Hey there, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: I just want remind people, you spent a lot of time in American coal country, right?

INSKEEP: Yeah, I have. I went to college in Appalachia and I've since reported a lot from there. And of course this is a region that was a big focus for President Trump who talked about bringing back coal jobs.

So when we came here to China, I was drawn to the mountains about 300 miles west of Beijing to a coal mining region called Shanxi province, where the tourist attractions, I should tell you, in the provincial capital include the coal museum.

GREENE: (Laughter) What's in a coal museum?

INSKEEP: Well, you actually can buy a lump of coal at the gift shop. And you can ride an elevator down into a simulated coal mine. The tour guide was wearing this red coat, and she had us duck into these little train cars - very low so they'd fit in the mining tunnel.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Elsewhere in the museum, we traveled into the past.

We've walked into a rain forest - some kind of forest in the time of the dinosaurs. I guess we're looking at future coal since all of this matter will decay.

(SOUNDBITE OF DINOSAUR ROAR)

INSKEEP: And we watched a kind of propaganda film with English subtitles so we'd get the message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "We should cherish the hard-won treasure - saving coal," it says.

That last line stuck with our producer, Alyssa Eads, when we walked out.

ALYSSA EDES: What does that mean, to save coal?

INSKEEP: It means that even in a coal region, China is promoting conservation of coal. We learned some of coal's dramatic rise and fall when a former mining boss invited us into his apartment.

(Foreign language spoken).

Zheng Wenhai is a slim man, 61 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOILING WATER)

INSKEEP: He's boiling water here for tea on a burner on his kitchen table. He chain-smokes cigarettes and told his story in two, long talks.

ZHENG WENHAI: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: When he turned 16, he lost both his parents.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry to hear that.

He went to work. He saved money. He bought the government permit to dig a coal mine. It took years after that to get another permit to start mining in a system that is widely seen as corrupt.

Have you ever had to pay a bribe or do things you didn't want to do?

ZHENG: (Speaking Chinese).

: Yeah, of course. Every coal boss has to do that.

ZHENG: (Speaking Chinese).

: There will be dozens of bureaus that you need to respond to.

INSKEEP: In 2008, he sold his mine for a huge profit but says he never collected the full price. He's been suing for his money ever since. Yet, for all his trouble, coal was so lucrative that Zheng Wenhai is still rich - donating to restore an old Daoist temple, which he showed off on a video on his phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: That kind of windfall is not likely to last, as we heard from Alvin Lin. He's with the American group the Natural Resources Defense Council, and he says coal has passed its highest production in China.

ALVIN LIN: Peak coal use was 2013-14, when it was about 4.2 billion tons.

INSKEEP: 4.2 billion tons of coal?

LIN: Yep, that's about half of the world's coal consumption.

INSKEEP: It fired China's new industries and heated millions of homes.

LIN: That kind of development, as it's built up its cities, its factories and so on, is reaching its limits.

INSKEEP: Businesses in the Internet age are more compatible with wind or solar energy. The government wants to cut pollution and is banning coal for home heating. And we saw the change when we visited Shanxi, that coal-producing province.

Dusty, abandoned, coal facilities, coal chutes, smokestacks, crumbling brick walls, collapsed roofs.

In a mountain valley, we drove into a city called Gujiao. There's a mine entrance right in town where miners told us that, despite some improvement lately, business has been down for years. We met half a dozen men on a sidewalk, who sat on metal chairs playing Chinese chess.

Who's winning?

: (Speaking Chinese).

JIN YONGGANG: (Speaking Chinese).

: (Speaking Chinese).

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: The man who's winning is Jin Yonggang. He slaps down pieces on a game board made of rubber. He says he owns a truck and used to transport lots of coal from mines around here.

Was that a better living than what you're making now?

JIN: (Speaking Chinese).

: He said the policy is better now, but income wise, it was better in the past. But I would think it's because I'm now left behind. I'm getting older. I'm left behind.

INSKEEP: The town looks left behind. Buildings need paint. Streets are quiet, except for day drinkers stumbling into a karaoke bar. In a hilltop park, the Chinese pavilion overlooking the city is closed, its windows broken. Downhill, a retired coal mine engineer is moving on with life - teaching saxophone lessons to three students.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEETHOVEN'S "ODE TO JOY")

INSKEEP: So what comes after coal? The government is promoting an alternative - tourism. Some historic sites in this province are natural tourist draws. The city of Gujiao is not known for its history, so it'll have to make do.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE UNLOCKING)

INSKEEP: We're hearing a man unlocking a gate at a new resort hotel in this coal town. It's built on the site of a former coal mine. The manager led the way into a courtyard surrounded by traditional Chinese houses for rent.

It's beautiful with red-painted wood windows and the Chinese lanterns.

The resort includes a carousel and a pirate ship ride for kids. The owner, a former coal boss, built a ski slope. The resort is not profitable yet, but with government subsidies, the manager, Xuefei Yang (ph), hopes it will be.

We walked a lane in the resort, its street lights powered by little solar panels and windmills. We had a view of a dead steel mill and what looks like coal in the mountainside. It's a view of this valley's past, from its future.

GREENE: Steve Inskeep, reporting from China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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