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Special Report: Waiting for the wind of fortune

As the coal economy collapses, China's first "resource drained" city is pinning its hopes of revival on wind power

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At 7’o’clock in the morning in Tazigou, a village in northeast China, the sky is dark, the wind strong, and you can hear the new turbines up on the hill spinning. “With this wind…”, Chen Fang forecasts a rainstorm, picks up her hoe and corn seeds and heads up the hillside from her home.

By 5’o’clock that afternoon she’s turned the earth and cleared rocks on her family’s one mu (670 square metres) of land underneath the turbines. The clouds have dispersed and the four turbines have stopped turning.

“Waited for nothing!” she sighs, muttering to herself. This is the fourth time this month she’s come up here, hoping the wind will bring rain so she can plant the spring corn. The wind comes and goes but the rain never falls. She’s starting to get anxious.

This hill, known as Tashan, lies to the southeast of Fuxin town in
Liaoning province, about 5 kilometres from the city. Since March, when the snow melted, to now in early May there hasn’t been a single decent rain storm here on the transition zone between the Inner Mongolian plateau and the Liaohe plains (a farming area in Manchuria in northeast China).

Rain is precious in these parts, particularly for fields like this that have no irrigation. And it’s not just farmer Chen Fang who is waiting for wind.

Once Asia’s largest open-cast mine, the Fuxin Haizhou mine closed many years ago. But small fires can still be seen spontaneously igniting in the coal layer
 in pits for 6 kilometres. With no wind, the smoke and ash hang in the air and have become the main cause of complaint for residents in nearby Fuxin.

In a new village, built for coal miners in the Fuxin district of Xinqiu, Gao Yuan, a silk scarf seller, is also waiting for the wind – she’s tied a line between two trees to hang her wares from it. The windier it is the more the 1 yuan (US$0.15) scarves flutter and the more she sells.

From Tashan in Fuxin to the vast new windfarms in Inner Mongolia’s
Hure Banner, everyone’s waiting for the wind.

Over the last fifty years Fuxin has provided the nation with 700 million tonnes of coal and 250 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. But the city, which was founded and flourished on the profits of coal power, is struggling as the coal runs out and is in dire need of an alternative source of growth.

The first resource-drained city

On December 28, 2001, Fuxin was officially designated as a resource-exhausted city by the State Council – the first city to have been designated so.

“Fuxin was founded because of coal, it flourished because of coal; it was one of the first centres of energy production set up by the People’s Republic of China. To develop the nation we tried to be number one, to mine more coal. Now, we’re the first resource-drained city.” Yang Zhonglin worked in Fuxin for 13 years between 2003 and 2016 and has been the city’s deputy Party secretary and Mayor. He has seen the city through its toughest decade.

Fuxin is a classic example of China’s mining cities. In the 1980s and 1990s depletion of coal seams and increasing costs meant that the city’s coal-led economy started to fail – and the city’s prosperity went down with it.

As the open-cast mine became stripped bare, so the miners dug their pits, deeper and deeper. Subsidence affects 101 square kilometres of land in Fuxin, where the miners’ huts only occupy 5 square kilometres. In 2000 over one third of local industrial firms were either closed or operating at half-capacity. The Fuxin Mining Group closed 23 mines and laid off 129,000 workers, 28.8% of its employees. A quarter of the city’s residents, 198,000 people, were on welfare payments available to ensure a minimum standard of living was met.

Subsidence is a common problem in mining areas and Xinqiu is one of the worst affected areas. Local media referred to two particularly shocking cases; in 1999, a vehicle travelling on a road in the south of the district, near Pit 8, was swallowed by a sink hole, disappearing as if by magic; and in 2000 a child named Huang Kai met a similar fate, falling “like a stone” into a disused mine when a sinkhole opened up beneath him.

Subsidence has caused Fuxin direct and indirect losses estimated at 1.5 billion yuan (US$223 million) but its also a daily hazard for residents who complain of entire buildings sinking without warning.

Walk into any as-yet undemolished buildings in an old mining dormitory complex and you can see the cracks in the walls. You can hear the wind howl through.

When Fuxin was designated as a resource-drained city, the economic commission’s transition office calculated that 28,000 homes had been damaged by subsidence to some degree across thirteen different affected areas.

A long and painful transition

Fuxin’s open-cast mine, supposedly Asia’s largest, is 4-kilometres long, 2-kilometres
across, and 350-metres deep. Send a drone 500-metres up and look down with a 120 degree lens and you can still only see a third of it. It’s a huge and spectacular sight, and once a source of great pride for Fuxin.

Over more than half a century, 530 million tonnes of coal were mined in Fuxin; loaded into 60-tonne trucks that travelled a distance equivalent to circling the globe 4.3 times. The Haizhou mine alone employed over 30,000 workers at its peak.

But those glories are passed now and what was once a source of pride has become a scar.

On March 30, 2001, the Dongliang and Ping’an mines, and the Xinqiu opencast mine, were shut down with State Council approval.

In April 2002 the Haizhou opencast mine, Asia’s largest, applied for bankruptcy due to depletion.

In June 2002 several other mines, run by the Fuxin Mining Bureau, also applied for bankruptcy.

Figures show that between 1996 and 2000 the city’s GDP grew by only 2.1% a year, 6.2 percentage points below the national average. Fuxin was also entirely reliant on one sector; with coal power accounting for 76% of its economy.

