Date Range
Sort by Relevant
Wang by the old bus station in Daliuta

Two Coal Cities Overshadowed by China's Carbon Reduction Pledge

Initium Media editor's note: Peak carbon emissions by 2030, achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 - one of the most important aspects of China's carbon reduction pledge for 2020 is clearly energy, that is, reducing the Chinese economy's reliance on a sedimentary rock. Will China's "coal exit" happen quickly? How should China shed its coal dependency? And will these commitments be reflected in China's investment in energy projects? Initium Media presents "The Future of Coal Exit?” This is the first in a series of reports in which we visit two coal resource towns in Shaanxi Province.

As a mining region that was, respectively, and is the throbbing artery of economic development, Tongchuan has been overwhelmed by the depletion of its coal resources. Daliuta town, with its continued output, seems to be outside the discussion of this energy transformation though. The gains and losses in "reforms" and "transformations" in macroeconomic strategy play out in ordinary people’s lives.  Though when they feel the loss in their face, they often blame their own fate, and they do not ask whether the great expansion of the coal sector has to be at the expense of their interests. 

The train slowly pulls into the town of Daljuta with hundreds of empty tin carriages and stops under a blue building, waiting to be loaded with coal. The railway runs longitudinally through this small town on the border between Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia, connecting the coal mines in the north, and along the many railways that carry coal from the west to the east and from the north to the south, reaching the major provinces of China (in the south and east) that use the resource. Coal trains have also roared through Tongchuan, Shaanxi Province, which is known as the "kidney" of Guanzhong, for decades without pause.

Coal, in an era of unbridled Chinese growth, represented the promise of industrialization and modernization. This combustible black rock, along with downstream thermal power generation, steel and cement, provided a constant source of momentum for China's economic mythology. It transformed coal-rich places like Tongchuan and Daliuta from poverty traps into industrial towns where wealth was concentrated.

As time passes, coal no longer embodies wealth or development. As the world's largest emitter, China is finally taking a stand: at the annual United Nations conference in 2020, it pledged to achieve a peak CO2 emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. In recent years, it has been pushing ahead with coal-to-gas and new energy generation measures. In this new narrative of the future, coal is bound to be gradually retired. And the coal-based resource cities of central and western China seem to have reached an inflection point in their destiny.

In fact, back in 2015 or so, several mines in Tongchuan were shut down due to depleting reserves. The old city of Tongchuan, which once exported more than 600 million tons of coal to various parts of China, is now sparsely populated, with a string of shops on the streets with their doors shuttered, looking forlorn in the noise of new identities: a tourist city, a data city, and more. Daliuta, which has exported 569 million tons of coal since 1996, seems to be outside the discussion on energy transformation, as it is still bustling and unafraid because it sits atop the Shenfu deposit, the largest exploited coalfield in China.

workers' apartment
The former workers' apartment of Wang Shi Ao Mine / Credit: Yang Yu (Initium Media).

Tongchuan: Once a "pot of boiling water"

"There is no copper in Tongchuan (tong means copper in Chinese), but coal is what it produces.” When asked about Tongchuan, the book-loving taxi driver will start with these words by author Lu Yao. Lu Yao used the city of Tongchuan as a backdrop for his novel An Ordinary World, which chronicles the social life of a rural village in northern China during the 1970s and 1980s. In the book, Lu Yao describes the city as "a city where there is no day and no night, it is 24 hours a day, like a pot of boiling water.”

This small, narrow city in the gullies of the Loess Plateau, close to Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is one of the first resource cities laid out during China's planned economy in the 1950s, and the second provincial city established in Shaanxi after Xi'an. The Longhai Railway, which runs east-west through China, deliberately opened the first branch line for the coal capital of Tongchuan, which extended to the hinterland of the mining area. However, the railway mainly serves the north and south of coal country. Since 1998, it has been inaccessible to passenger traffic; today, Tongchuan has become the only prefecture-level city in the whole of China not accessible by train: locals can only take a bus or carpool to the neighboring Xi'an to then transfer to high-speed rail or air.

