These Chinese cities depend on dwindling resources. Can they survive?

Their growth was fueled by mining, logging, and other resource-dependent industries. Now that fuel is running out.

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Cranes tower above a construction site near Datong’s walled city, a historic site and tourist attraction in northern Shanxi province. In recent years, Datong has been trying to develop a tourism industry as an alternative to coal mining.

What West Virginia is to the United States, Shanxi Province is to China. Much of the coal that has powered the Asian nation’s industrial revolution was dug from Shanxi’s myriad mines.

But dependence on a single, non-renewable resource is risky business, so the province is actively exploring alternative enterprises, such as big data and tourism. In 2012, the Datong Coal Mine Group turned some of its depleted pits into museums, inviting visitors to don mining helmets and boots and explore the dystopian landscape.

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The province has also begun deliberately dialing down its coal production, shuttering 88 of its 1,078 coal mines since 2016. Thousands of miners have lost their jobs in the process, but officials say the painful transition is necessary to avoid even more dire consequences down the road. (Read about the hidden cost of coal.)

When cities dependent on local minerals, forests, and other natural endowments start exhausting these resources, the results can range from a “sluggish economy and mass outmigration to secondary effects, including social instability,” says Peng Jiang, a bureau chief at the China Center for Urban Development, a think tank under the National Development and Reform Commission. “The top priority [for these cities] has to be diversifying their industries,” Jiang says.

His words echo an earlier call to action sounded by China’s State Council, which in 2013 issued a seven-year plan to help 262 cities identified as resource dependent become less vulnerable to shortages and possible economic collapse. The document groups the cities into four classifications: growing, mature, declining, and reborn.

The city of Fuxin, in Liaoning province, is an example of a “declining” city whose slow death began years ago. In 2001 the State Council announced that Fuxin was “resource exhausted” due to depletion of local coal mines and instructed the city’s leaders to implement a pilot economic reform program. Nearly two decades later, however, the city is still struggling to find a sustainable source of growth. The local GDP plunged almost every year between 2013 and 2017, even as China’s national GDP maintained a growth rate of at least six percent. (See the youth left behind in China's shrinking cities.)

In other resource-dependent cities, however, efforts at economic transition are starting to show positive results. In Jiangxi province, for instance, the city of Jingdezhen, famed for its high-quality clay, has been a center of porcelain production for centuries, serving both China’s imperial courts and, more recently, American and European markets. But after hundreds of years of exploitation, only about one million tons of clay remain—two percent of the area’s historic reserves. Despite the shortage, Jingdezhen has capitalized on its history to rejuvenate its art and education industries. Porcelain studios and workshops have proliferated in recent years, attracting talented artisans.

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The light still shines from a Catholic church in a village in the Xiahuayuan district, where years of coal mining have caused the land to sink, forcing all the residents to relocate.

In 2017, Beijing-based photographer Li Junhui set out to document the pains and gains being experienced in Fuxin, Jingdezhen, and six other resource-dependent cities. Each is facing unique challenges, he says, but all have this in common: Their residents’ lives are intimately bound to their city’s ebb and flow, “like boats rocking against the waves.”

Li Junhui is an award-winning photographer originally from China’s Shandong province and based in Beijing. See more of his work on his website or follow him on Instagram. Muyi Xiao is Visuals Editor at ChinaFile, an online magazine published by the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society.