The streets of Dalianhe, in China’s frigid northeast province of Heilongjiang, are lined with black snow. The town is home to one of China’s largest open-pit coal mines. Workers drive through its front gate into a massive gorge with cliffs the color of ink — a canyon of coal. Thousands of feet below, it’s silent but for the drip of melting snow.
It wasn’t always this way. Thousands used to work inside this mine on the northern fringe of China’s rust belt. It was established in 1960 at the height of Mao’s China, when the Communist Party considered this region a worker’s paradise. Coal mines and steel mills here employed millions.
Now it’s littered with deserted fossils of a bygone era. The 21st century’s Communist leaders are transforming China’s economy into a paradise for consumers, and have ordered inefficient, state-run mines like this one to close.
A dozen workers from the mine fill a tiny room decorated only with a portrait of Chairman Mao. They’re big, brawny men, and working in their hometown mine is the only job they’ve ever known.
All are employees of Longhua Harbin Coal Company, a subsidiary of China National Coal Group, the third-largest coal mining company in the world. Longhua has told the mine’s 4,000 workers they’ll all be out of a job by year’s end. The mine will be shut, wiping out the town’s main source of revenue.
Worker Wang Fuxiang says soon they’ll become the poorest residents of an already-poor region. “President Xi [Jinping] says nobody should be left behind on the road to China’s prosperity, but now we won’t even be able to feed ourselves,” says Wang. “If they paid us our pensions and health insurance, we’d at least be able to survive.”
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