The Yaozhou District, closer to Shaanxi's capital Xi'an, is now the seat of the city government and is known locally as the 'New District', with a concentration of young people, tourist resources and internet-famous restaurants and shops. The Wang Yi and Yintai districts, on the other hand, are old towns, adjacent to a number of mines now depleted and abandoned, with a predominantly middle-aged and elderly population present. The Tongchuan Mining Bureau and the pre-2003 city government are located in Wang Yi, the old city. The bureau had nearly 10 production mines, most of which were hidden in the eastern valley, and Wang Shi Au was one of them.

passenger train in Wang Shi Ao
The passenger train in Wang Shi Ao stopped running / Credit: Zou Biyu (Initium Media).

But the bustle of those days is long gone. "There are no more people in Wang Shi Ao, and now it's all old people and children there,” says Lin Xiang, a taxi driver in his 50s with a square face, accustomed to playing audio novels in his car, even when he is talking. He used to travel between various mining areas such as Wang Shi Au and the old city of Tongchuan, but since the closure of coal mines in 2015, he has been travelling less frequently on these mountainous ring roads.

The Wang Shi Ao Mine is just over 10 kilometers from Wang Yi District, less than half an hour's drive away, but there are almost no direct public transport routes in the city. People living in Wang Shi Ao were once transported by a steady stream of taxis, but now they mainly hop in a white van with an occupancy of 14 people to get to the city. Nowadays, shops are closed and the streets are deserted. 

It is hard to imagine that this mine was once one of the 156 key projects of the First Five-Year Plan of the Chinese Communist Party, the first large-scale mechanized mine in Northwest China, and once the most economically efficient coal mines in Northwest China and even in the whole country. Since China's First Five-Year Plan, the coal industry has been considered the key to economic development, and the First Five-Year Plan set the goal of doubling annual coal production, after which China's annual coal production capacity doubled from 66 million tons in 1952 to 131 million tons in 1957.

The construction and machinery of the Wang Shi Ao Mine were first completed by the Soviet Leningrad Design Institute and the Xi'an Coal Mine Design Institute, which is why it was once known as the "Sino-Soviet Friendship Mine."In the late 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party called the Soviet Union "modern revisionist," and the mine was renamed an "anti-revisionist coal mine" during the Cultural Revolution in 1968; four years later it was renamed Wang Shi Tou. 

In the 1970s, Wang Shi Ao was at its peak, with nearly 30,000 people living in the mining area, attracting workers from all over the country.It was also known locally as "Little Hong Kong" - the name given to the most prosperous parts of almost every coal mining town in China in the last century.

Fan Jianguo, a veteran miner, pointed to a long slope of more than 200 meters next to him and recalled, "In the old days, when there were a lot of people, there was a constant flow of people up and down the ramp 24 hours a day. This long slope, with stairs on both sides and a winch track in the middle, connects the work and life of the people of Wang Shi Ao. The mining plants and small power stations below supported the daily lives of the residents above, as well as the coal consumption of Shaanxi Province and the rest of the country.

In between Fan's words, a former friend of the mine came over and added that at that time, when the mine was so efficient and prosperous, the National Central Cultural Troupe and the Peking Opera Troupe would come to Wang Shi Tou from time to time to perform in the miners' club across the office building, which was used for daily meetings.

The winch is now rusting and the winch drop-off area, which used to be the Wang Shi Au Mine's Retirement Recreation Centre, has been turned into an "Adult Day Care Centre" where the elderly who still live in the mine play chess and chat on a regular basis.

In 2003, the administrative center of Tongchuan City was transferred from the old city of Wang Yi to a new district closer to Xi'an which promotes tourism development. Perhaps due to the covid 19 pandemic, Wang Shi Ao's "tourism project" was still under construction this summer. 

