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So long, Shougang

  • Source: Global Times
  • [09:21 January 14 2011]
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Workers pose in front of mill machinery for a group photo Thursday. Photos: CFP

By Li Shuang

Thursday marked the last day of the 91-year-old Shougang steel mill in western Beijing, which until then served as the last active testimony to the capital's industrial past.

Founded in 1919 and located 17 km west of Tiananmen, Shougang was once the largest mill in the country, hitting a record annual output of 10 million tons and employing more than 200,000 workers.

However the closing ceremony, held Thursday morning at Shougang, was a bittersweet end to a mixed legacy. As the nearly decade-long phase out of production is a victory for the environment, the shutdown resulted in layoffs of tens of thousands of steel workers.

Forged history

Shougang was liberated from the Kuomintang in December 1948 after being stripped by the Japanese and left in neglect.

In January 1949, the mill's fires lit up once again. "Steel was as important as food for newborn China," reads the special edition of the Shougang Daily published to commemorate the last day of the mill.

During the 1990s, Shougang was the engine of the capital's economy and almost everyone living in the surrounding Shijingshan district was working for this heroic industrial giant.

Guan Xiaomeng, a 27-year-old Shijingshan native and daughter of a Shougang employee, remembers those years. "Everything was provided by Shougang. Children go to schools owned by Shougang. When you get sick you go to hospitals operated by Shougang."

Most of her childhood memories involve going to the mill's cafeteria to buy "Shougang brand" ice cream, pastries and other snacks.

Guan's aunt, 52-year-old Li Shuhe, worked for over 30 years as a Shougang office clerk. "The mill had everything we needed from shopping to entertainment," she recalls, "we wouldn't leave for months at a time."

However, this golden agedid not last. The cafeteria, hospitals and schools were all closed by the time Guan entered middle school. Later her father and aunt retired and Shougang faded from her life.

Although the mill has been slowly closing for the past nine years, Thursday was a sentimental day for Guan,  "I miss the beautiful park-like grounds I used to play in when I was a little girl."

Price of pollution

Two years after the Shougang Group went public in Shenzhen in 1999, Beijing won the right to host the 29th Olympic Games. Concerns over air quality and water usage replaced steel output in news headlines regarding Shougang. 

Shougang was using 50 million cubic meters of water every year, equivalent to 25 times of that in Kunming Lake, Summer Palace, and spewing out 18,000 tons of particulate matter (pm10) per year into the air, said Chai Fahe, researcher with the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.

In 2004, Shijingshan was reported to only have half as many "blue-sky days" as other districts in Beijing, according to data from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center.

"In order to meet the air quality standard for the Olympics and for Beijing's future development, Shougang must move," said Chai.

After approval from the National Development and Reform Commission in 2005, Shougang initiated its relocation program, the largest industrial relocation in China since the 1960s.

Shougang has built a new 21-square-kilometer facility in Caofeidian, Hebei Province, an islet 220 km east of Beijing in Bohai Bay, to replace the old Shougang mill.

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