Goodbye to the big smoke

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 June, 2005, 12:00am

When he worked as a teacher in Beijing's western suburb of Shijingshan - until three years ago - Yan Sheng did not go out when it rained. 'After just a few minutes, I'd be covered in ash from across the way,' he said.

Things have changed quite a bit since then. As the capital pushes ahead with its commitment to become a 'liveable cultural and political centre' for the Olympics, smokestacks from outdated factories and coal-fired boilers have been coming down across the city. When the process is complete, none of the demolition will have had a bigger impact on the city's air quality than the removal of the Capital Steelworks, a sprawling hive of chimneys and cooling towers next to Mr Yan's old school - and 20km upwind of the city centre.

As recently as 1993, the huge complex was the biggest steel producer in the country. But at the beginning of this year, a relocation project began in earnest. Its replacement will be a new automated plant at Caofeidian, northern China's best deepwater port. If all goes according to schedule, the first furnace will fire up this autumn.

Pollution was only one reason for the decision to move. For its 2003 output, the plant sucked up water that could otherwise have been used by 2.7 million inhabitants in the drought-stricken, burgeoning capital. Amid competing demands for an overloaded network (Beijing, for example, is the biggest consumer of building materials), the Ministry of Railways was last year forced to cut freight on tracks leading to the plant. For the construction boom, land is in short supply.

Thus, many would question the logic of building this piece of heavy industry so far inland. In early communist China, a lack of trade with other nations played a part. But a culture that revered production and disdained the 'corrupt' service sector was surely more influential. 'Beijing must have heavy industry,' Mao Zedong is said to have pronounced after reviewing contingents of waiters and bath-house attendants at an early 1950s May Day celebration in Tiananmen Square. After Capital Steelworks was completed, its workers regularly led the parade.

With relocation under way, many of those laid off have been treated fairly. 'My husband was told this was coming long ago. He was well compensated,' said Zhou Bei, whose spouse lost his job in a casting workshop at the plant last summer. If others have been less lucky, the capital's galloping economy is throwing up opportunities. On the site, a letting office has already opened for a nearly completed shopping mall. Sales manager Tan Dongsheng said that many other projects were being discussed. 'Nobody will miss the pollution,' he said. 'This area will be a much greener, nicer place to live.'