At the end of the Wang Shi Ao street shop area, there is a yellowish residential building. According to locals, when Wang Shi Ao ceased production, the building had not yet been reserved for the mine's children. The residential building has been sitting quietly unused ever since, with barren grass sprouting inside the fence.

children on a playground
Children on summer vacation playing on the playground at night / Credit: Initium Media.

Shenmu Daliuta: A vibrant town still burns coal

Like most cities in China, the streets of Tongchuan are littered with red propaganda slogans such as "Core Values." Interestingly, in Daliuta, a town with poor infrastructure more than 600 kilometers north of Tongchuan, there are few slogans, except for a few brown signs on the main road that read: "The 'Wuzhen' of the mining and electrical industry.” (Wuzhen is a famous historic scenic town in Southeast China.)

Although the town of Shenmu Daliuta is administratively part of Yulin in Shaanxi Province, it is located on the border between Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia. Locals’ accents are often a mix of an Inner Mongolian dialect. People in Yulin facetiously refer to this accent as the "rich man's accent." They say, counting with their fingers, that Yulin, which now ranks second in Shaanxi province in terms of GDP, gets most of its wealth from Shenmu County, and that more than half of Shenmu's wealth comes from Daliuta.

The Jurassic coalfield in northern Shaanxi, where Daliuta is located, has coal reserves 20 times larger than those of the coalfield in which Tongchuan is located, and is mostly open-pit - in the words of the locals, "One layer of soil is a truckload of coal."

Infographic / Credit: Initium Media Design Department.

In 1984, the official state media, People's Daily, published a front-page Xinhua News Agency newsletter entitled "Shanxi's North has a sea of coal, good quality and easy to mine," pointing out that Shenmu had a large amount of open-pit coal production with low sulphur content, low burning smoke, almost no gas and was easy to excavate.

The town, which is separated from the outside world by heavy mountains and forests, rarely cultivated , almost barren land, found its own revenue stream. Poor villages once filled with bachelors in the 1980s have become rich in a few years because of coal. In 2019, it is one of the 100 special towns in China's 13th Five-Year Plan - a town with energy and mining resources.

In this town of "black gold," everything is built for the coal mines. In 2020, Daliuta has just opened a bus line, not far from the county seat of Shenmu, and an airport is being planned for businesses from all over the country- which means that Daliuta is next to two airports. The popular online taxis services have disappeared in Daliuta, replaced by unlicensed black cabs because of booming business and lax regulations. The black cabs in Daljuta don't use meters and start at 10 yuan - twice the starting price in Tongchuan - and those who travel far out of town rely on the character and honesty of the drivers.

While many energy cities, such as Tongchuan, are struggling to find a way out of coal depletion, Daliuta is still home to traders taking a lunch break on three-wheeled coal wagons, and someone has written a note white chalk on the wall outside to hawk coal at a low price. A few hotels in the old city, though aged in appearance, have ostentatious interiors and even special baths. Local people warn that the government's "crackdown on pornography" has recently become so strict that hotels may not be able to book rooms anymore because they are full of clandestine sex workers.

On a summer evening, after the afternoon heat is gone, it's time for the town's night market to come alive. The owner of the barbecue restaurant sits outside the door, slashing and slicing the tripe of the day, while students on summer vacation wait in front of the cultural and sports center, anticipating the opening of the open-air movie that day. Trains pass by from time to time, and the deafening sound of cannons being fired at the opening of a new shop, seem to be just an everyday accompaniment to city life.

Behind a huge Chinese flag on the street, there is an exhibition area that looks a bit cold under the fireworks. The staff introduced it as a government-supported and planned investment exhibition for the new district, with a model of the ideal new district in the center, trying to create a "New City West of the Yellow River" that combines food and beverage services, housing and industry. There is an energy industry park in the new city, with a coal selection building in the center and a photovoltaic power plant planning an area next to it.

