China’s Rust Belt Blues

By Yifu Dong 


[dropcap]“Y[/dropcap]ou’d better step back!” someone shouted behind me.

I thought I was standing on solid ground, but I was on the brink of a 70-foot drop. I looked down and saw the skeletons of three abandoned buildings that sunk into the earth a few years ago. I was at the edge of the West Open Mine, the biggest open coal mine in Asia, where the ground is cracking. 42.5% of the urban area around the mine is danger of landslides.

My paternal grandparents live near the West Open Mine in Fushun, an industrial city in China’s northeastern Liaoning Province. The industries in the city and the whole province have long stagnated, unlike the breakneck development in other Chinese cities. Recently, cracks have begun to appear on more than just the ground; they have also begun to seep into the province’s politics and economy.

The bottom of the city of Fushun at the West Open Mine is over 300 meters below sea level, making it the lowest point in China. The bottom of the open mine seems like another planet. Coal glistens in the daylight, shreds of greenery riddle the dark landscape, silhouettes of factories on the edge of the mine are barely visible through the smog, and trucks, each carrying up to 108 tons of coal, slowly zigzag the winding road to higher ground.

In the Mao era, Liaoning’s coal mines and steel factories were a pillar of China’s industrial economy thanks to favorable industrial policies and Japanese legacies. The Japanese, though occupiers during World War II, built robust infrastructure and introduced practices that stabilized the layers of soil. These positive practices endured through the Mao era, but were abandoned in the 1970s, when China’s economic reform agenda left Liaoning behind in favor of investment in the southeastern seaboard.

The ensuing scramble for coal led the Chinese to dig at steeper angles. Today, of the 1.5 billion tons of coal once in Fushun, two-thirds have already been mined. Due to the risk of landslides from unsustainable mining–not to mention the impact on climate change–most of the remaining reserve cannot be mined. All five major mines in the city will likely close by 2030.

After four decades of neglect by the central government, the region is struggling to keep its head above water, and, in economic terms, to maintain positive GDP growth. In the past few years, heavy industries laid off tens of thousands of workers and the economy stagnated. This was bad news for everyone, especially local government officials who depend on GDP growth to secure promotions. But unlike cracks in the ground, a failing economy could be covered up by manipulating statistics. Unfortunately for the local officials involved, their poorly doctored economic figures indicated that certain counties had higher GDP growth than Hong Kong. In other words, their data manipulation fooled no one.

Liaoning’s officials did not just doctor statistics. Some of them also bought their way into office. This September, news broke that 45 out of 62 Liaoning delegates to China’s National People’s Congress were unseated because they had bribed local lawmakers into rigging the elections. Vote buying isn’t unheard of in China, as business people who can afford votes often want to secure favorable policies from the political authorities. Not all of Liaoning’s businesspeople are coal bosses, but many of those who bought seats hoped to use their political influence to benefit their businesses.

Among the unseated delegates was a Liaoning businesswoman who prospered from business with North Korea. During her downfall, the Chinese authorities conducted criminal investigations into her company, as South Korean and U.S. intelligence suspected her company of helping North Korea enrich uranium.

As many see it, the central government’s neglect forced people to scramble for what little wealth there was left to extract. There are cracks in the ground, corruption in high offices, and uranium leaks across the border. Unfortunately for Liaoning, China has not made the necessary structural adjustments to its economy, and elaborate plans to turn the province around will likely languish as unfunded mandates for some time to come.


Yifu Dong ‘16 is a History major in Branford College. Contact him at