The oldest existing civilization and the most populous country in the world – this is what often first comes to mind when one thinks of China. The Middle Kingdom is also an industrial giant whose economy requires a considerable amount of energy, which is largely produced using coal. How did the Chinese mining industry develop over the centuries?
The Middle Kingdom owes its existence to, among others, the ability to effectively acquire and use raw materials to produce tangible goods, which is necessary for the development of any civilization. Mining supplies minerals, i.e. non-renewable natural resources. In ancient China, mined resources primarily included clays used to make bricks, metal ores for the production of famous Chinese bronzes and iron, and precious and semi-precious stones. The first mentions of coal mining in historical sources date back as far as 6,000 years ago (Shan Hai Jing – description of mythical geography, mountains and seas of the four corners of the world), which is over 1,000 years before the conventionally accepted beginning of the Chinese civilization. However, at the time, coal was mainly a "jeweller's" resource used to make ornaments. It was not used as fuel until around 300 BC.
Mechanisation of mining
One of the reasons why large-scale hard coal mining began in China was the development of transportation – a sailing system which used steam ships and the construction of railways. Moreover, after the end of World War II and a civil war won by the communists, the intensive process of industrialization of the Middle Kingdom began. Coal was needed as a fuel for industry and power generation and for the production of coke for the smelting industry. At the same time, communist China was subject to a specific embargo and had problems obtaining other fuels via importing, while the needs grew rapidly.
Until the 1980s, the process of extraction in Chinese mines was based on traditional methods, characterised by a low level of mechanisation. Nevertheless, any form of exploitation of deposits requires the employment of suitably qualified staff. This was a considerable hindrance for further development of mining due to very poor working conditions and safety. It was necessary to increase the efficiency of work, and mechanization of mining operations was the way to do this. However, due to the fact that the mining machinery industry was underdeveloped at the time, other countries, including Poland, were turned to for deliveries. Polish manufacturing plants were sending all kinds of mining machinery and equipment to China, and even designed and equipped complete industrial facilities (coal preparation plants). In exchange, the Poles received food, textiles and certain raw materials. Later, manufacturing of mining machines developed in Poland was undertaken by Chinese factories, build from the ground up for this purpose. Sometimes even Polish names were retained – as recently as 2002, the catalogue of present-day BMJ listed the FAZOS 15/31 powered support. It is hardly surprising, as at the time Polish mining machines were a kind of benchmark for good and proven technical standards. The distance, the need for development of the Chinese mining machinery industry, the expansion of coal mines and the need to create new jobs meant that our exports have remained stable for many years.
China's opening to the world was not without its impact on the country's mining machinery industry, which became very dynamic at the time. After all, the buyers were readily available. It also became possible to utilise the most advanced technical solutions from all over the world. At the beginning of the 1990s, annual production of the Chinese coal mining industry had already exceeded 1 billion tonnes (from underground and open-pit mines). In the following years, however, this indicator unexpectedly decreased, which was caused, among others, by the fact that there were few people with appropriate professional qualifications willing to work in newly-built mines, which were often located in remote and poorly developed regions of the country. Those who had already worked in existing mines were not prepared to leave their homeland and set off into the unknown. As a result, establishing cities and settlements in the newly discovered coalfields, with all the amenities needed for living, became almost a necessity, and the employees underwent intensive training to work in the newly-built mining plants. It was also decided to modernise and expand the existing mines, where there was no shortage of qualified miners.
A ghost city and a future full of coal
Huge deposits of high quality hard coal were discovered in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, and, literally over the last dozen or so years, a great city – Ordos – was established there, almost out of nothing. The city was designed with one and a half million inhabitants in mind, but today, only 300,000 people live there, and the great residential skyscraper complexes stand empty, as do huge office buildings. For this reason, the location is frequently termed a "ghost city". The Shenhua Shendong Group's highly advanced underground hard coal mines are located several dozen kilometres away from the city centre. Technically and organisationally, these plants represent the highest, world-class level. The Balianta Mine, which belongs to the Shenhua Shendong Group, is located near the city of Daliuta in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in China. It produces 28 million tonnes of hard coal per year and employs 1.5 thousand people. Mining is carried out via 3 longwalls. One of them is 7 metres high and produces an average of 40 thousand tonnes of high quality power coal per day.
At the beginning of the 21st century, there were as many as 23 thousand coal mines in China; however, only fewer than 200 were modern, approx. 400 belonged to the so-called "middle class", with technical level reminiscent of Polish mining plants of 30 years ago, and the rest was comprised of small and unsafe facilities. At the time, mines employed over 4 million miners. Small and primitive mines were administered by local communities, with unskilled workers working in them without proper equipment. This resulted in multiple accidents, including fatal – according to official statistics, extraction of 1 billion tonnes of coal cost at least 5 thousand miners their lives.
In order to prevent such situations in the future, Beijing decided to close the least safe mining sites, and war was declared against illegal mines. Today, there are just over 10 thousand active mines, which produced 3.5 billion tonnes of coal in 2015 alone. Both safety and efficiency were improved. Over the last two decades, Chinese coal mining has made a huge leap forward, not only in terms of quantity. Nowadays, it is in China where one can learn how to run a modern mining plant – recently, Famur representatives had the opportunity to take a look at an 8.5-metre-high longwall (!) equipped exclusively with Chinese machines. For the Chinese, hard coal (and, to a lesser extent, lignite) is the basis of energy security – China's own oil and gas resources are scarce, while the already discovered hard coal resources will last for at least a century.