Although it is inevitable to receive some signals of a new energy transformation, the future of this city is still led by coal.

coal train Daliu
Coal trains passing through Daliuta / Credit: Zou Biyu (Initium Media).

The madness of coal: Gains and losses

Although he is a native of Shaanxi, Lin Xiang speaks with an accent from Henan. Before becoming a driver, Lin's life revolved around coal mines.

In the early 1960s, Lin Xiang's father took a train to Tongchuan with his fellow villagers to become a miner in the Sanlidong coal mine due to the severe droughts in Henan Province. Sanlidong was part of the Tongchuan Mining Bureau and was the closest mine to the old city of Tongchuan.

In resource-dependent cities, coal mines are not only the backbone of the economy, but also a way of life. Almost every mine has its own schools, hospitals and shops, and children from the mines attend school from kindergarten to secondary school and then work in the mine. Many people also meet their romantic partners in the mines where they play and study together.

Lin Xiang's family followed this path in their lives. As a child, Lin did not like to go to school and used to run up and down the mines, playing in the big mine bathhouse day after day. In order to provide bathing for hundreds of people, the bathhouse had several large pools about one meter deep. When the miners were at work, he would sneak into the bathhouse and play by the pool, then run home when the workers were off duty.

"The water was all black when I went down,” Lin recalls.

miner graffitti
Graffiti depicting images of miners at the Wang Shi Au coal mine site / Credit: Yang Yu (Initium Media).

Lin Xiang was the only male member of his family who had never been down a mine.His father died in an accident while descending a mine in the early 1970s when he was three years old. Coal mine accidents were common in the early days of poor equipment and chaotic mining. Fan Jianguo, a veteran miner from Wang Shi Ao, also injured his right leg in a shaft accident. According to China's State Administration of Coal Mine Safety, more than 260,000 people died in coal mine accidents between 1949 and 2020, and the actual number is likely to be higher as deaths in mining accidents are often underreported.

Lin Xiang's mother was left alone to raise her four children.The Sanlidong mine arranged for Lin Xiang's mother to work in the mine's quarry as compensation. After graduating from high school, Lin Xiang chose to learn how to drive. His two older brothers became coal oldest brother went underground before he was 18. “There was no other way out," Lin said,“That's the way it is for all mine kids."

In 1978, when China began to reform and open up, production in all sectors expanded rapidly, but the shortage of electricity supply became a major constraint on the economy, with 20-30% of industrial capacity not realized due to lack of electricity. In 1982, Deng Xiaoping put forward the slogan "development is the first priority," and production in major mines accelerated. In the same year, the Wang Shi Ao mine in Tongchuan set a record for the highest degree of mechanization.

In 1981, Hu Yaobang, then General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, proposed that "let water flow quickly" and talked about allowing individuals to operate mines. Against this backdrop, small mines in townships with pooled capital rose rapidly, and in 1993, the output of collective and individual small mines even surpassed that of China's major state-owned coal mines.

The town of Shenmu Daliuta, where massive deposits were discovered in the mid-1980s, was also driven by such a policy and began to see the emergence of capital-raising mines.

cabbie Luo San
Daliuta's driver, Luo San / Credit: Zou Biyu (Initium Media).

In 1989, Luo San, then a 25-year-old man from Ordos, came to the coal mine in Daliuta, a fortune stick in tow that predicted he would “meet a lucky star and find a job." At that time, the mine recruited only buy-in workers, that is, each worker was required to put in 6,000 yuan as a share of the mine's overall capital. In addition, there was a quota limit, each village had a quota for four workers, with priority given to military veterans or sons of veteran cadres.

Luo San tries all ways to get one quota and scraping together 6,000 yuan to get on the fast boat of Daliuta recruitment.

At that time, the open-pit coal mines were already using machinery to load and transport coal, so only equipment repairmen were needed. The equipment was brand new, so Luo San spent his days learning about safety and participating in union activities, sleeping in the dormitory across from the facility. "In those days, rich people in the village were called ’ten-thousand-yuan households,’” he says, yet he already owed 10,000 yuan just to work in the mine and get married. Iif he continued to waste time like this, how would he be able  to repay his debts?

