Tangshan: The Phoenix City

This is the first post in a series about a recent business trip I took to northeast Hebei province

Tangshan, a two-hour drive east of Beijing in Hebei Province, is a city of industry. The site of China’s first coalmine, Tangshan is widely considered the cradle of modern industry in China, complete with snazzy factories and all the sky-tainting pollution that goes with it.

I was there in late October on a business trip — a provincial government sponsored trip across the northeastern part of Hebei to see how great the province is and then write about it. Tangshan was the first city on our tour de Hebei.

Our first stop was Kailuan National Mine Park, the nation’s first mine. Replica buildings and a few rust-covered pieces of equipment tried desperately to mimic conditions back in the late 1800s when the mine first opened. I thought a few re-enactors would have added to their attempts to make the park seem authentic.

A large statue with a few miners stood in the park’s center. It honored the hundreds of thousands of men who worked, and the many that were buried, underground to dig that black rock vital to industry from the ground and into Chinese factories.

But the coup de grace lies within the mine’s museum, where hall after hall hail China’s achievements in manipulating coal use. One claims that China was the first country to use coal, although not to fuel blast furnaces or industrial plants (which were imported from the West).

One of Tangshan’s more impressive sights, if only because of its backstory, is Nanhu Ecological Park. Prior to becoming the eco-haven it is, with 1,300 hectares dedicated to all things eco-friendly and green, the park was a massive compost pile. Following the earthquake in 1976, people in Tangshan needed a place to dump their trash. They dumped it at the site of a mine that collapsed in the quake — that site is today’s park. In the late 1990s, the local government stepped in, re-beautifying the area and turning it into a pristine ecological park with waters that rival the West Lake in Hangzhou and a variety of wild flora and fauna. Looking out across the lake from the peak of a man-made hill (but not made of trash) I was amazed with the view: the lake, the small islands, the prominence of the colors green and blue, and the nuclear power plant a few kilometers in the distance (look for it in the photo slideshow).

Industrial birthplace and nice new eco-park aside, Tangshan is more widely known as the epicenter of a massive earthquake that completely leveled the city in 1976. The city’s memorial park is a sobering reminder to nature’s destructiveness and unpredictability. A few toppled buildings and bare steel frames have been left untouched since the disaster. A long, marble wall stretching roughly the length of a football field — a solemn attempt to put the death toll of 240,000 into perspective — has the names of the victims etched onto its black, reflective surface. Inside a small museum, a model of the city shows the extent of the damage: a few buildings were left standing but the majority of the structures in Tangshan were turned to rubble.

The recovery was swift. Within months, many of Tangshan’s industries were up and running again, causing many people to call it the Phoenix City: a miracle reborn from the ashes.

Today, Tangshan is again a center of industry, particularly in steel. According to the Sydney Morning Herald: “At current growth rates, if the city was a country, it would overtake the United States within two years to become the world’s third largest steel producing nation behind China and Japan.” That’s a lot of steel. But with China in the midst of a massive construction boom, the country’s insatiable need for steel is real. To fuel its blast furnaces, Tangshan relies exclusively on its coal mines to keep the fires burning. The result is pollution, and lots of it.

Government leaders boast about new green policies that will clean up the environment, but until they take these measures seriously — which likely result in the province’s industrial strength taking a hit — it seems the phoenix that rose from the ashes could lose its way as it soars higher into the smog.

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