Hainan for the Holiday

Migratory birds seem to have it all figured out: in the winter it gets cold, so they pack up and fly south to warmer climates. Unlike my feathered friends, when the cold sets in, my winter jacket comes out and I begin a four-month stint of brooding and whining about Beijing temperatures.

Last year, after seeing a flock of birds heading in more equatorial directions, I too decided to follow that animal instinct, flying south to Hainan, China’s tropical island province. It was my Christmas present to myself, a nice gift basket of beaches, sunshine, clear skies, palm trees and good food.

Hainan, which sits across from Vietnam, has historically been a backwater for the Chinese mainland, reserved for the likes of exiles. Today, the island is undergoing a rapid transformation from uninhabitable and remote to posh and hospitable. In the past few years, as part of the Chinese government’s initiative to turn Hainan into the “Hawaii of the Orient”, money has poured in for massive construction projects on everything from resorts and hotels to infrastructure and other accommodations.

I flew into Sanya, the southernmost city on China’s southernmost province, with lofty expectations of spending Christmas sitting on one of the city’s pristine palm tree-lined beaches while getting some sun under smog-less skies. Fresh seafood would be on the menu each day, and I’d finally get to see those monkeys of south China I’d always heard about.

What I got was slightly different.

It was kind of like asking Santa for an iPhone 4, but getting an iPhone 3GS instead: the picture quality isn’t as good, it’s a little less fun and way less cool, but it’s still an iPhone, and not the same prehistoric era cell phone your parents probably use.

Sanya had beaches, but they were trash-ridden and small. The skies were void of smog, but a light sea mist blanketed the bay in a trippy, wobbly haze. For most of my stay, the sun was hidden behind a heavy overcast. Clearly, those birds that had been flying south weren’t heading to Hainan. But the seafood was delicious, and the monkeys were, well, monkeys.

What saved the trip from turning into a complete holiday flop was the Christmas Eve party at my hostel. The crowd was predominantly Chinese, but the hostel’s main lounge area had been tricked out in Christmas decorations, lights and a proper amount of alcohol to fuel the festivities into the wee hours. Christmas music by Enya – not my first choice for holiday melodies, but hey, twas the season – and a recording of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer that skipped and repeated the words “had a very shiny” played as we all sang and drank the night away.

At midnight, someone produced a cake from behind the hostel bar and everyone began singing “Happy Birthday”. I looked around to see who the singing was for. When I asked “Whose birthday?” one of my newfound Chinese friends pointed to the sky and said “God”. I had to laugh. Close, I thought. At least he knew the religious basis for Christmas — despite the overwhelming commercialization of the holiday in China, even by Western standards — and hadn’t thought that the holiday marked the birth of Our Lord Lady Gaga or the Prince of Peace Prize Barack Obama.

As I’d expected, it really was one of the hostel guest’s birthdays. The Chinese guy had been joking around.

On Christmas day, I took a train from Sanya to Bo’ao, for their pristine beaches. Again, disappointment.

I was able to find friendship in a tiny old man from Harbin who was also seeking refuge in Hainan from the cold climate of the north. He offered to show me around, asking questions about America (“Does America have dumplings?”) and myself (“Are you married?) with follow ups (“Why aren’t you married?”) and commentary (“Harbin is so cold.”).

Then he asked a question that touched a nerve: Why wasn’t I spending Christmas with my family? It was instant homesickness made worse by the sand being blown in my face from the steady ocean breeze that had picked up. I told him I’d be going back to the States for Spring Festival, when everyone else in China made their own pilgrimage home. Still, I realized that instead of sitting on this beach, even if the weather had been more favorable, I should have been home enjoying a Christmas feast with friends and family. Next year, no holidays with Chinese characteristics in Beijing – just home.

And more importantly, I won’t follow those birds unless they’re heading to the West.

