Jia Zhangke’s Lüliang: Illegal Mining and Accident Coverups as a Way of Life

Just as 2014 was coming to an end, film director Jia Zhangke’s Shanxi home “city” of Lüliang 吕梁 was again in the headlines for massive violation of mine safety standards and operating countless small collieries without proper licensing or inspection. (New York Times, Dec. 28. 2014). The scale of the arrests and investigations seems to be unprecedented, but the publicity and fines and even imprisonments are nothing new. Nor will the “clean sweep” end the inspection misdemeanors and the litany of explosions and floods that has dogged the private, small-scale mines of the sub-region since the 1980s.

Not surprisingly, given Jia’s commitment to merging film and rapportage – or seeming rapportage, his first major film, “Platform” (2004) opens with a kind of mini-take on a coal mine disaster story presumably unfolding just as the film was being scripted.

Characteristically, the place and scale of the disaster, even how it occurred, are left murky at best. All that is clear is that there has been some kind of tunnel collapse and that a number (how many is not stated) of villagers working in the pit have been killed: the seemingly farcical county (xian) song-and-dance troupe’s performance of a skit enacting the excitement of elder peasants on a train to visit Mao’s home town of Shaoshan is in fact part of a “consolation” theatrical (weiwen yanchu) of the sort that troupes of its ilk were originally constituted to perform. That the audience of fellow-villagers seems more interested in gossip than ceremony or even grief suggests that they have seen far too many of these ceremonies to be deeply shaken.

Or is it just cynicism? Just barely within the lens covering the “choo-choo” dance one espies a(nother) thumbprint of early Deng Xiaoping era de-collectivization/privatisation hoopla cross-commenting on the village or township mine accident: a giant “plan” (guihuatu) of the “new” village that the mine’s prosperity (and tax yield) will pay for in some form or another. From the naked prominence of that ambitious blueprint for the future, one is probably to assume that the mine will continue to operate.

So the veneer of cheerfulness and even rowdiness – reinforced by the absurdity of the performance itself (featuring teenagers as grandmoms and granddads all keyed up about a visit to the dead Chairman’s hill-country home) – becomes a kind of defense against any degree of political optimism.

Captive Overscale: The Strange Anatomy of China’s Wannabe #1 Power Producer, Datang Power

Power stations: How grotesque they can be. The largest structures on earth though they are not the tallest.
They are something for Ayn Rand: Promethean both by psychology and by necessity. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and “China Syndrome”. Or something from a Piranesi nightmare. Peopled by liveried, anonymous workers in construction crew safety helmets, like soldiers visible in the early morning hours, doing their morning exercises. Not allowed to communicate with non-employees. In China, a surviving echo of Maoist Uniformity or silent Collectivity, only now in red, not blue. Though most are still fueled by coal, the ones we remember best are the nuclear stations that have run amok: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and of course Fukushima, creatures of modernity so large that they literally “carry” whole cities or even national regions on their backs.

Mao Dun (Shen Bingyan) says it all when he summarizes the alien self-advertised symbols of “the city” (Shanghai): “Light: Heat! Power!” 向西望,叫人猛一惊的,是高高地装在一所洋房顶上而且异常庞大的霓虹电管广告,射出火一样的赤光和青燐似的绿焰:Light,Heat,Power!Note that they are not rendered in Chinese, for China was not then yet a growth-machine whose national stature was/could be measured by annual gains in the supply of electricity and town gas.

But these creatures are also ominous in their non-nuclear variant, particularly in the “developing” world where they defy health and pollution restraints with the blessing of the growth-obsessed Authorities. And not just by the toxins that spew from their signature smokestacks, but in what they do to the local geology as moonscapes are carved out of the surrounding prairies to keep them fed with cheap coal, draining the water table and driving back the barriers that keep desert and drought at bay. (Strangely, “carbon” emissions are always a going topic, nothing concealed, but that perhaps is because they are invisible, truly global, and nearly impossible to reduce).

