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Reform or Ruin: Chinese Cities on the Edge

  • Haizhou National Mine Park, the site of the largest open-pit coal mine in Asia before deposits were depleted, in Fuxin city, northeastern Liaoning province. In 2001, the State Council designated Fuxin a “resource-exhausted city” and instructed it to undertake economic transition and redevelopment programs. This was the start of a national effort to address economic sustainability in cities that are economically dependent on natural resources—what the government classifies as “resource-based cities.”
    Haizhou National Mine Park, the site of the largest open-pit coal mine in Asia before deposits were depleted, in Fuxin city, northeastern Liaoning province. In 2001, the State Council designated Fuxin a “resource-exhausted city” and instructed it to undertake economic transition and redevelopment programs. This was the start of a national effort to address economic sustainability in cities that are economically dependent on natural resources—what the government classifies as “resource-based cities.”
  • Su Tieqiang, a former coal miner with Hengda Mining Company and a survivor of a 2014 fire ignited by coal dust, sits in a hotel room near the hospital where he receives treatment, in Fuxin. 26 of his co-workers died in the fire. Fuxin has over 200 mines, mostly coal mines, and mining accidents have been a painful feature of daily life for its inhabitants. In 2005, a gas explosion at Sunjiawan Mine claimed 214 lives.
    Su Tieqiang, a former coal miner with Hengda Mining Company and a survivor of a 2014 fire ignited by coal dust, sits in a hotel room near the hospital where he receives treatment, in Fuxin. 26 of his co-workers died in the fire. Fuxin has over 200 mines, mostly coal mines, and mining accidents have been a painful feature of daily life for its inhabitants. In 2005, a gas explosion at Sunjiawan Mine claimed 214 lives.
  • A Christian church in Fuxin. In the 2013 “Sustainable Development Plan for Resource-Based Cities (2013-2020),” China’s State Council further clarified its definition of “resource-based cities” as “cities and counties whose pillar industry is the exploitation and processing of minerals, forest, or other natural resources.” The document designated 262 locations as “resource-based cities.” Fuxin was among them, in the sub-category “declining.”
    A Christian church in Fuxin. In the 2013 “Sustainable Development Plan for Resource-Based Cities (2013-2020),” China’s State Council further clarified its definition of “resource-based cities” as “cities and counties whose pillar industry is the exploitation and processing of minerals, forest, or other natural resources.” The document designated 262 locations as “resource-based cities.” Fuxin was among them, in the sub-category “declining.”
  • Lan Xianquan, 43, herds goats near an unfinished five-star hotel in Fuxin. Construction was abandoned five years ago because of the lack of follow-up investment. Lan worked for Haizhou Mine until it shut down in 2005 and has practiced goat husbandry in the years since.
    Lan Xianquan, 43, herds goats near an unfinished five-star hotel in Fuxin. Construction was abandoned five years ago because of the lack of follow-up investment. Lan worked for Haizhou Mine until it shut down in 2005 and has practiced goat husbandry in the years since.
  • At Xiahuayuan Power Plant, only one of three cooling towers still functions, in the city of Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, October 2017. The Xiahuayuan district of Zhangjiakou, once abundant in coal, is also on the 2013 “resource-based cities” list, identified as “declining.”
    At Xiahuayuan Power Plant, only one of three cooling towers still functions, in the city of Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, October 2017. The Xiahuayuan district of Zhangjiakou, once abundant in coal, is also on the 2013 “resource-based cities” list, identified as “declining.”
  • An office of a vehicle repair facility in Xiahuayuan district. The facility is located at the site of a mass grave, or “pit of ten thousand corpses,” where Japanese soldiers killed and buried local workers after occupying the coal mines during World War II.
    An office of a vehicle repair facility in Xiahuayuan district. The facility is located at the site of a mass grave, or “pit of ten thousand corpses,” where Japanese soldiers killed and buried local workers after occupying the coal mines during World War II.
  • Solar panels on the mountain slopes in Xiahuayuan district. In 2013, in a joint campaign with Beijing, Zhangjiakou won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. As part of the preparation, the city initiated installation of a large-scale solar park to provide renewable energy for the Olympics. Most of the equipment was constructed in Xiahuayuan and its neighboring districts.
    Solar panels on the mountain slopes in Xiahuayuan district. In 2013, in a joint campaign with Beijing, Zhangjiakou won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. As part of the preparation, the city initiated installation of a large-scale solar park to provide renewable energy for the Olympics. Most of the equipment was constructed in Xiahuayuan and its neighboring districts.
  • Ma Yulan, 82, sits in the hallway of her apartment building in Xiahuayuan. Ma moved here with her son 30 years ago when he found a job at a coal mine. During the local coal industry’s peak, 89 mines were operational. Now there are fewer than 10.
    Ma Yulan, 82, sits in the hallway of her apartment building in Xiahuayuan. Ma moved here with her son 30 years ago when he found a job at a coal mine. During the local coal industry’s peak, 89 mines were operational. Now there are fewer than 10.
  • The old town area of Datong city, labelled China’s “coal capital,” in northern Shanxi province, May 2017. The government designates Datong a “mature” resource-based city, a city in which “resource extraction is stable, and resource preservation is effective.” To give the city a future not heavily reliant on coal, former Mayor Geng Yanbo sought to develop the tourism industry by recreating the “ancient city”––ordering the demolition of modern architecture and relocating nearly half a million residents.
    The old town area of Datong city, labelled China’s “coal capital,” in northern Shanxi province, May 2017. The government designates Datong a “mature” resource-based city, a city in which “resource extraction is stable, and resource preservation is effective.” To give the city a future not heavily reliant on coal, former Mayor Geng Yanbo sought to develop the tourism industry by recreating the “ancient city”––ordering the demolition of modern architecture and relocating nearly half a million residents.
  • Tower cranes in operation at a construction site near the wall of Datong’s “ancient city.” In 2013, Geng was suddenly promoted and became the mayor of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi. He left behind a mountain of government debt and unfinished construction. Still, he was praised highly by locals for being a politician who took action.