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Business, Baijiu and ‘Brandon the Great’

This is the final post about a recent business trip I took to northeast Hebei province

I was sitting on a bench by the Bohai Sea in northeast China, half conscious and rubbing my head in a futile effort to relieve a throbbing headache. Pain also resonated from my stomach, and I had that funny feeling in my throat, the kind you get just before you’re about to throw up. A large statue of one of China’s emperors stood nearby, shooting me a disapproving look that said: “Know your limits Brandon.”

How I’d wound up on this bench next to this judgmental statue was a mystery, but I knew the culprit of my memory lapse and head trauma immediately: baijiu.

Baijiu, China’s equivalent of Russian vodka or Irish whiskey, is this wonderful Chinese white liquor that shares more similarities with gasoline than anything you would ever willing drink. And yet drink baijiu I had. A lot of it.

This story begins three days prior. I’d been “invited” (read, told) to join several other foreigners at Beijing Review for a short tour of Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing municipality. The provincial government wanted to promote a few up and coming high-tech innovation zones and eco-friendly cities.

Before embarking, my boss had briefed our group on Beijing Review’s expectations – she also added that there would be no drinking on this trip.

No drinking? On a business trip?

Past experience from being toted around on these government tours has taught me two things: much of what I see and hear is either a lie or heavily diluted truths; and after a hard day’s touring, everyone is treated to a massive feast with lots of alcohol. Drinking is as much a part of Chinese culture as the Great Wall or chopsticks. Any meal for esteemed guests, especially foreigners, comes with a smorgasbord of delicacies and enough alcohol – be it wine, beer or baijiu – to knock out China’s few remaining pandas.

The ridiculousness of my boss’ statement faded before it really set in. She would have had more luck stopping the sun from rising than preventing us from drinking.

And I was right.

At each stop, local officials brought out their best bottles of baijiu. My reputation as a baijiu drinker grew with each toast.

When drinking China’s sacred white wine, I’ve mostly stuck with cheaper brands from the man 711 minimarts across Beijing. They taste like battery acid, but they get the job done at an affordable price. The baijiu at each feast came in orb-shaped bottles of aqua blue and ceramic white. While maintaining its kick as it slip down my throat, this baijiu had less of an explosive, eroding effect on my stomach. I liked this top-shelf baijiu, about as much as you can like something you know is shaving years off your life with each swig.

When we reached Luanzhou, a city three hours east of Beijing, one of my Chinese colleagues let slip that I enjoyed drinking baijiu. I was doomed.

At lunch the following day, I became the toasting target of every government official in the banquet room. Toasts were incessant, followed by shouts of “ganbei!” (bottoms up). Finishing my glass each time would yield cheers and a refill. Not finishing meant just a refill. Either way, I was losing it.

In between glasses, I would scarf down noodles or rice, anything to absorb the baijiu that was quickly filling my stomach. I also tried to sneak in a few bottles of water.

One of the local Party officials had taken a liking to me, constantly giving me the thumbs up every time a toast was proposed. I tried to avoid looking in his direction, knowing that eye contact would result in a raised glass and another ganbei. Noticing my evasive glances around the room, he rose from his chair and stumbled over to me.

“Beijing Review, number one magazine,” he said. “You are number one foreigner. Great drinker. Great man. Ganbei!”

We drank, turning our cups upside to prove they were empty. He looked at me again, or tried to look at me, with glazed eyes and a wobble that suggested he was on the verge of collapse.

“Great man. Brandon the Great!”

That was the last time I saw him. The official stumbled toward his seat, then changed course, heading instead for the door, and was gone.

My interpreter was also very drunk. He looked at me and said, “I want to throw up.”

By this point, I’d switched into Chinese mode, speaking the language and refilling other people’s glasses. I told him throwing up was not allowed. There was more toasting to do. Slowly, I began working my way around the table, at the encouragement of one of the Party officials, toasting all 11 of the remaining guests. After completing my circuit, I headed straight to the bathroom.