By the end of 2000, 25.3% of the city’s population had a monthly income below the minimum level set for living standards welfare (156 yuan, or US$23). An estimated 156,000 residents, 36.7% of the total, were out of work, and unemployed rates were higher than any other city in
Liaoning province.

As the coal industry collapsed, finding new jobs for those laid off became more urgent. But to find work for so many manual workers in such a short space of time, when there were no major employers or industries available, was virtually impossible.

In the old mining villages near the pits you can still find some former miners – Huang Anyuan is one of them. He worked in the mines for 30 years and has now retired on a pension of 2,000 yuan (US$300) a month.

Five years ago the government tried to move him to new accommodation designated for those affected by subsidence, but he gave that new home to his son’s family, saying “there’s no factories here to work at, so my son was struggling, particularly when it came to buying a home.”

He and his wife continue to live in their two oft-repaired rooms. Most of the buildings nearby were demolished last year, and now that the water’s been cut off each day they must walk to fetch supplies.

Many others have also given the homes they’ve been allocated to their children. As their original homes have been demolished they are forced to rent tiny rooms elsewhere.

In some households a miner’s pension is the main income supporting three generations. Some former miners are in poor health and need to be cared for by their children. This means the young can’t travel to find work. As there aren’t suitable jobs close to home, they find themselves both caring for the elderly and living off them.

There are lots of barbecue stalls on the streets of Fuxin, more than in other north-eastern cities, some reckon. A quick count in certain districts found up to 21 stalls or barbecue restaurants on a 500 metre street, and never less than five.

In the evening even more appear, rolled out on the back of three-wheel carts. The locals say it’s partly because of the love of barbecue in the northeast, but also because this is the cheapest way to set yourself up in business after being laid off.

Money blows in

Mr Zhang (who prefers not to use his real name because of the sensitivity surrounding this issue) worked down in the mines for thirty years – now he works on top of a hill.

In the hills to the east of Fuxin, rows of turbine blades whirr round. Looking back towards the city from below the turbines you see the vast Haizhou opencast mine, a reminder of the city’s past.

Mr Zhang works as a guard at the gate to the Huaneng Gaoshanzi Wind Power Farm. He’d worked in the mines since he was 18, so even this job, which is not particularly well paid, was hard to get. When asked about the change, he laughs openly: “I suppose the wind just blew me some money!”

Construction of the wind farm started in 2007, one of the first in Fuxin. Covering about 20 square kilometres, there are 67 turbines along the ridge, generating 100 megawatts of power. Mr Zhang is one of 20 employees, but he is only a temporary employee. Those (with permanent contracts) who run and maintain the turbines are all engineers with technical skills.

Those engineering jobs have been created by the wind power sector, and represent a change that has come to Fuxin with the new century – the arrival of wind power. By the end of 2016 the city was supplying 1.89 gigawatts to the grid, 30% of Liaoning’s total wind power generation.

The city’s leaders are keen to make use of this sector to replace coal, both as a source of energy and as an economic driver. According to the
China Energy News the new energy sector has created over 5,500 jobs in Fuxin. One single wind power firm, Huaneng, pays almost 200 million yuan (US$30 million) in taxes in the city – and this is while still entitled to tax reductions.

And it isn’t just the power companies that are here, turbine manufacturers have also found a home in Fuxin.

As wind power has expanded,
Dajin Heavy Industries has become one of the leading manufacturers of turbines, and one of the three such firms with a market listing. It has factories around the country and employs over 500 people in Fuxin alone.

Dajin originally made equipment for the coal power industry. In 2008 it set records when it built the steel structure for a 670 megawatt furnace for the Huaneng Group – the biggest, heaviest and most complex such structure ever built in China. It now builds the towers for turbines, and has
recently added four more production lines.

As of the end of 2015, Fuxin’s wind power manufacturers were producing output worth 20 billion yuan (US$3 billion) -- 8.5 billion yuan (US$1.3 billion) of turbines, 9 billion yuan (US$1.3 billion) of components, 1.5 billion yuan of services, and 1.1 billion yuan (US$223 million) of materials.

One insider in the city’s wind power manufacturing sector said that the only technically demanding part of the process is the welding, and that most miners could do this work after some simple training.

“Looking back over the last 15 years, we’ve made the right choices,” said Chen Zhihong, head of the city’s Development and Reform Commission in an interview with the
Xinhua Daily Telegraph, adding that although these companies are small they are still growing. He thinks these companies need the resources that Fuxin has, and that there are good prospects for future growth.

He offered some data on the city’s economic transition. Compared with 2001, average disposable income in the city has gone from 4,300 yuan (US$ 630) to over 22,000 yuan (US$ 3,274). The percentage of total income derived from the coal sector has dropped from 49.8% to 16.9%, whereas for manufacturing it has risen from 4.8% to 23%, according to Chen.

“The biggest success is that we’ve brought people out of a slump, we’ve given them hope for growth,” Chen said.

In 2016, as coal mining output declined the need to find new jobs surged.

Will the emerging wind power sector be able to offer enough reemployment opportunities?

Running a wind farm isn’t labour intensive. And with slowing demand for electricity across China, could turbine manufacturing, which is heavily reliant on expansion of wind power, be able to keep growing? These aren’t just questions for Fuxin but for all China.

On May 7, as we left Fuxin, the wind was blowing again and the turbines spinning. And at 4'o'clock in the afternoon, the rain finally came. Only a light rain, but we hoped Chen Fang would, after a month of waiting below the turbines, be able to plant her corn.

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