He did realise that he could pay off all the debts by the end of second year with salaries and his side business of mechanical welding. The village's peers did not think highly of him before and soon became envious. Luo San said that the monthly salary of 300 yuan for a coal mine worker was twice as much as that of the village head at that time, and there was a high bonus at the end of the year. The mine didn’t even interfere with his side business.

However, the good times did not last long. Around 1998, coal prices plummeted and Luo San's mine failed to sell a single ton of coal for several months in a row. Anxious workers hauled coal from the mine by the truckload, which Luo San described as "falling into a swarm.” When the workers transported the coal to the nearby train station, or to the neighboring power plants or canteens that needed coal, they were unwilling to pay for the coal, not to mention any transportation costs.

The precipitous fall in coal prices was the result of a combination of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and the continued "exorbitant production" of coal mines that preceded it. 1996 saw an oversupply of coal with annual production reaching 1,374 million tonnes. After the crisis in 1997, annual coal production fell for five years in a row.

open pit coal mine
An abandoned open-pit coal mine / Credit: Zou Biyu (Initium Media).

“Those years were the most pitiful time for the people in the mine, unlike now, when the workers were laid off and given living expenses. At that time, there was nothing. The mine was shut down and wages were not paid.” Lin Xiang said. At the same time, Tongchuan was also struggling with the pain of falling coal prices.

Later, with the remediation and acquisition of small rural coal mines, as well as general economic rebound, coal prices began to gradually recover in the early 2000s, and entered the most golden decade of growth. The passion for mining "black gold" returned.

One year before coal prices rebounded, Luo San's mine was bought out by Shenhua Group due to insolvency. Although Luo San was unemployed, his previous savings allowed him to buy a coal truck of his own during the period of wildly rising coal prices, and if there had been no accidents, Luo San might have made a fortune during the peak price increases.

"In those years, selling coal, to put it bluntly, was like shoveling money into your home with a dustpan,"said Luo San, sighing twice as he puffed hard on the cigarette in his fingers, "I was just really unlucky,"

On a night when he was trying to stockpile coal for resale, Luo San was carrying coal blocks in a coal wagon, moving the large blocks to the side to load more coal. He was unable to avoid the loader's curved shovel, which crushed seven of his ribs, one of which punctured his lung.

During his year of hospitalization and recuperation, coal prices rose again, from less than 200 yuan a ton in 2003 to more than 300. Luo San, who had survived, sold his coal truck and has never driven a big truck since. "It was too much of a blow. A deal can be missed, but not a life. After that, I was completely discouraged," said Luo San. 

In Luo San's memory, the years 2008 to 2010 were the best time to make money. Everything was going up in price, and if you weren't lazy, you could always find a way to make money. The coal industry in Daliuta also reached its peak during those three years. In order to provide daily meals for “gold miners” from all over the world, the food and beverage industry also developed, and the line at the entrance of the vegetable market with hundreds of stores, could last from 5 am to noon.

In 2011, the price of coal peaked at over 800 yuan a tonne, nearly tenfold above the first 10 years of the 21st century.

At the same time, the local ecology was irreparably damaged: the local groundwater level kept dropping and water pollution became serious, the Chishui River flowing through Tongchuan was foul-smelling, and cinders were often found in the drinking water of Daliuta. Farmers were unable to cultivate their land due to the collapse of the mines, and herders lost their grasslands. The smell of coal ash is so strong still that villagers in the vicinity of the Daliuta mine get headaches from time to time, and Tongchuan, with its serious air pollution, was once commonly called "a city invisible to satellites."

