Dispatch

Pit of Dreams

Pit of Dreams

For scenes from China’s rust-belt, click here.

FUXIN, China — To understand this industrial Chinese city’s past, begin with the smoldering crater on the south side of town, an open-pit coal mine as wide as Manhattan and deeper than the height of the Chrysler Building. Known as Haizhou, or "Sea State," it is probably the largest open-pit coal mine in Asia. Wisps of white smoke emerge from its depths, casting a chemical haze over the city’s stark concrete mid-rises and dilapidated worker dorms.

To understand Fuxin’s future, look for Fan Chunming, a pinstripe-suited official tasked with turning the mine into an international tourist destination. "We want to make Fuxin a green city, an improved city," said Fan, a middle-aged Fuxin native with slicked-back hair and a strong command over the dense, formal language used by many Chinese officials. Within a decade, he explained, the pit will be traversed by flowing rivers and forest paths. Visitors will be able to enjoy a motor raceway, a hunting ground, and a golf course on the far side of the pit. They’ll be able to circle the mine in a steam locomotive. "By transforming the mine," he said on a smoggy April day, "we can transform all of Fuxin."

The extravagant plans for Fuxin embody the pride, uncertainty, and quixotic ambition of China’s three northeast provinces. Known as Dongbei, and formerly Manchuria, it’s a 560,000-square-mile swath of dusty plains and low-lying mountains bordering Russia and North Korea with a population of more than 100 million people. The Russians and Japanese colonized it in the early 20th century, giving it a strong industrial economy before Mao Zedong turned it into a center of heavy industry in the early 1950s. When China transitioned to a market economy in the 1980s and 1990s, its clunky state-owned enterprises lost their competitive edge. Most were restructured or shuttered completely. Millions of workers lost their jobs, turning once-affluent cities into ghost towns. Like their counterparts in the United States, cities in Dongbei found themselves left behind as the economy developed and passed them by.

Mining cities like Fuxin — which, with a population of 700,000, punches at roughly the same level as Scranton, Pennsylvania — were hit the hardest, their troubles compounded by environmental degradation and dwindling resources. One cold afternoon in February 2005, workers in Fuxin’s Sunjiawan colliery heard a loud click, followed by a tremor. Moments later a gas explosion tore through the mine, killing 213 workers. Families of the dead were quietly coerced into accepting meager compensation packages, and Beijing deployed security forces to quash any threat of unrest. Three months later, the Haizhou open-pit mine — which employed 30,000 people at its peak — was declared bankrupt, its coal deposits nearly exhausted.

When nature gives you an obsolete and dangerous mine, turn it into the "Haizhou Open-Pit Mine National Mine Park," complete with a promenade, a viewing platform, and a slew of ambitious plans. The mine’s northern ridge has been refashioned into a vast public square, which opened in 2009. It is decorated with Soviet-era mining machinery — a pile driver, an excavator — that would look more at home on Tatooine than in contemporary China. Its walkways are lined with energy-efficient street lamps that are outfitted with solar panels and dinky wind turbines above their bulbs.

One side of the square is flanked by the postmodern-looking "Mining Museum," its roof angled to the ground like a skateboard ramp. The museum was closed during my visit, but its promotional materials tell of the comprehensive exhibitions inside: rare minerals, old mining tools, fossils of birds and fish found in the mine. One picture shows a diorama of a miner drilling through a wall. In another, a Tyrannosaurus rex stands beneath an artificial palm tree. Another, inexplicably, shows an outer space-themed room featuring a dinner table-sized flying saucer.

Since 2003, the central government’s "Revitalize the Northeast" strategy has pumped billions of dollars into the region’s local economies. Beijing’s top economic planning body designated Fuxin one of China’s 44 "resource-depleted cities" and, later, a pilot zone for the region’s economic transformation. Each designation came with a substantial influx of cash.

Fuxin’s government began building its public square in 2005 with $15 million in central government subsidies. This soon became the core of a larger, more ambitious project. Construction on the Sunjiawan Tourism Special Area, a 17-acre resort just south of the mine, began last summer, with an investment of $475 million from Macanese real estate tycoons. A promotional video depicts a computer-animated landscape of burbling canals and European-style villas. This cuts to images of white-haired Western tourists, a Häagen-Dazs outlet, and lithe Chinese women swiping credit cards in upscale supermarkets.

Tong Ling, a professor at Northeast Normal University in Changchun who researches resource-depleted areas, said that officials in many of these cities are keen on tourism development because it attracts outside investment and bolsters short-term GDP growth. Yet "Fuxin has no reason to develop a tourism industry," he said. About 1,500 people still toil in the Haizhou mine, chipping away at its dwindling coal deposits. Nearby, the air tastes like a 9-volt battery. While the city boasts a McDonald’s and a KFC, the closest thing it has to a mid-range international chain is a counterfeit Apple store.

