From Hohhot, I take a short train journey to Baotou, a city whose name I can never hope to pronounce to the satisfaction of anyone. The carriage is filled with canned laughter as most people gaze at their mobile phones watching comedy series. There is an incessant parade of train company employees selling materials, which seem to reflect the needs of the passengers around me. These ranged from the questionably practical: energy bank devices for recharging phone batteries exhausted from WeChat and games; to the ridiculous: plastic rollers as finger massagers for digits similarly exhausted.
On the way to Baotou, renowned in China for the steel industry, was an enormous bank of solar panels. Fields upon fields, pointed towards the hazy sky.
The countryside peters out and heavy industry sets in. Then the skyscrapers and KTV joints of the city centre follow. Six lanes of traffic make crossing the road physically difficult to accomplish in the time frame allotted by the green man.
The purpose of visiting the city was to really comprehend the big beating heart of China’s industry, and the accompanying issues of wastewater, air and soil pollution. My guide for the day was Liu* who was contacted by a friend when he heard about my bizarre request to do a tour of heavy industry in Baotou. She was up for the challenge, rented a car and taught me how to pronounce left and right (zuǒ/yòu) correctly so I could help with the navigation.
According to her, around 60% of the city is employed by Baotou Steel Group (Baogang). Our first mission to go to the west of the city, to a huge tailings dam visible from Google Earth. I’d read about this in a number of places- and I was quite curious to see it for myself after the experience at Boroo.
In our naiveté, and spirit of adventure, we neglected to really take into consideration exactly how pleased the owners of the lake would be to see us. The owners are the state. When we were on our way there and merrily taking pictures we got stopped by rather an angry security guard who snatched away my camera and got somewhat irate. We were summoned to go to the “big office” and explain to the “big boss” what I was doing. Since to this particular gentleman a camera must mean you are a journalist, and the company were not keen on any more press.
When we got to the main site, we were led into a room and given some hot water. It did briefly cross my mind that this could be the last sip as a free woman, and perhaps the next stop for Liu and I might be a Chinese jail. Which would be rather an irritatingly premature curtailment of the trip. In any case, the subsequent interview began with a reassurance that this was merely a procedure. Root canal and appendectomies are also procedures I thought.
There then began rather an interesting and curious dialogue between me and several assembled managers where I had to explain who I was and what I was interested in. They didn’t bargain for a lecture about microbiology. I handed over my camera. They scrolled through the digital photos, pausing to laugh at one particular frame of me messing around on the train before deleting the pictures of the site. The whole entire time they had someone taking notes – will make for an interesting report, the algae-loving interloper they caught that day.
We parted on rather better terms than I arrived. The security guard lit another cigarette and said cheerily “Welcome to Baotou!”
What we did talk about afterwards is the role of the image, and the nature of secrecy when it comes to the environment. Bad press could mean the government decide to close the factory, and people lose their jobs. The photos that do emerge from there end up being hastily taken – they were quick to list with delight the other trespassing reporters they had caught – and perhaps without context. A photograph of a pipe sending tailings to a pond will probably look like a grey silty slurry. That is exactly how it looked at Boroo, but with the patient explanation of the environmental engineers on site there, you begin to understand what it is. What they told me was that harm often lies in seemingly benign places, for example the azure pools at the base of the mine where heavy metals collect. The sinister stuff is what is invisible, exactly what seeps from leaky pond liners. Sooner or later the tangible effects emerge: failed crops, health problems and dying livestock.
There’s quite a few people who have an agenda for the rare earth processing industry, of which Baotou also specialises in. The environmental reporting allows Daily Mail readers to oppose wind farms with impunity. The same people don’t have phones or computers I presume, and their hard drives are made of wood. Talk about confusing narratives. If the rare earths weren’t going into turbines, would this particular paper opine the degradation of farm land in Inner Mongolia? I doubt it.
By closeting activities, you give the impression there is something to hide. In the case of Baotou, the information sadly suggests that there is much awry because of poor planning of waste management and a lack of investment into cleaner extraction methods. As far as Baogang is concerned, there’s a lot to protect I understand, a lot of livelihoods. Pitching the environment against employment leads to an emotive discussion which can go nowhere useful. The psychology of how you induce industry to behave better – first clean up, then prevent problems is intriguing. It seems to some companies, environmental protection is a world where there are no carrots, only sticks.
Ultimately this is a journey that could go back to the screen gazers on the train, or at least to the brands behind the devices. For example, Apple claim to have sold 500 million iPhones up until June 2014. Have a look at the teardown of costs – I think somewhere in that big hefty chunk that is left for Apple there should be at least a dollar spare to resource sustainable extraction methods.
We meet a friend of Liu’s for lunch who tells us he used to go swimming in the dam when he was young. He says we were idiots to go there now, and what did we expect?