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Coal mining in China's Inner Mongolia fuels tensions

Large-scale mining has brought growth and wealth to a desolate corner of China. But not everyone is benefiting, and tensions are rising between indigenous Mongols and Han Chinese who have poured into the region.

June 02, 2011|By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
  • Inner Mongolia is China's top coal producer, accounting for about a quarter of all domestic supply  double what it was only six years ago, according to coal analyst Li Ting. Above, a coal mine in the region in April.
Inner Mongolia is China's top coal producer, accounting for about… (Nelson Ching, Bloomberg )

Reporting from Beijing — Wang Wenlin and his family have eked out a living for decades farming and herding sheep and cattle on the vast, unforgiving Inner Mongolian steppes.

But the opening three years ago of a nearby colliery and railway line to transport coal across his grazing land has squeezed Wang's livelihood.

"My animals only have so much land to graze," said Wang, who earns about $9,000 a year. "In the winter, I'm cut off from the closest city. When it's windy, we get covered in coal dust because it's an open mine. And the water level keeps dropping every year. It's not suitable. There's really no point living here anymore."

The introduction of large-scale mining to Inner Mongolia has brought unprecedented economic growth and wealth to a desolate corner of China in less than a decade. But not everyone is benefiting from the bounty. And tensions are rising between indigenous Mongols and ethnic Han Chinese who have poured into the region.

The recent deaths of two Mongols have sparked protests across the province, underscoring simmering discontent over environmental damage from mining in this resource-rich region.

On May 10 a herdsman named Mergen (many Mongols go by a single name) was run over by a coal truck driver after complaining that the vehicles were destroying grasslands outside the city of Xilinhot. Five days later, a forklift operator named Yan Wenlong was killed at a coal mine near Xilinhot after he and other locals clashed with company employees in a protest over pollution from the mine.

"They were trying to protect the grasslands," said Wang, 47, a Han Chinese who said he, like his Mongol neighbors, was horrified by the violence. "It's not worth it for a young person to have to sacrifice their life."

Fearing the unrest could quickly descend into the same ethnic bloodletting that tore through Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009, authorities have moved aggressively to quell the demonstrations. They declared martial law, quickly arrested Han Chinese suspects for the two deaths and met with Mongol students and teachers.

"This now seems to be more related to issues about energy, about coal versus grasslands," said Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute and professor of anthropology at Pomona College in Claremont. "These are tinderbox issues for the Mongols. They don't think they are always benefiting from the resources being extracted."

The provincial government has pledged to look into the effect of the mining industry on the environment and local culture, state media reported.

But given China's insatiable demand for coal, the chances of any significant pullback in mining appears slim, experts said.

China, the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, relies on coal for about 70% of its energy. But with coal prices soaring and electricity rates capped by the government, utilities are cutting production. Faced with the prospect of severe power shortages this summer, Beijing this week raised rates for industrial users in hopes of reducing consumption and giving power producers greater incentive to churn out more electricity.

China has massive natural coal reserves, producing about 3.5 billion tons last year, according to Yang Fuqiang of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Still, it's a major importer because it lacks a speedy, reliable transportation network to deliver coal from its frontier territories. Rail projects now under construction are expected to power more Chinese coal mining.

Inner Mongolia is the country's top coal producer, accounting for about a quarter of all domestic supply — double what it was only six years ago, said Li Ting, a coal analyst for the Distribution Productivity Promotion Center of China Commerce.

"Coal in Inner Mongolia is in shallow ground and very easy to mine," Li said. "Many of the mines are above ground and have low amounts of gas, which means there's less risk of explosions."

The most prized, energy-efficient coal is found in the boomtown of Ordos, the wealthiest city per capita in China. Swaths of new neighborhoods there have been called ghost towns because speculators bought tracts of luxury housing but never bothered to move in.

Some Inner Mongolians quickly became millionaires in the mining rush, a transformation similar to that seen in Shanxi, a central province notorious for its flashy coal-mine bosses.

If the rush to dig coal intensifies in Inner Mongolia without regard for the environment and income divide, the ordinarily passive Mongols could continue to oppose the Han-dominated government, said Khereid Khuvisgalt, an exiled Mongol activist based in Japan who advocates for the province's secession from China.

"I don't think it's right to sacrifice a culture for the sake of economic growth," Khereid said.

david.pierson@latimes.com

Times staff writer Barbara Demick and Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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