China Focus: Rust belt residents rebuild lives away from sinking ground
by Xinhua writers Shan Ruchao, Qiang Yong
HARBIN, July 2 (Xinhua) -- In the northern outskirts of Jixi City in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, retired coal miner Li Huancai bid a final farewell to his old home, a brick cottage with cracks all over the walls.
This year was one of the most memorable in the 68-year-old's life. He moved into a new residential building for the first time in his life, along with another 400,000 residents whose lives were endangered by over-exploitation in the coal-producing city in China's rust belt.
Dozens of suburban areas surrounding downtown Jixi are battling sinking ground -- or subsidence -- due to decades of mining activity.
As one of four pillar cities of the coal industry in Heilongjiang, Jixi has one-third of the province's coal reserves. Back when it was prosperous, the coal industry contributed 80 percent of the city's industrial output. Subsidence affects 353 square kilometers of Jixi.
Continued sinking caused only the window and top of Li's cottage to be visible from afar. "When it rained heavily, the water level in my home could reach half a meter," said Li.
The home also lacked sanitary facilities.
Ji Xiuqin, Li's wife, said the hardest season was winter. "The cracks in the wall were so wide that the heating didn't work and my home was freezing like an ice cellar," said Ji, adding that they had to put on jackets to ward off the cold.
Local government started several rounds of relocation for the area in 2002, but 140,000 households, including over 400,000 residents, were still living there by the end of 2014. Under the financial support of the central government, a new round of relocation began in 2015, aiming to move all the remaining households out of the high-risk area by the end of this year.
According to the government, property owners will be compensated with one apartment for each old house torn down. Favorable renting policies and shared ownership have also been rolled out to help low-income families. Li's family moved into the new apartment at almost no expense.
Meanwhile, e-commerce training courses and public service jobs have also been provided for unemployed residents who lost their jobs during the decline of the coal industry.
Born in Jixi, Li joined the ranks of coal miners almost 50 years ago when the industry was thriving. He recalled that in the 1960s and 1970s, being a coal miner meant a decent salary and enough money to support a big family. But coal miners gradually became a low-income group as the industry went downhill.
"Now the pension for me and my wife add up to only 4,000 yuan (about 618 U.S. dollars) every month. It barely covers our daily expenses and medical spending," said Li.
As a traditional industrial base, the three provinces in northeast China, namely Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, led the country's industrial development in the first several decades after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Most of the cottages in the subsidence area were built 50 to 60 years ago.
Jixi and another three coal-rich cities in Heilongjiang have stepped up efforts to cut overcapacity and optimize the economic structure. With the rise of the graphite, green food and bio-pharmaceutical sectors, the proportion of the coal industry in Jixi's industrial output has been slashed from 80 percent to less than 50 percent.