China is stoking its growth surge with a step-up in coal

China, which relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy needs, plans to increase coal production to 2 billion tons a year by the end of this century. "It is a formidable task, and we have many problems to solve," said Wang Zhiyuan in a recent interview. "But because coal will continue to be our main source of energy, we cannot realize the Four Modernizations [of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense] without achieving this goal."

Mr. Wang, director general of the international department of the Coal Ministry, is also director of the China Coal Society and secretary-general of the National Mining Committee, Mr. Wang, an engineer, has visited the United States several times.

Last year China produced 620 million tons of coal, Mr. Wang said.Two-thirds of this was from large mines under national jurisdiction, the rest from thousands of small mines belonging to local authorities.

"china has more than 2,000 countries, and half of them have coal," he said.

The country has one of the world's largest reserves of coal -- 600 billion tons. It also has a rich variety: from lignite (soft brown coal) to coking (hard anthracite) coal. Most large coal deposits are north of the Yangtze River.

How to tap these huge reserves in the most efficient and effective manner is the Himalayan problem that faces China's economic planners. Coal production itself must be modernized and mechanized. New shafts must be sunk, new pits opened. Expensive equipment must be bought from Britain, West Germany, the United States, and other countries.

United Press International reports that in Japan, Yu Qiuli, a Chinese vice-premier, asked April 8 for Japanese cooperation in developing coal resources, official sources in Tokyo said.

Peking has asked Tokyo for a $1 billion low-interest official loan to develop coal deposits in the Gujiao District, in the central China province of Shanxi (Shansi), the sources said. The Chinese, it is reported, also have suggested a joint venture with Japanese private interests to develop coal resources in Inner Mongolia.

[The Ministry of International Trade and Industry is said to be evaluating the Chinese proposals and intends to come up with specific plans of its own before a Japanese official's visit to China later this month.]

Transportation problems in China pose an enormous bottleneck to moving the coal. Datong, in Shanxi, is only about 300 kilometers (180 miles) from Peking, yet the coal mined there frequently cannot be shipped out because of an overburdened railway line. (Datong, incidentally, is now China's largest coal-producing area, with production of 24.05 million tons last year.)

The Kailuan mines near Peking, which used to be China's foremost coal producer, have not yet recovered from the 1976 earthquake. Kailuan production last year was 21.58 million tons, according to the Coal Ministry.

The north-south problem increases the burden on the transportation system. Coal mined in the north must be shipped south for consumption in industrial regions beyond the Yangtze River.

The government is therefore engaged in a multipronged effort: first to improve and mechanize existing mines, second to open up new mines, third to improve rail and port facilities.

Which of these is your priority? Mr. Wang was asked. The director smiled. "Money," he said. "There is everything we have to do, and our resources are stretched to the limit."

He said that is why China is engaged in intensive discussions with prospective foreign partners on all aspects of coal production, from opening new mines to transport and harbor facilities. American companies -- Peabody, Utah, Kaiser, US Steel, and a host of others -- have been involved in these talks.

The Chinese hope to raise production to 900 million tons by 1985. Now, however, the coal industry is in a three-year adjustment period during which production has been deliberately held down. Shafts are being thoroughly checked , mechanization introduced, and attempts made to solve the transportation bottlenecks.

From 1975 to 1978 coal production grew rapidly, reaching 618 million tons. but in 1979 only 620 million tons were produced. This year production will actually be reduced to 605 million tons.

(China counts its coal as it comes up from the pit. By the time it has been washed and graded and is salable, the quantity will be about 70 percent less. Thus current Chinese production is about the same as that of the US, in terms of salable coal.)

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