    Tower cranes in operation at a construction site near the wall of Datong’s “ancient city.” In 2013, Geng was suddenly promoted and became the mayor of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi. He left behind a mountain of government debt and unfinished construction. Still, he was praised highly by locals for being a politician who took action.
  • The Datong Art Museum is still under construction. A design release in 2012 said, “the museum will open in 2013.”
    The Datong Art Museum is still under construction. A design release in 2012 said, “the museum will open in 2013.”
  • Yu Cunjiang, 31, takes off his safety helmet and gets ready for breakfast after working a 14-hour night shift in the Jinhuagong Coal Mine in Datong. Shanxi has shuttered 52 coal mines in 2016 and 2017, laying off thousands of workers in the process.
    Yu Cunjiang, 31, takes off his safety helmet and gets ready for breakfast after working a 14-hour night shift in the Jinhuagong Coal Mine in Datong. Shanxi has shuttered 52 coal mines in 2016 and 2017, laying off thousands of workers in the process.
  • A piece of red cloth tied around a pine tree, a local tradition of praying for peace and fortune, at Wuying National Forest Park, in the city of Yichun, in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province, February 2017. Yichun is best known as China’s “forest capital.” In 2013, it was deemed “declining.”
    A piece of red cloth tied around a pine tree, a local tradition of praying for peace and fortune, at Wuying National Forest Park, in the city of Yichun, in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province, February 2017. Yichun is best known as China’s “forest capital.” In 2013, it was deemed “declining.”
  • An empty office building of the local Forestry Bureau in Yichun. Beginning in 2014, China banned commercial logging in state-owned natural forests in Heilongjiang province. As a result, this office building was left unused after its construction was completed in 2013.
    An empty office building of the local Forestry Bureau in Yichun. Beginning in 2014, China banned commercial logging in state-owned natural forests in Heilongjiang province. As a result, this office building was left unused after its construction was completed in 2013.
  • A maintenance worker works on an electric cable in Yichun. By the end of 2017, the four-year logging ban had led to a 6 percent drop in local GDP. According to China’s state media, in 2017 Yichun’s officially registered population was 1.16 million, but of those only 900,000 actually lived in the city. Many of those who worked in the timber industry have left to find work elsewhere.
    A maintenance worker works on an electric cable in Yichun. By the end of 2017, the four-year logging ban had led to a 6 percent drop in local GDP. According to China’s state media, in 2017 Yichun’s officially registered population was 1.16 million, but of those only 900,000 actually lived in the city. Many of those who worked in the timber industry have left to find work elsewhere.
  • Plastic trees with colorful light bulbs glow on a frozen river in Yichun.
    Plastic trees with colorful light bulbs glow on a frozen river in Yichun.
  • Bottles lay strewn across the floor of a porcelain factory in Jingdezhen city, Jiangxi province, July 2017. Jingdezhen is the historic center of Chinese porcelain production, famous for its high-quality kaolin reserves. However, as kaolin reserves have been depleted, hundreds of mining and production companies have been shuttered over the past two decades.
    Bottles lay strewn across the floor of a porcelain factory in Jingdezhen city, Jiangxi province, July 2017. Jingdezhen is the historic center of Chinese porcelain production, famous for its high-quality kaolin reserves. However, as kaolin reserves have been depleted, hundreds of mining and production companies have been shuttered over the past two decades.
  • An entrance to the Sanbao Kaolin Mine in Jingdezhen. After more than 1,700 years of exploitation, there are less than one million tons of kaolin reserves left, only enough for another 10 years of mining. In 2013, China’s government designated Jingdezhen as “declining.”
    An entrance to the Sanbao Kaolin Mine in Jingdezhen. After more than 1,700 years of exploitation, there are less than one million tons of kaolin reserves left, only enough for another 10 years of mining. In 2013, China’s government designated Jingdezhen as “declining.”
  • Liang Zhuanshan, a 24-year-old porcelain artist, sits in her studio in Jingdezhen. Despite the clay shortage, Jingdezhen has managed to rejuvenate its art and education industry. Studios and workshops have opened one after another in recent years, and have attracted many artisans.
    Liang Zhuanshan, a 24-year-old porcelain artist, sits in her studio in Jingdezhen. Despite the clay shortage, Jingdezhen has managed to rejuvenate its art and education industry. Studios and workshops have opened one after another in recent years, and have attracted many artisans.
  • A miners’ dormitory in an area locals call Linggongli––“linggongli” means “ground zero”––in Tongguan county, Shaanxi province, September 2017. Tongguan once boasted ample gold resources, but now is designated as “declining” on the resource-based cities list. Many surrounding gold mines are named for their distance from Linggongli.
    A miners’ dormitory in an area locals call Linggongli––“linggongli” means “ground zero”––in Tongguan county, Shaanxi province, September 2017. Tongguan once boasted ample gold resources, but now is designated as “declining” on the resource-based cities list. Many surrounding gold mines are named for their distance from Linggongli.
  • Outside an abandoned gold mine, unclaimed quilts hang on a clothesline, in Tongguan.
    Outside an abandoned gold mine, unclaimed quilts hang on a clothesline, in Tongguan.
  • Dai Guanping, a 47-year-old miner, carries his son on shoulders, at the Five Kilometer Mine, in Tongguan. He said he has less and less work because of the exhaustion of local gold deposits.
    Dai Guanping, a 47-year-old miner, carries his son on shoulders, at the Five Kilometer Mine, in Tongguan. He said he has less and less work because of the exhaustion of local gold deposits.
  • A corner of the abandoned Worker’s Stadium in the city of Yumen, northwestern Gansu province, September 2017. Yumen was China’s first “petroleum base,” and began extracting oil in 1939. Yumen provided for 90 percent of national crude oil production in the 1940s. Now, its oil wells are running dry.
    A corner of the abandoned Worker’s Stadium in the city of Yumen, northwestern Gansu province, September 2017. Yumen was China’s first “petroleum base,” and began extracting oil in 1939. Yumen provided for 90 percent of national crude oil production in the 1940s. Now, its oil wells are running dry.
  • A gate sits on a road at the outskirts of Yumen, at the edge of the Gobi Desert between the Qilian and Beishan mountains. High-speed winds blow through the valley. Over the past decade, Yumen has constructed several giant wind farms, in an attempt to transform its energy production into something more sustainable.
    A gate sits on a road at the outskirts of Yumen, at the edge of the Gobi Desert between the Qilian and Beishan mountains. High-speed winds blow through the valley. Over the past decade, Yumen has constructed several giant wind farms, in an attempt to transform its energy production into something more sustainable.