Now, with the arrival of excess capacity and energy transformation, the era of "black gold" is gradually coming to an end, and ordinary people like Lin Xiang and Luo San are once again in trouble. It seems all they can do is just light another cigarette and sigh "bad luck."

elderly person next to the mine
An elderly person in close proximity to the Xujiagou coal mine, near Wang Shi Ao / Credit: Yang Yu (Initium Media).

The party's over: Energy transition

During the coal boom, Daliuta saw the rise of private lending. Through the use of acquaintances' credit and high interest repayments, the people of Daliuta began to invest their money in private coal mines and construction teams. Daliuta's private loans were originally based on trusting relationships among acquaintances, but as the financial snowball grew larger, relationship’s lending credits began to diminish, with the coal industry and economic situation taking another turn, and interlocking private loans began to collapse in 2011.

Also in 2011, the Chinese government released the 12th Five-Year Plan for Energy Conservation and Emission Reduction, which made it increasingly difficult to apply for new coal mines in Daliuta. In addition, the development model of stimulating the economy with real estate in Erdos, the neighboring city of Daliuta, began to suffer a backlash, with the supply of housing far outstripping the demand. The price of housing once fell to the freezing point, from once speculated to 20,000 yuan a square meter, fell to 3,000 yuan. Some 80% of real estate projects have been halted or unfinished.

It was in this year that Luo San invested his own savings, the investments of his friends and relatives and bank loans into private loans, but there was no repayment and he lost 4 million yuan. In that year, along with tight mining policies and lowest housing prices, many coal dealers or construction teams left with their money or lost their money due to broken capital chains. Luo San also lent money to friends and acquaintances whose mining qualifications were not approved, or constructors who were not paid for their work.

Six hundred kilometers away, the plight of Tongchuan is even more difficult - the well-mined coal seams are empty. The year 2014 saw Wang Shi Ao facing depletion of its reserves. In October of the same year, the Wang Shi Ao mine was shut down and a large amount of equipment was moved out of the mine. Even the train locomotives used to transport coal were sold off.

A broader transformation of resources and industries is happening in parallel. In 2012, China's coal mines had a total production capacity of about 3.96 billion tons, with a surplus capacity of about 300 million tons; by 2015, coal's surplus capacity was as high as nearly 2 billion tons. In 2015, the Leading Group of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Finance and Economy proposed a supply-side structural reform policy, and the coal industry was required to remove excess production capacity and inventory and shut down surplus coal mines.It was also announced that the Wang Shi Ao mine would be officially shuttered.

infographic 2
Infographic / Credit: Initium Media Design Department.

However, it is not easy to draw a blueprint for the future away from coal. After the shutdown, Wang Shi Ao was redesigned as a tourist attraction, but Lin Xiang was not optimistic about it. "There are mines all over the country, so who will come to see this?" said Lin, referring to a popular tourist attraction in Wang Yi District, Tongchuan, called the Workers' Cultural Palace, which advertises that it recreates the memory of the old district and ambience of the Soviet Union. In fact, only the gatehouse is still from the past, and the rest are remodeled from old photos.

At the entrance to the old town, a bronze statue of a coal miner stands more than ten stories high. At the bottom read "156 Cities Implemented in the National First Five-Year Plan” and the statue are four black-and-white portraits - a miner carrying a sign saying "Breakthrough Project Mass Production," a coal wagon reading "Socialism is Good," a miner holding a quote from Mao Zedong, and a worker talking to someone down a mine shaft.

In Tongchuan, where shafts and cottages once lined the mines, there are now patches of solar panels on the flat ground. But these dark blue, grid-lined photovoltaic panels are no substitute for the hope of the coal sign. The locals know that when the coal is dug up, the city loses its value.

Tongchuan, having lost its coal mine, has tried different transformations: a tourist city, a livable city, taking over high-tech industries, or empowering e-commerce. In August 2021, Tongchuan was awarded the "Taiwan Industrial Park," a plan to build an industrial park focusing on electronic information and high-end equipment to help accelerate "the transfer of Taiwanese businesses to the western inland region.” But while the city government has been rolling out one strategy after another, Tongchuan's GDP, once second only to Xi'an's, is now languishing at the bottom of Shaanxi Province.