Then it was time to go. Everyone was ushered outside where hands were shaken, business cards exchanged and promises to revisit made. I got in our tour van and passed out.

Or blacked out, because the next fully conscious memory I had was sitting on the bench by the statue. We had arrived in Qinhuangdao, near the coast of the Bohai Sea. The statue was of Qin Shihuang, China’s first emperor. Apparently before making our way to the sea, we’d taken a quick tour of a small park. I didn’t remember that part.

For the rest of the trip I stuck with tea and an occasional beer. Brandon the Great would have to wait to reign another day.

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Beidaihe: Silicon Valley of North China

This is the seventh post about a recent business trip I took to northeast Hebei province

Near Qinhuangdao in the northeastern tip of the province, the beaches and streets of Beidaihe provide everything that can be expected of a small, coastal town: sand, water and seafood restaurants aplenty. Walks along the sandy shores give visitors the chance to breathe in fresh air — or at least a breeze that’s slightly less industrially tainted.

Beidaihe, if the provincial government’s blueprint unfolds as planned, will one day also be the Silicon Valley of North China.

An information technology park is taking shape that will employ 5,000 engineers, computer programmers and project managers when it opens in 2014. The info tech park will create computer programs, cartoons and movies as part of China’s effort to mass produce culture and broaden its soft power influence. And like Zhongguancun in Beijing, Beidaihe will one day be home to international clients and companies.

More so than the tech park, Beidaihe is known as being China’s premiere beach resort, for the average tourist and Party officials.

Buildings around the town mimic European architectural designs, a result of that continent’s influence throughout Beidaihe’s history. And like any beach town, merchants desperately try to peddle the usual beach souvenirs: seashell necklaces, decorated turtle shells, crab claws, pieces of carved driftwood, and the occasional polished rock. Robocop-looking security cameras (see slideshow) graced each corner. A few statues of tourists portrayed the Chinese cliche of foreigners: fat, bearded, balding slobs who are often too tired to walk around and need constant breaks.

At the Beidaihe Olympic Park, we saw statues of former commissioners of the Olympic committee, the most prominent of which was a Spaniard with an unusually large nose. A few of the Chinese in our group laughed, touching the large bronze nose and saying “da bizi”, which means big nose and is a commonly used phrase for foreigners.

One of my Chinese colleagues asked if most people in the West had big noses like his. I said “Of course not, but some of us do,” getting a few laughs from the other Chinese. I chuckled too, but not at the big nosed Spaniard. I was imagining everyone’s reaction if I’d pointed at the Yao Ming stone engraving nearby and asked if a certain part of Yao’s male anatomy was small like other Chinese guys or if that was just a silly stereotype from the West.

Instead, I held my tongue and kept that little quip to myself.

I’ve come to just shrug off these quasi-racist jabs the Chinese throw at foreigners every now and then. For them, it’s a cultural thing, done in good fun or because of a certain ignorance of Western ways. But I do like to throw a few jabs of my own every now and then. Just for fun.

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Shanhaiguan: Into the Sea

This is the sixth post about a recent business trip I took to northeast Hebei province

Sizeable stretches of the Great Wall work their way through Hebei, with notable sections like Jinshanling and Simatai drawing large crowds of tourists. While these ranges in the ancient wall provide stunning views of the ancient structure as it works its way over rolling mountains, an equally great section of the wall can be found in Shanhaiguan, just north of Qinhuangdao.

The Shanhaiguan section is the wall’s easternmost reach — it’s beginning, or end – where is meets the sea. Coined Old Dragon’s Head (laolongtou), the wall looks like a dragon drinking from or about to dive into the sea. The original wall is long gone, destroyed during China’s tumultuous history in the earlier half of the twentieth century, but reconstruction efforts in the 1980s have returned Old Dragon’s Head to its former glory. A few of the original stones were used in the reconstruction – the remaining stones were carted off by locals to be used in building their own homes.