China’s rapid industrialization has both led to, and been driven by, resource cultivation and extraction of breathtaking scope. But what happens when the resources run out?

For many Chinese cities, local natural resources are a wellspring of jobs, not to mention pride—just as West Virginia has its coal towns, so too does the city of Baotou have its iron ore. But fragility often follows, as downturns in supply or demand send shockwaves through the very cities that rely on them. Without sustainable policies, resource blessings can become a curse as a city’s luck runs out.

In an effort to fortify against future catastrophe, in 2013 China’s State Council named 262 cities “resource-based cities.” The designation is intended to focus the central government, especially the National Development and Reform Commision, on delivering environmental and economic reforms to resource-heavy economies before it is too late.

Beijing-based photographer Li Junhui traveled to eight resource-based cities in 2017: Ordos, Xiahuayuan, Yichun, Datong, Jingdezhen, Tongguan, Yumen, and Fuxin. The State Council has divided the 262 resource-based cities into four groups: “growing,” “mature,” “declining,” and “reborn.” But Beijing-based photographer Li Junhui believed that these classifications referred to the status of a city’s resource supply, “not to the city itself,” and set out to capture each place organically.

Li believes reforming these cities will “require a long period of time, just as a person who is sick with a curable disease . . . cannot leap energetically out of bed after just one dose of medicine.” One change Li observed in some of the cities he visited was a pivot toward the tourism industry.

The images Li returned are at once mighty and fragile. The experience of photographing these cities, Li writes, allowed him to see “progress and powerlessness” at work together.

Stephen Garrett