Wasteland to chemical complex

The gleaming sliver pipes, coils, and towers of China's first and biggest petrochemical complex sprawl across a tableland at the foot of Yanshan (Swallow Mountain). It is a two-hour drive from Peking and not far from Zhoukoudian (Chou-kou-tien), where the remains of 500,000-year-old Peking man were found.

One's first impression is somehow of a fortress rather than of a plant producing, as our genial guide, Bian Junzheng, says, "300,000 tons of ethylene, 180,000 tons of polyethylene, 80,000 tons of polypropylene, and 45,000 tons of butadene." Mr. Bian is manager of the general affairs department of the Yanshan Petrochemical General Corporation, the director of which is Yang I-Bang, deputy minister of the chemical industry.

Last year the corporation processed 7 million tons of petroleum, from which it extracted 150 different petroleum products -- gasoline, kerosene, diesel oil, lubricating oil, and the like, as well as chemical products such as low density polyethylene, polypropylene, synthetic rubber, synthetic ammonia, chemical fertilizer, phenol, alkyl benzene, and acetone, In layman's language, these are the materials from which various kinds of plastics and chemical fibers are made.

The total value of production last year came to 2.5 billion yuan ($1.66 billion), Mr. Bian said. Profits totaled 700 million yuan ($466.66 million), all but a small percentage of which was returned to the state. (Mr. Bian would not say how much the corporation was allowed to keep for itself under the new economic system of incentives. "Less than 5 percent," he allowed.) Exports reached $50 million.

The fortress-like impression comes not alone from the khaki-clad soldiers one sees everywhere. It is the site itself -- a tableland cradled between the twin peaks of Phoenix Mountain and Giving-Birth Mountain, the latter named, it is said, after a famous woman general who gave birth to a son while directing a battle in this rugged area.

Mr. Bian said the present petrochemical complex was developed from an oil refinery called "East is Red," built at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968. The purpose of the plant was to refine oil from Daqing, the oil field discovered and put into operation in record time in northeast China after the Soviet Union had suddenly withdrawn all technical advisers and cut off nearly all economic relations with China.

The refinery was placed on mountainous wasteland, Mr. Bian said, to avoid requisitioning precious agricultural land. A subsidiary purpose must have been defense: The siting was in line with the national policy of dispersing important factories. At the same time, this policy has made subsequent expansion difficult and expensive in terms of levelling land, building roads, digging wells, and improving accessibility.

The project's second stage, expansion into a genuine petrochemical complex, was begun in 1973 with the approval of both Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Premier Chou En-Lai. This approval shielded the project from some of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

In contrast to the refinery, which was built entirely by the Chinese themselves, the second stage imported key technologies from the United States, West Germany, and Japan. Some of the American firms involved were Pullman Kellogg and UOP Inc. (Universal Oil Products).

China has a slogan for everything, and the particular one that fit this situation was "making foreign things serve China." Said a New China News Agency dispatch after the plant came into operation in the fall of 1976, "Some imported equipment was used, but carefully reviewed and improvements made."

New units are being added to the complex continuously. The latest unit is the "Long March" polyester plant. It is to be completed this year and will supply enough synthetic fiber to manufacture 800 million meters of cloth. The Corporation employs 36,000 people, Mr. Bian said. Its installations cover an area of 30 square kilometers and compose a special ward of Peking -- the petrochemical ward. Last year, the corporation built more than 30,000 square meters for 600 families.

Like other factories, the corporation has been making incentive payments to workers since January of last year. Salaries average 60 yuan ($40) per month, with beginners receiving 40 yuan and top pay going over 100 yuan ($66.66). The incentive pay adds about 6 yuan ($4) to his monthly pay packet, said worker zhao Hemin, plus a lump sum amounting to three months pay at the end of the year.

While in the old days heavy industries like steel were given priority, today petrochemical complexes such as this one making fertilizer, synthetic rubber, and synthetic fibers are being strongly encouraged.

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