According to Tong, Fuxin’s land subsidence alone could thwart the city’s plans. An area of the city home to 78,000 people was once at risk of caving in, its foundations undermined by decades of overextraction. It’s still unstable. "Even if it rains, that would be dangerous," he said. "You can’t build hotels and tall buildings on these kinds of foundations."

Another stumbling block is old-fashioned bureaucratic red tape. The museum was opened in 2009, but then closed because of an administrative snafu that nobody on-site was able or willing to explain. Electricity to the building was cut, and its doors were padlocked. "Nobody is in charge there now," an official from the local land and resources bureau told me. Fuxin’s city government, tourism bureau, and foreign investment bureau ignored my interview requests. Fan, the Fuxin official, told me that the park has made little progress over the past two years. "Because there’s still coal in the mine, we’re not allowed to continue building there," he said.

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If Fuxin’s mining park fails to take flight, it won’t be China’s only resource-depleted city with growing pains. According to a 2010 article in China Daily, more than a century of iron and coal extraction in Zaozhuang, a mining city in Shandong province, had contaminated the city’s water supply and decimated its farmland. Land subsidence was also rife, and residents reported seeing one newly built office building sink 200 feet into the ground the night before it was slated to open.

Zaozhuang earned its "resource-depleted" title (and the corresponding influx of cash) in 2003, and within six years, the city’s official GDP had tripled. But the money didn’t exactly trickle down. The government built a brand-new city center 20 miles from the old one, an empty 12-lane road, and a vast new government office complex around a man-made lake. "We’re at a point where we have exhausted our resource advantages and failed to foster new advantages in the process," a former city official told China Daily.

To keep from falling into the same trap, Fuxin’s government plans to transform the city into a center of light manufacturing and renewable energy. Its factories now manufacture microchips, silk clothing, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. They export shucked sunflower seeds to Europe. On clear days, a smattering of wind turbines is visible from a viewing platform above the Haizhou mine, spinning on a distant hillside.

But coal still looms large over the city’s long-term plans. Wildcat mines still ring the city; they produce roughly 20 million tons of coal each year — almost as much as Beijing consumed in 2011. State-owned energy giant Datang is building a $3.72 billion chemical plant in the city that will convert coal into natural gas.

A few years ago, the Soviet-built coal-fired power plant towering over Fuxin was outfitted with a sulfur scrubber, dulling the hard chemical edge in the city’s air. "A few years ago, you’d hang your clothes up to dry and they’d come down covered in soot," said Chen Daguo, a taxi driver in Fuxin. "Now that doesn’t happen anymore." Yet blue-sky days are still rare.

Plans to build cultural megaprojects like Fuxin’s are common in China, and many seem to carry a bold disregard for long-term commercial viability. A small city in Hebei province announced plans in May to spend almost $200 million on a "Yellow Emperor" theme park based on an ancient Chinese legend. Another city in Anhui province is building a hotel shaped like a ping-pong paddle. In the winter of last year, a Beijing official showed me the future site of a $2.3 billion "international music base" on the city’s ramshackle outskirts. From a nearby hillside, he explained that the vista of crumbling homes and cornfields would soon be filled with high-end recording studios and a performance arena in the shape of a peach.

Although words like "glorious" and "harmonious" litter the Haizhou park’s promotional materials, many Fuxin residents seem ambivalent about their government’s long-term plans. A shop owner who gave her name as Mrs. Yang explained she had never visited the mine because "We don’t care much for politics," which also happens to be a common response to questions from foreign journalists. Retired Haizhou miner Sun Yuming, 55, said he didn’t care what the government did as long as it did not cut off his $300-a-month pension.

My visit to Fuxin coincided with a small-scale auto show in the square abutting the Haizhou mine. Fuxin’s budding white-collar population wandered through the exhibition in leather jackets and faux designer scarves, pausing to fawn over lines of Range Rovers, Mini Coopers, and Peugeots. A young woman on a low stage played strains from The Barber of Seville on a white electric violin. A few blocks away, advertisements for luxury condominiums adorned the barriers surrounding vast, empty construction sites.

Cao Ying, 57, a retired accountant at the mine, was intent on buying a Chevy. She told me she was proud of the landmark for its long history and its enormous size. "Everybody in the world knows about our Haizhou mine," she said, shouting above the violin. "It has brought nothing but happiness to the people of Fuxin."