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of a sophisticated, centrally governed, technologically advanced society in
China. “When China began using coal to make cheap iron in the eleventh
century, . . . coal and iron spurred industrial development on a scale that the
world had never before seen, and would not see again until Britain’s industrial revolution,” writes Barbara Freese in her anthropological history of coal,
Coal: A Human History.12 Abundant energy from coal allowed urbanization
on an unprecedented scale: Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1125), had as many as a million inhabitants at a time when Paris
had fewer than 200,000 souls and London was a muddy settlement of barely
20,000.
By the early twentieth century, the coal industry, though still fragmented,
extended across China. The production and use of coal expanded after the
forced opening of the empire following the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth
century. Despite the chaos that engulfed the countryside and the withering of
the central government in the last decades of the Qing dynasty, coal helped
accelerate industrialization: the first railway line officially sanctioned by the
government was built to reach the Kaiping coal mines in Hebei Province. Coal
fueled the railway explosion, funded by European banks, that saw 1,000 miles
of new rail lines laid between 1912 and 1920, stretching from Canton in the
south to Manchuria in the north. China’s first large-scale industrial complex,
producing iron and steel, was built in the early years of the twentieth century
at the Han-Ye-Ping coal mines in Hubei Province.13
Coal also played a central role in China’s revolutionary politics. During the Battle of Shanghai, the National Revolutionary Army fought to hold
off imperial Japanese troops in one of the major engagements of the Second
Sino-Japanese War. In the three-month siege—which ended with the fall of
the city on November 26, 1937—the burgeoning Shanghai coal industry
mobilized to aid the soldiers, forming a battlefield rescue operation called
the Shanghai Coal Industry Ambulance Corps. Coal laborers were a major
source of recruits for the Communist Party, and after the fall of Shanghai
dozens of the drivers, along with their vehicles, joined the New Fourth Army,
the fledgling outfit that would become a key unit of the communist Chinese
forces. The coal workers’ support for the revolution “led to a triangular relationship between coal industry capitalists, the [ambulance] corps itself, and
the Communist army based in the countryside,” writes Allison Rottman in

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her history of revolutionary Shanghai.14 That relationship helped to shape the
complex dynamics of wartime China as well as the history of Maoist China
after World War II. Like Stalin, who gained fame organizing the oil workers in
Baku, Mao got his start in the energy industry. At the Han-Ye-Ping complex,
where more than 20,000 workers toiled, Mao cut his teeth as a labor organizer, helping to organize the famous 1922 strike at the Anyuan mine, which
served as a springboard for the revolution.15
China’s coal wealth formed a key piece of the vast mosaic of conflict that
would coalesce into World War II: energy-poor Japan invaded northern China
in the 1930s in part to seize the rich coal deposits of Manchuria.
After the war, energy from coal helped fuel Mao’s disastrous economic
experiments—although coal shortages became a major factor in the disastrous
attempts at industrial development (including the notorious “backyard steel
furnaces” that produced useless pig iron rather than steel) during the Great
Leap Forward. Big state-owned mines were established under central planning, becoming centers not only of industry but housing, education, and services—the “coal cities” that would dominate economic life in many provinces
well into the twenty-first century.
Once economic reform took hold in the 1980s, the country’s hunger for
coal to produce steel, concrete, and electricity became insatiable. The architects of reform under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping realized early on that
economic growth depended entirely on abundant supplies of coal. They adopted a policy of unfettered development of large, medium-sized, and small
mines simultaneously. If you had a pickax, a mule, and a cart to load, you
could become a coal miner. Millions did.
In 1987 coal production surpassed 1 billion tons for the first time. From
1980 to 1996, production more than doubled, from 683 million tons to more
than 1.4 billion.16 In the coal-producing regions—the coal belt that stretches
from Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang in the far west, encompassing the whole of
Shanxi Province in the north—mines sprang up with little regard for safety,
the availability of water, transport capability, or environmental consequences.
In truth, by the turn of the twenty-first century the Chinese coal industry had
changed little since before the war. Mechanization had come to the big mines,
but in most mines the work was done mostly by hand, performed by men willing to crawl into dark underground chambers and hack away at the rock face