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Living Behind the Great Firewall

The photo is a typical screen I get when trying to access Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or any Western social media website in China

It seems cheap sneakers, iPads and iPhones, and a Christmas wish list of consumer goods won’t be China’s only exports arriving on America’s shores. Censorship and government meddling in a free and open Internet might be turning up, too.

In November, Congress began holding hearings on SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), a bill that will crack down on online intellectual property theft. Targeting “rogue websites” that host copyright infringing content – music, movies, books, software and the digital likes – the House bill, and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act, authorizes the Department of Justice to maintain a blacklist of block-worthy sites, most of which exist on servers outside America’s jurisdiction.

Despite the facade of pure and noble intents – combating the theft of U.S. property – the House bill provides broad and ambiguous definitions that will not only block online pirate havens but also cause innocent websites to get caught in SOPA’s nets. It will also make it easier for the government and entertainment industry to pressure Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like PenTelaData, to monitor individual user traffic.

Blacklisted Web domains. Government oversight. Widespread blocking. These are words and phrases typically reserved for the likes of despotic regimes — Cuba or Iran for example — where pervasive censorship is the norm.

As Time magazine puts it, SOPA will allow the government to eliminate alleged pirate sites by essentially “disappearing them,” or making them invisible or inaccessible on your web browser. “Disappearing,” unless you’re referring to a magic act, is another one of those word that should never be associated with the actions of democracies.

The Chinese government certainly isn’t shy about its censorship. Since China began opening up in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, the government has been engaged in a constant balancing act between openness and control, says Rebecca MacKinnon in her essay “Flatter World and Thicker Walls”. Deng likened the reform to opening a window for fresh air only to have a few “flies” (read, new ideas that run counter to the Party line) blow in.

To swat those flies in the modern age of the Internet, China has between 30,000 and 50,000 people involved with the Ministry of Public Security’s Golden Shield Project, commonly called the “Great Firewall of China,” according to Amnesty International. The project employs a variety of techniques to monitor the flow of traffic and control what sites are accessible to China’s close to 500 million Internet users.

From firsthand experience, dealing with the Great Firewall of China is certainly annoying but easily tolerable. If I want to chat with friends on Facebook, or check out a new YouTube video, or read blogs, or tweet, or retweet, or have full access to Gmail, or even view my hometown newspaper the Times News’ webpage (apparently its coverage is too sensitive and controversial for Chinese readers and has subsequently been blocked here), I just have to log into a subscription-based proxy service that allows me to circumvent China’s firewalls. I used that proxy to publish this post. Most tech-savvy Chinese also have this software and know-how.

As inconvenient as access denial to certain websites gets, for the most part I’m indifferent towards the Chinese government’s Internet censoring and monitoring protocols, because that’s what I’ve come to expect of China. My expectations for America are higher.

Granted, SOPA doesn’t go to the same censorship extremes as China. It doesn’t even come close. The Chinese government is out to quash political comments on sensitive China-centric issues. SOPA is meant to protect American intellectual property from foreign online pirates, with China among the largest of these copyright-infringing marauders. But the similarities are still there.

Aside from assigning blacklisting authority to the government, SOPA will require website operators to prove their sites aren’t being used for copyright infringement, the same “guilty until proven innocent” guidelines the Chinese government imposes on domestic social networking sites. The House bill also puts an unprecedented burden on ISPs to comb over all user traffic to find violators or face punishment themselves. Censoring could quickly turn into over-censoring as ISPs looking to avoid litigation block sites that aren’t hosting copyrighted material but share keywords or have user posted links with sites that do.

The necessity for stronger laws to clamp down on web-based piracy is definitely there, especially with Hollywood studios, record companies and publishing houses claiming $135 billion in annual loses from online theft. American intellectual property deserves protection, but perhaps not the way Congress is proposing, and certainly not if it emulates the kind of draconian tactics employed by China’s Internet censoring goons.