In Daliuta, there seems to be no more trace of energy transition and 'carbon reduction' other than the food stalls being required to use LPG and patches of solar panels rather than coal. Some residents neighbouring Ordos, such as Luo San, still burn coal for heating and cooking, though.

butchering ox tripe
The owner of a barbecue restaurant sits outside his business, cutting up ox tripe / Credit: Zou Biyu (Initium Media).

In 2018, as applications for coal mining permits became more stringent, some engineering teams began to secretly mine in closed plants and mines in the name of "fire-fighting" - i.e., treatment of decommissioned open pits. However, in order to crack down on mining, the local government's policy to stop all activities has made it difficult for even legitimate actors to treat those discontinued open pits. 

In July 2021, smoke from spontaneous combustion of coal was visible wafting around an abandoned mine near Daliuta, and the air was filled with the sour smell of coal furnace ash. Luo San is used to this and says indifferently, "If you come here in winter, it's even more like this, all smoky.”

"The mines have closed down and we have no business to do," said Wang, who sells coal out by the old Daliuta station with a frown.

Wang is probably one of the people who feel most strongly about the closure of small coal mines in Daliuta due to policy changes. The 62-year-old has done welding and small transport, and has been driving his tricycle for nearly 10 years to sell coal and earn freight. In 2020, the carbon reduction policy targets were increased and Daliuta shut down several private coal mines. Wang, who could only pull out 2 or 3 tons of coal at a time, had difficulty negotiating with the big mines and had to find some private connections to smuggle it out.

Apart from Wang, most of the people in Daliuta rely on the state-owned Shenhua Group and its surrounding businesses. The money they once lost from private loans is gradually being made up for by Shen Mu's rich mineral resources. Luo San's 4 million dollar debt has almost been repaid.

"How can we run out of coal? We can't run out of coal for decades," said another taxi driver in Daliuta, expressing the same optimism as the people of Tongchuan once had, "Look at every inch of land you’re walking on [here], everything underneath is coal.”

Daliuta at night
Daliuta at night / Credit: Zou Biyu (Initium Media).

An end?

In July and August 2021, China's domestic coal supply became tight again due to the withdrawal of small coal mines. A number of southern provinces, including Hunan and Zhejiang, issued "orderly power consumption" notices and even started to impose mandatory power restrictions. Coal prices have soared since March, from a once stable level between 400 to 500 to over 800 yuan.

To ease demand, China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in late July re-approved coal mines that had previously ceased production due to incomplete land use procedures, including 38 approvals in Daliuta's neighboring city of Erdos alone.

In 2020, the Tongchuan city government says it will complete its train station, with completion expected in 2024. Once known for its low housing prices, Tongchuan's new district is now seeing prices soar. Local people say that the new mayor comes from Hancheng, a neighboring Shanxi province, which is also a coal town with depleted reserves. The price of housing in Hancheng was raised during his administration. When he came to Tongchuan, an artificial lake was built, and somehow the price of housing in the new district skyrocketed.

Tongchuan is recently applying to be a "civilized city" (an honor given by the central government), Lin Xiang's taxi company says that there might be an inspector making an "unannounced visit" to the city, and that he was required to wear a neat uniform. They even took away the old floor mat he used to put in the car, but he secretly replaced the uniform trousers with his own black shorts because he was worried about the heat.

“The party is like a strong wind. If it asks for inspection, it’s all over the place. It’s making you busy, so you won’t have time to have other ideas.” Lin Xiang took a sip of tea and swallowed his words, "but it's not something we worry about, we ordinary people  have no power and no influence: we can only go on like this."

This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in Chinese by Initium Media on 1 September 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Wang, who sells coal by the old bus station in Daliuta / Credit: Zou Biyu (Initium Media).