Page last updated at 13:07 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 14:07 UK

Part 4: Sixty years of Communism

Part 1: Heading out into the real China Part 2: The mathematics of Chinese labour Part 3: China's mass consumer culture Part 4: Change from 60 years of Communism Part 5: The chill of China's economic crisis Part 7: The multiple realities of China Part 6: In Pictures: A trip through China's crisis

By Paul Mason
Reporting for BBC Newsnight and World News America

Shizuishan looks like Tolkien's Isengard only with much nicer people.

To be added
Four years ago Shizuishan's bad air quality got the city blacklisted

The city was a wool Treaty Port on the Yellow River, when the Brits ruled the roost.

In 1958 Chairman Mao Zedong decided to put China's energy industry out of range of US President Harry Truman's B52s and his eye alighted on Shizuishan.

The skyline of the old city is about 10 miles (16km) of solid cooling towers, petrochemical cracking rigs, flaring, chimneys and blast furnaces.

Then there is the new city - another ten miles of jagged black and flaring red.

Against the gaunt Helan Shan mountains in the distance it is an absolute contrast - industry versus nature. And for 60 years industry was winning, but not anymore.


When we got here there was nothing. Nothing! We just dug a hole in the ground and put canvas over it and slept in there!

Shizuishan residents

The water table is falling, despite the presence of one of the world's great rivers, the Yellow River.

The land between the factories is arid semi-desert. The coal has run out. Alongside the roadways are mile after mile of green saplings planted there to try to stem the soil erosion.

And behind them, rows of dead saplings from the last time this was tried.

Older generation

In the cool shadow of the only old building I could find (a factory and dorm dating from the 1950s) I find two women - both are coal miners' widows and live on their 250 Yuan (£25) monthly pensions.

"When we got here," they tell me, "there was nothing. Nothing! We just dug a hole in the ground and put canvas over it and slept in there!"


Come back at dusk. That's when the factories turn off their pollution control mechanisms.

Shizuishan residents

What did they do for a mattress?

"Just piled the earth up and slept on that," they chuckle.

This is the last of the generation that can remember China before "liberation", before the Communist Party took power in 1949.

"Life is much better," one of the women tells me. "People go on about the perfect socialist society, but as far as I am concerned this is it. We don't get much pension but there's food to eat and a place to live. Before there was nothing: now we eat and drink the Communist party," she told me, adding rather joyfully, "She is 80 and I am 79!"

Their only complaint is the air quality - which is poor.

Human scale

Four years ago the air quality got so bad the city was blacklisted by the Chinese central government and told to shut down the worst polluting plants. It is not just coal and steel, there is a lot of PVC produced here, and two or three battery producing plants.

I go to a workers' district - the low brick and tile buildings and narrow alleyways and unmade roads are, unlike the rest of the old city, on a human scale.

There is a busy street-life and soon they start complaining to me about pollution.

"But it looks clear!" I protest.

"Come back at dusk," they said. "That's when the factories turn off their pollution control mechanisms."

Paul Mason's journey across China will be broadcast in two parts on Newsnight on Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17 June 2009 at 10.30BST on BBC Two, and then available to watch on the Newsnight website.




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