The Corporatist Priority in Planning for Power – and Its post-2011 challenge

Until the very end of the previous decade, the retail urban end-consumer did not figure in the calculus of “public” satisfaction with either availability or cost of everyday electric power and centrally supplied heat. Even as updates rolled out on production and over-all consumption, while most provinces, in a doggedly Mao-ist-populist mode, continued to post figures indicating the amount of power supplied/used by the “rural” (village) sector, no data column was inserted for specifically URBAN household use, not to mention average price. (There is SOME excuse for this: “retail” consumption was and is funneled through a government end-distributor, attached to each major “condominium”). Even though rolling power outages and brownouts reached infuriating levels in 2006, a “third party” (NGO) interest did not develop to challenge the government’s mismanagement. Characteristically, there WAS a snap-of-the-fingers “solution”, which keyed to the loosening of regulations on “backyard”, cottage industry power plants, these days dismissed from the CEC stats if they have .006 MW or less of capacity (at last count, not a few provinces had as many as 300 of them). Which may have ameliorated the crisis quickly, but, like Lenin’s NEP, left a legacy of sloppy and low-efficiency collectives on the ground, which the central machine is still patiently dismantling.

It was (likewise) this corporatist orientation, favoring industrial users and esp. heavy industry, that gave rise to the “[Inner] Mongolian Syndrome”: building oversized coal fired plants at mineside to take advantage of the stripmining boom that was encouraged by the invasion of US megaminers, notably Peabody Energy (see “Magamines” post, above….). The result was an unsustainable “big dig” in that unhappy, still largely pastoral “province” (qua frontier): something close to 41 coal-fired plants went online with 1980s era technology (c/e <=33%, or about 370 kg sce/kwH) with (2008) 267 “suppliers” before rein-in began, and 41 coal-fired plants of average 1,240 MW size, very much under the 2,000-5,000 MW scale necessary for SC and USC power generation. In so anarchic a situation, while nominal coal extraction boomed to 1 billion MT/yr in 2011, low quality doomed this treasure to be frittered away in off-grid local power matrices, highlighted by the very odd low voltage “wire” strung between Togtoh and the Capital that was meant (but will not…?) to supply 1/3 of Beijing’s woefully inadequate base load, no doubt at prices that make the sale(s) unprofitable. (An even odder off-grid arrangement, for example, connects Bayanhur? sp) in central “E Inner Mongolia” with the now underpowered “old core” of Liaoning, the rather fancy footwork having been executed by one of probably many goldbrickers at last forced to flee or abandon what’s left of the once fabulously productive Fushun mining pockets, also open pit but now too deep to scavenge). And the oddest of all: Datang and its sister power holding companies aren’t doing much investing either in upgraded mining or in more efficient (meaning higher-tech) plant. So we are confronting not just a corporatist model of priorities, but one that battens on the lower political status of the only semi-Sinitic mixed Mongol/Manchu and Korean population that dominates the eastern 2/3 or so of the “self-government” AR, or Mengdong. (In an even uglier variant of the same profile, the central and “western” extension of that same “province” has become a free-wandering zone for all of the CTL and CTG gasification technologies, most wrenchingly for SNG, which has proved such a boondoggle that even Datang, its earliest and grandest promoter, has been making every effort to sell out its SNG stake….).

Fig. 1 The Control Station of the Toktogh Megaplant, China’s Largest (4,800 MW) and soon to be larger still..
1155736254390906780Toktog Coltrol Cdenetr and plant 1

Fig. 2 The 8 Togtogh Turbine Plants, end-day View (outskirts of Hehhot/Ordos Municipality, Inner Mongolia
1291125718188731615Toktog Megalith

Fig. 3 Satellite Image of the Turbine Array, Nearly 1 km long….
Togtoh Station saltellitye

The 1947 Suicide of Xiao dangui Part 2 : Sisterly Solidarity facing the KMT Mobster’s Gun

Stage or film stars have perhaps always been closely associated with suicide, just as with alcoholism and narcotics. It would be nice to imagine that the fans who who mourned them or read their death notices (with mountains of PR fotos) in the tabloids were stirred mainly by admiration or regret for the passing of a major talent. There was always that side, of course, but public jealousy and sadism were what sold the most newspapers, as did also the tangled web of courtroom testimony and never quite complete police post mortems. There was always the urge to suspect something BIG was being swept under the rug by those with money and political connections. Jim Garrisons were always on the prowl in such cases as much as with gangster murders.

