China puts self-reliance to test as it digs deeper for oil

When Guo Yijian started working on drilling team No. 1268 as a 16-year-old, grizzled veterans from Yumen and Sinkiang would kick him off the drilling platform if he failed to heed their instructions.

''They'd show me, quite decently, how to do things--once,'' he recalled recently. ''If I made a mistake, they'd even show me a second time.

''But the third time, it was the boot. I had to learn fast.''

Today, Mr. Guo, swashbuckling in foxfur hat and pencil-thin moustache, is himself leader of the team, at the age of 32.

''We drill 111,000 meters a year. That's a record for Daqing,'' he said. He has 69 men working for him in shifts around the clock. ''We started drilling here three days ago. We've gone down 1,047 meters so far, and will get to 1,235 meters before we stop. We'll dig altogether four wells around here, then move on another 50 kilometers.''

Daqing is China's largest oil field, and one of the largest in the world. The oil-bearing strata sprawls in an oblong strip across the flat grasslands of central Manchuria, 150 kilometers long from north to south and 50 kilometers wide. Last year, Daqing pumped out 51.75 million tons of oil, half of China's total production. (In terms of barrels, China produces about 2 million barrels of oil per day.)

But Daqing's output has reached a plateau: It has held steady at about 50 million tons since 1976. Daqing authorities say they plan to keep production at this level until 1985, after which it will slowly decline.

Unless, that is, they can discover more oil. The prognosis is not overly hopeful, but ''our slogan is, find another Daqing under the present Daqing,'' said Mr. Guo. ''That doesn't necessarily mean that all our new wells will be deeper than existing ones, but rather that we're getting better at mapping out exactly where the oil-bearing layers are, then drilling just to these layers.

''In the next five years, we will drill 7,400 wells. That is as many as we have dug in the entire 22 years since we opened up Daqing.''

Daqing is China's energy frontier, and the spirit of Daqing is the spirit of self-reliance. Since Mao Tse-tung popularized the slogan, ''In industry, learn from Daqing,'' the drilling teams of this once desolate, treeless region have exemplified China's determination not to depend on others (in those days, the Soviet Union) for its economic modernization. From 1959-60, the Soviet Union withdrew all its advisers and ended its help.

Today when a very different China from those days proclaims a policy of openness toward the Western world and invites foreign firms to invest, the spirit of self-reliance is not forgotten.

''Our country is so huge, no matter how much help we get from foreign countries, we will always basically have to depend on ourselves,'' says Lin Hui of the Municipal Foreign Affairs Office.

''Yes, there was a period during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when we got arrogant and boastful and thought we could do anything in disregard of science and technology,'' Mrs. Lin continued. She came to Daqing in 1972 with her husband, an engineer.

''But to me the spirit of Daqing signifies self-reliance, and that is a spirit we will have to continue to have whatever the circumstances. Look what we have already achieved.''

A city of 700,000 stands where sheep once far outnumbered people. The bright lights of Harbin, the nearest metropolis, are a two-hour train ride away. Despite its population, Daqing still looks very much like a series of overgrown villages, with vast expanses of grasslands between patches of modern apartment buildings.

But the spirit of the frontier is exhilarating in its own way. Mr. Guo's team includes youngsters from Harbin and Shenyang and even farther away. A 17 -year-old apprentice gets paid 70 yuan (about $40) a month, twice what he would get elsewhere. ''They have nothing to spend it on,'' said Mr. Guo, ''and to keep them from foolish things I have to bank their pay until it's time for them to visit their parents.''

Mr. Guo thinks that, with care, Daqing's output should not decline too rapidly after 1985. Already, one visiting foreign expert says, about 40 percent of the fluid pumped from Daqing's wells is water. The proportion of water will continue to increase, but the world price of oil has so risen during the past two decades that even a 95 percent water ratio could mean profitable operations, this expert said. For this purpose, Daqing is buying water pumps from the United States, East Germany, and Romania.

It was time for Mr. Guo to get back to his drilling platform and to the derrick soaring 39 meters above it. The marshy gound was frozen solid, but on the platform, steam hissed and puffed and formed white wreaths around the men working the heavy drill. ''I love this work,'' Mr. Guo said as he shook hands with his visitors. ''If I didn't, how could I have stayed this long?''

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