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because they had few other options for making a living. Profits were as scarce
as safety: coal industry losses before the reforms of the 1990s stretched into the
hundreds of millions of dollars per year. The five-year plan for 1991–95 called for
the elimination of 400,000 coal mining jobs, nearly 6 percent of the 7 million
workers in the industry.17 Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, known as “One-Chop
Zhu” for his ruthless management style, was shown on state TV in 1992 angrily
lecturing coal managers at a large mine in Shanxi Province for their waste and
profligate hiring practices.18 Slowly, the industry was forced to modernize.
At the same time, the State Power Corporation—the state-controlled monopoly that generated and transmitted electricity in China up through the
reforms of the mid-1990s—launched an astonishing binge of power plant construction that continued through the first decade of the twentieth century.
After the revolution, in which the communists took control of the shattered country after World War II and the civil war that followed, the power
sector in China was small, fragmented, and outdated. Total national capacity
was only 1.85 gigawatts—a small fraction of the capacity of, for example, the
state of California at the time.19 Over the next seven decades the country embarked on the greatest and fastest expansion of power generation the world has
ever seen. Energy use per capita was far below the world average, to say nothing
of developed countries like the United States; but it began to climb steadily
in the 1980s, finally matching the world average around 2008.20 All of Asia
Pacific accounted for only about 15 percent of total world energy consumption
in 1971; by 2010 that figure had ballooned to 38 percent, driven mostly by
growth in China.21 Total electricity use in China in 1980 was 250 terawatthours, only slightly more than the state of California. By 2010 that number
had ballooned to nearly 4,000 terawatt-hours—almost as much as the entire
United States consumed.22
Most of that new power came from coal. During the eighth five-year plan,
which ran from 1991 to 1995, total coal production in China grew by 40
million tons a year. Between 1997 and 2005, China added 206 gigawatts of
power generation capacity, or 500 megawatts—the equivalent of a mediumsized coal-fired power plant—every week.23 These are official figures; the actual
total is probably more, as illicit mines proliferated and many companies set up
their own private coal boilers, off the national grid, to run factories and steel
mills and cement plants.

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By the turn of the twenty-first century, the central government had begun
to realize that the country’s dependence on coal was a devil’s bargain. With annual production growing at nearly 10 percent a year, officials in Beijing began
a program of closing small mines that managed to reduce production from just
under 1.4 billion tons in 1996 to less than 1 billion in 2000. That proved to
be a pause: the worldwide construction boom of the 2000s fueled a seemingly
limitless expansion of coal. Coal production doubled from 2001 to 2004, reaching 2 billion tons; by 2009 it was 3 billion, still not enough.24 Imports climbed
as well, and in 2007 China, for the first time, became a net importer of coal.25
That same year, China surpassed the United States to become the world’s
largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

China is still growing at 7 to 8 percent a year, a rate that all of the Western

industrial nations envy. But the model is faltering, and there are increasing
signals that a powerful and unpredictable transition is gathering force.
“We have hit the limit of this type of growth,” Zou Ji, deputy director of
China’s National Centre for Climate Change Strategy, told the online news
outlet China Dialogue in 2013.26
In June 2014, the energy information provider Platts reported that Shenhua Group, the state-owned coal giant, was pleading with utilities and coal
traders to reduce oversupplies at Shenhua loading facilities.27 For the world’s
largest coal producer, this was an extraordinary development. Created in 1995
by the State Council of the People’s Republic, Shenhua had grown into a vertically integrated behemoth with interests in not only coal mines, but also
railways, power plants, ports, shipping, and coal liquefaction. Its revenue had
grown in tandem with China’s booming economy, reaching more than $46
billion in 2013, nearly twice as much as those of Exelon, the largest U.S. utility
in terms of revenue.28 Enjoying deep connections with the Communist Party
leadership and the People’s Liberation Army, it epitomized the for-profit state
enterprises that dominated Chinese economic life. Even as the coal boom began to slow, Shenhua’s low-cost mines and its sheer scale buffered it from market forces that battered other coal companies: its coal sales grew by more than
10 percent in 2013. In 2012, with its fleet of coal-fired plants growing across
the country and its thirst for coal growing faster than its domestic production

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