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FUXIN, China — To understand this industrial Chinese city's past, begin with the smoldering crater on the south side of town, an open-pit coal mine as wide as Manhattan and deeper than the height of the Chrysler Building. Known as Haizhou, or "Sea State," it is probably the largest open-pit coal mine in Asia. Wisps of white smoke emerge from its depths, casting a chemical haze over the city's stark concrete mid-rises and dilapidated worker dorms.
To understand Fuxin's future, look for Fan Chunming, a pinstripe-suited official tasked with turning the mine into an international tourist destination. "We want to make Fuxin a green city, an improved city," said Fan, a middle-aged Fuxin native with slicked-back hair and a strong command over the dense, formal language used by many Chinese officials. Within a decade, he explained, the pit will be traversed by flowing rivers and forest paths. Visitors will be able to enjoy a motor raceway, a hunting ground, and a golf course on the far side of the pit. They'll be able to circle the mine in a steam locomotive. "By transforming the mine," he said on a smoggy April day, "we can transform all of Fuxin."
The extravagant plans for Fuxin embody the pride, uncertainty, and quixotic ambition of China's three northeast provinces. Known as Dongbei, and formerly Manchuria, it's a 560,000-square-mile swath of dusty plains and low-lying mountains bordering Russia and North Korea with a population of more than 100 million people. The Russians and Japanese colonized it in the early 20th century, giving it a strong industrial economy before Mao Zedong turned it into a center of heavy industry in the early 1950s. When China transitioned to a market economy in the 1980s and 1990s, its clunky state-owned enterprises lost their competitive edge. Most were restructured or shuttered completely. Millions of workers lost their jobs, turning once-affluent cities into ghost towns. Like their counterparts in the United States, cities in Dongbei found themselves left behind as the economy developed and passed them by.
Mining cities like Fuxin -- which, with a population of 700,000, punches at roughly the same level as Scranton, Pennsylvania -- were hit the hardest, their troubles compounded by environmental degradation and dwindling resources. One cold afternoon in February 2005, workers in Fuxin's Sunjiawan colliery heard a loud click, followed by a tremor. Moments later a gas explosion tore through the mine, killing 213 workers. Families of the dead were quietly coerced into accepting meager compensation packages, and Beijing deployed security forces to quash any threat of unrest. Three months later, the Haizhou open-pit mine -- which employed 30,000 people at its peak -- was declared bankrupt, its coal deposits nearly exhausted.
When nature gives you an obsolete and dangerous mine, turn it into the "Haizhou Open-Pit Mine National Mine Park," complete with a promenade, a viewing platform, and a slew of ambitious plans. The mine's northern ridge has been refashioned into a vast public square, which opened in 2009. It is decorated with Soviet-era mining machinery -- a pile driver, an excavator -- that would look more at home on Tatooine than in contemporary China. Its walkways are lined with energy-efficient street lamps that are outfitted with solar panels and dinky wind turbines above their bulbs.