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Fires in the Night

This is the fifth post about a recent business trip I took to Hebei province

While driving through Tangshan on the first night of our government-sponsored tour of northeast Hebei, I noticed a small group of people huddled around a small bonfire. They were tossing pieces of paper into the flame to keep it going. As we drove through the city, I saw more fires.

My interpreter said they were making offerings to their ancestors. The pieces of paper, called joss paper or hell money, are monetary offerings so the people’s ancestors have cash in the afterlife.

When we got to Qinhuangdao, I snuck out of the hotel late at night to find a few of these people. On one of the street corners, about 20 people were busy burning the papers. I tried to be as discrete as possible, but there’s only so much blending in a white guy with a big camera can do on a small street in a city that doesn’t get many foreign visitors.

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Qinhuangdao: Parks and Innovation

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

Tangshan had heavy industries. Luanzhou had tourism. Qinhuangdao, the next city on our tour, had hi-tech parks.

Our government guides took us to two companies in Qinhuangdao’s Economy and Technology Development Park: Contec Medical Systems and Tianye Tolian Heavy Industry.

Contec is a medical equipment designer and manufacturer. From touch screen heart monitors and advanced ultrasound scanners to handheld ECG devices, Contec boasts a hi-tech arsenal of equipment for hospitals and clinics.

The company, founded in 1992, is one of many hi-tech enterprises enjoying preferential policies and a surge in sales as the city focuses on attracting private companies from home and abroad to boost the area’s profile as a center for hi-tech.

Inside Contec’s facilities, our group watched long production lines of people assemble medial equipment. There was a strong stench in the air, of plastics and paint and other things that probably aren’t good for your health (but don’t take my word, I’m not a doctor).

Aside from Contec, 103 hi-tech enterprises call the development park “home”. Multinationals, GE among them, from the United States, Japan and Korea have production facilities or R&D centers in the park.

Tianye Tolian Heavy Industry is also enjoying the perks of the development park. Tolian, which specializes in a special line of construction vehicles and machinery, has been the dominant player in bridge building in China, especially as the country enjoys a massive infrastructure construction boom.

Hi-tech parks like this are springing up all over China as the country gears itself toward domestic innovation. The country wants to rely less on foreign nations, which are already hesitant or unwilling to share their tech with China, and produce advanced products on their own to boost China’s image and credibility in the international community. Knocking off foreign products, China finally seems to be realizing, make not a world power with cultural and soft power influence.

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Luanzhou: Manufacturing Culture

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

Like Tangshan, Luanzhou relies on its resource-guzzling heavy industries as its main economic driving force. Now, the city is trying to add a second pillar to support the local economy: cultural tourism.

Luanzhou’s efforts fall under the central government’s broader umbrella of streamlining cultural production in China. The Chinese government also wants “to improve Chinese citizens’ sense of identity and confidence in Chinese culture”, according to China’s CCTV.

The city is making the most of these efforts, combining it’s industrial advantages with its fledgling tourist industry.

The centerpiece of Luanzhou’s tourist-boosting plan is a new ancient city park, a 133.3-hectare residential and commercial zone straddling the border of the modern city. Constructed in traditional, local architectural fashion, the city’s streets are lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and small shops. For a hefty fee, small courtyard flats can be rented or purchased, completing the feel of living in ancient times.

Costs and the necessity for better infrastructure (the roads were a little bumpy and unable to handle heavy traffic), the most obvious obstacle to Luanzhou’s ambition of becoming a tourist hotspot is its location. Stuck between Beijing and Qinhuangdao, Luanzhou can never hope to compete with the cultural and historic landmarks of the Chinese capital or the pristine beaches and relaxing atmosphere of the northern port city. For the time being, Luanzhou will focus on attracting urbanites in need of a relaxing break from city life.

Our group was given the special treatment while touring Luanzhou. At the ancient city park, a special evening show was performed, with fire dancers and people in costumes jumping about. Afterward, we were encouraged to take part in one of Luanzhou’s traditional dances (which was apparently video taped and shown on local TV stations).

