Life as a piece of iron: Mining, metals and Western 'bad guys'

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Asia News Network recently profiled Zheng Xiaoqiong, an acclaimed poet and rural migrant worker whose works strongly feature images of iron. Life, she says, feels just like a piece of iron; working iron machines in Guangdong 'left physical and mental scars on her and her co-workers', and Zheng now utilizes iron's sense of 'shrillness and toughness' in her poetry. A former clinic assistant from Sichuan, Zheng made the trek to Guangdong and after a few months of 'hideous experiences' finally settled in a factory making metal tools. Writing her first poem while recovering from losing a fingernail on the assembly line, Zheng subsequently published volumes depicting the hardships of migrant workers. While being criticized by some for 'coarse language, naïve devices and disorderly arrangement',  Zheng says she draws inspiration from the 'rhythm of her heart' and from a force none other than rock 'n' roll, paying 'close attention to the beats.'

Iron and metals are quintessential images of how China's landscape has been made to dance to the tune of industrialization. In its recent investigative series on China entitled Choking on Growth, the New York Times outlined how China, intending to re-create the West's industrial revolution, has not only become the world's factory but also its smokestack, absorbing
most of the major industries that once made the West dirty. Spurred by strong state support, Chinese companies have become the dominant makers of steel, coke, aluminum, cement, chemicals, leather, paper and other goods that faced high costs, including tougher environmental rules, in other parts of the world.
Yet while the mass shift of industrial production has brought environmental and public health concerns to the fore in China, its factories produce and export many of the goods once made in the West, enabling many wealthy countries to decrease their carbon emissions. Emphasizing the unsustainale nature of conventional models of development in China, Dale Wen at China Dialogue this month drew attention to the way China's desire to attract industries has resulted in highly-polluting Western companies receiving special treatment in China, while the environment is played off against maintaining cost advantage. This situation, she says,
has directly led to the environmental crisis that we now see in China. It also enables developed countries to plunder these late-developers [i.e. China]... (R)esource-intensive, highly-polluting manufacturing industries have been transferred to China by developed countries, China is not just the workshop of the world - it has become its kitchen, sewer and rubbish tip.
The countries of the west, according to Wen, are the real 'bad guys', as are large corporations damaging China's environment in their pursuit for wealth.

And with high demand there's a lot of wealth to be had in China's mining sector. In the words of The Economist,
In recent years, thanks to China's rapid industrialisation and its voracious appetite for metals, mining companies have also produced mammoth profits, boasted gigantic valuations and undergone a series of outsized mergers and acquisitions.
The mining sector has recently been drastically altered, however, with the emergence of a major Chinese player, the state-owned Chinalco, which bought a stake in leading Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto. In the estimation of Reuters, the new Chinese upstart is likely to do business very differently from the established companies, 'increasing supply by rushing through riskier projects to feed China's voracious appetite for raw materials.'  One of these is copper, of which China is the world's largest consumer, using an estimated 4.5 million tonnes of the metal a year, or about a quarter of global production. During China's pre-Olympic building boom, high demand has led to organised gangs in Australia stealing copper cabling worth millions of dollars and selling it to China, resulting in train delays and pilfered power cables and phone lines. A large part of copper in China is used domestically as China develops its power infrastructure, yet a lot of it is also exported in products like power cables and air-conditioners. China's copper imports fell 5% in February, however, and on the back of the slowdown in U.S. export orders, Chinese metal fabricators face a lackluster outlook for the second half of 2008.

As China ultimately faces the prospect of being the world's factory, its smokestack, its kitchen, sewer AND its rubbish tip, it resembles Zheng Xiaoqiong's estimation of life as no more exciting than a piece of iron. And while reciting her lines over some rock 'n' roll beats (always a light in dark times), Zheng might well have come across this song by Chinese rock band Second Hand Rose (二手玫瑰),

They've driven me to be a model worker
They've driven me to be a businessman
They've driven me to be a poet
They've driven be to be a worthless man

Let the farmers be the first to strike it rich
Let my pretty people be the next in line
Let my servants be the first to strike it rich
Let my artists be the next in line

A crowd of pigs take to the sky
A mob of pirates drown on a beach
They've turned my son into cold hard cash
Flowers bloom, then wither on the river bank

(Thanks to
[For continued coverage on the mining sector see the Metal Miner blog]

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