Boom Times: Life in China’s Coal Country

Recipient of the 2007 Susan Meiselas Award for Excellence in Photojournalism

China’s economic boom is powered by coal. In 2007, two colleagues, Wu Nan and Duane Moles, and I went to Shanxi, source of most of China’s coal, to see what life was like in the engine of China’s economy. We found pollution, corruption, and desperation. Coal dust flew out of the open beds of giant trucks and formed small dunes on the sides of the roads, where people scooped it up into wheelbarrows. While the town of Xiaoyi had ballooned into a city, the countryside was largely neglected, save for the coal that might be found under the surface. One farmer, whose fields had been ruined by mining, criticized the capitalist mine owners who lived well in the cities. He counted his late teens—the Cultural Revolution—as the happiest time of his life.

The foundations of the village of Hao Jiazhai were literally being undermined by the illegal tunnels beneath. There we met Hao Hualin, 25, who went on CCTV in an attempt to publicize the compensation withheld from his village. His reward: hired thugs smashed the windows of his house, and beat him and his mother. (Watch his story at Frontline/World.) Meanwhile, Piandian, a slightly larger village on a nearby ridge, paid tribute to the god of coal by staging a traditional opera with a traveling troupe.

Everyone we spoke with expected the coal to run out.