We were also shuttled outside of the city proper to Wanfeng Tower, a hilltop pagoda built in the 900s but partially destroyed in the earthquake of 1976. It was recently renovated to promote tourism.

As our guides and the other Party officials went on and on about tourism in Luanzhou, my interest turned to a large industrial facility at the base of the hill the pagoda was on. It was grossly out of place; a scar of modernity on an otherwise traditional and ancient landscape. It was also barely visible through the thin layer of smog hanging over the area, no doubt produced by the facility itself.

My interpreter saw what I was looking at. He laughed. “This is what they were talking about before when they said ‘mixing industry and culture,'” he said. I laughed too.

The facility, it turns out, was the largest iron mine in Asia. I think it’s safe to say the mine wouldn’t be closing anytime soon just to beautify the area as part of Luanzhou’s tourist revitalization plan.

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Caofeidian: Emerald City by the Sea

This is the second post in a series about a recent business trip to Hebei province

China, now in the midst of an epic national construction boom, is building many things. It’s building forests of apartment towers. It’s building malls (many of which remain empty of shops and shoppers). It’s building an extensive system of highways and high-speed railways. It’s also building entire cities.

South of Tangshan, on the coast of the Bohai Sea, one of those cities is taking shape — or, more accurately, rising from the sea.

Caofeidian is the Hebei provincial government’s wundercity. Construction started in 2003 with a massive land reclamation project that extended the boundary of the coastline about 10 km into the sea. The city will be a marvel in green technology and a demonstration zone for China’s recycling economy — or so government officials told me.

Before we got to see the actual city and harbor area, they showed our group — two other foreign experts and a few Chinese staffers from the magazine — a few models of Caofeidian. The city is going to be a jewel of Hebei’s Bohai Sea economic circle, a new port to ship out all the great things northeast China manufactures — heavy duty construction vehicles, advanced medical equipment and an assortment of low-tech consumer goods to name a few — to northeast Asia and the rest of the world.

For the time being, Caofeidian mostly exists as a scale model with a Christmas-color array of red and green lights and small plastic buildings.

The city is still being built. Today it’s a ghost town of highrises and abandoned streets with the ubiquitous cranes on every corner. When it’s completed, the city will be home to about 1 million people, 400,000 of which will be workers in the city’s port and surrounding industrial facilities.

Some of those facilities are already pumping out products. The steel mills are particularly busy. Shougang Jingtang Iron and Steel officially opened its plant in Caofeidian in 2009 after moving its homebase out of Beijing municipality. Shougang is one of many heavy industries being relocated to coastal areas for financial and environmental reasons.

Beijing and Tianjin, in an attempt to clean up the ever-present clouds of smog hanging over their cities, have ordered a number of heavy industries out of their municipalities. Shougang was one of those companies asked to leave.

When I talked with one of the company’s managers, he bragged about the steel plant’s efficiency. More than half of the plant’s energy was generated internally, from the steel making process. He also said Shougang’s new facility produced zero — that’s the numeral 0 — carbon emissions. Outside the facility, smokestacks belched large plumes of grey into the sky, but apparently these contributions to the atmosphere didn’t contain any CO2, just other pollutants that added to the seaside mist hovering over the city.

On paper, Caofeidian has the potential to be an eco-city — a true milestone in China’s “go green” efforts — like no other in the world. It also has the potential to sink into the sea. While a leader in manufacturing solar panels that would be applied in the city, many of China’s other green techs are still in their infancy. Application on a city-wide scale would be met with bugs and breakdowns.

More importantly, China’s green movement has taken a back seat to the country’s economic growth, which relies on outdated technologies and heavily polluting industrial practices. Despite the government rhetoric of embracing eco-friendly means of production, these means are currently incapable of driving the economy. Until the country develops and applies newer, cleaner and greener methods of production, Caofeidian and other emerald cities in the Bohai economic rim will exist only in fiction, or as scale models with flashing lights.

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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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