Had they lived to this day, it is likely former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping would have been proud to pay a visit, while the American 'red capitalist' Armand Hammer would have regretted his successor's decision to sell his company's interest in the area in the early 1990s. The area in question is Pingshuo - 300km west of Beijing - and the interest is the Antaibao coal mine, Asia's largest open-cut mine, according to the mine's operation control office chief, Chen Shiqiang . Mr Chen has been working at the mine since his graduation from China University of Mining and Technology 26 years ago. 'I was among the first batch of 37 university graduates allocated to develop this mine. More than 20 of us are still here, including the general manager, party secretary, chief accountant and chief engineer,' he said. Mr Chen starts every weekday with a 50-minute inspection of the mine's entire production facilities by car and he does not go home until at least 12 hours later. He also works during the weekend, albeit for shorter hours. 'My salary is not very high but I am happy ... it was a tough number of years but it was very rewarding along each step of the way,' he said. 'The demanding part of my job is the long hours as I am on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week with no overtime pay. The long hours are not mandatory, but I choose to do so because I want to do a good job.' As head of production, he has to keep on top of every unit's operation and react quickly whenever any glitch or mishap arises. 'For example, I must know each department's power demand, especially during periods of rationing,' he said. 'Last year, we had two days of power rationing. We had to communicate with the government leaders so that they understood our importance in the electricity supply chain and let us have undisrupted power supply.' With 200 to 300 tonnes of explosives used daily at the mine, safety is also a major issue. The Antaibao mine, now owned by the nation's second largest coal producer, China Coal Energy, has come a long way since Hammer, the industrialist who ran Occidental Petroleum, first discussed investing in its development with Deng in 1981. At the time it was the largest Sino-foreign joint venture, involving US$650 million of investment, and was seen as the model for the Communist government to tap foreign expertise and funds to build a market economy with Chinese character. Island Creek Coal, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, invested US$250 million in the 30-year joint venture. The chairman of Island Creek was Albert Gore, the father of former US vice-president Al Gore. Soon after Hammer's death and Gore senior's retirement, Hammer's successor, Ray Irani, decided to sell Occidental's stake in the loss-making venture back to the mainland government to pare debt. That was only four years after the mine started production in 1987 and six years after the joint venture agreement. According to a New York Times report in 1991, Occidental faced difficulties in getting co-operation from local authorities that did not heed orders from Beijing, the principal backer of its investment, as China gradually moved from a command economy to a market-oriented one. It also reportedly suffered from coal theft by wildcat miners and was unable to drill in the most efficient manner for fear of crushing trespassers. However, Mr Chen said what drove Occidental to leave was the sharp fall in the export price of coal to as low as US$18 a tonne in the early 1990s from more than US$50 in the mid-80s amid a recession in developed economies. At the time, the industry could hardly imagine the international coal price would embark on an astounding fivefold upsurge between 2001 and this year, after having stagnated for 10 years since Occidental's divestment. Nor was it easy to forecast the doubling of China's coal consumption in the past six years. Still, Mr Chen said advanced foreign expertise, and heavy-duty earth-moving equipment was Occidental's best legacy for the Antaibao mine. 'Our equipment is among the most advanced and efficient in the world ... some foreigners in the industry may not know Shanxi, but they would know Antaibao,' he said. US management also helped instil environmental protection practices in the mine, a weak spot of the local industry. 'Processed waste water in our coal-washing plant is good enough for drinking, while over 40 per cent of our mining area is forested or covered with grass or crops,' Mr Chen said.