But sometimes the unexplained surprise of a seemingly happy and famous stage-or film star brutally killing herself indeed raises issues of broader social concern, no matter the inevitable poverty of evidence.
Many issues relating to the upbringing of a poor girl (housemaid) in a older male kinsman’s very wealthy home and (therewith exposure to attempted or actual seduction, prompted criticism of the institution of adoption (“fostering”), which seems to have been the startpoint for Lingyu’s emotional confusion and (later on) inability to extricate herself from the dangers of the love triangle. The strain seems to be what killed her, or rather, caused her to kill herself with a bottle of sleeping pills, leaving behind the famous 4-character line: “gossip is fearful thing!”. (人言可畏).

The operatic self-immolation in Shanghai of the famous silent-film star Ruan Lingyu (1910-1945), was one such case, but it shrivels in proportion to the socio-echoing of another (today much lesser known) suicide by a superstar Shaoxing opera (Yueju) female-role-player (huadan) named Xiao Dangui (1920-1937), who swallowed a fatal dose of lysol in her upscale French Concession apartment on Oct. 13, 1947, just when her ambitions for a renovated Shaoxing opera were being fulfilled. But the “just when” is no paradox: from the still partially embargoed court-trial archival evidence, it seems likely that her death was not only “instigated” by mental cruelty and threat, but prompted by underworld threat then botched attempt at disfiguring and/or blinding her. And behind that, some think, was the KMT “Society” Dept. (social morals inspectorate) whose function was to keep ad hoc social movements from gaining to much popularity – which of course placed the opera stage square in their oversight.

Take the Money (RMB) and Run…. Deng’s Feckless Entrepreneurs

investor flight edited

The Ugly Side of the Deng era Sino-Capitalists: or Mo Yan’s Dalan “Birds”

Perhaps the most vivid image overlay in Mo Yan’s Big Breasts (and Liquorland) is the fly-by-night pair of tourism-geared local “development” projects that rise the burst like bubbles as the Dalan story comes to its end.

Of the two, the more allegorically provocative is the Eastern Bird Sanctuary (Park), by definition a temporary roosting spot of migrating birds who will soon move on, to return only in rota or not at all.

(Chinese Text 5051
东方鸟类中心 Eastern Bird Sanctuary
大型游乐场。around the Daoist pagoda Grand Scale Theme/Amusement Park by appropriation, the original pagoda as a “landmark”

It is the denouement with its very realistic but depressing revelations that
places the misadventure in its proper context: the hyper-velocity both of private (Chinese+Overseas Chinese) investment retrieval and of the pipelining “capitalists” themselves, who are as Houdini-like as the Mo Yan capo banditi (Sima Ku, Yu Zhan’ao), masters of “take the money and run”, only here more flagrantly: they emigrate or reemigrate. Or more still: green cards for the children to study in the US, stashed bonds and stocks bought with Chinese onshore j/v enterprise profits, ferreted in foreign accounts, even the odd getaway or golfcourse investment in the Offshore: fun and of course real estate bubble profits.

Perhaps constrained by internal pressures, Mo Yan never labels his bogus investors as “foreign” or “on-the-hoof” Chinese, though their attachment to (and superabundant access to Philippine cigars, French perfumes, Italian and Cardin suits/ties, and of course German “limos” (a Hong Kong obsession) tells us unmistakably that they are rooted offshore in every regard.