The Chongqing Iron and Steel plant outside the city of the same name in China’s south-west is something of an industrial metropolis. The operation was relocated a few years ago from urban Chongqing to its present location about 60 kilometres away. It is modern but in many shades of gray, belching white-gray water vapour.
Standing on a walkway inside one of the steel mills produces some unfamiliar sights for a visiting Australian, like many women steel workers. But the sight of red-hot steel being rolled can throw off familiarity as well as radiant heat. It connects the links in the chain – ore being mined in the Pilbara, taken by rail to the port, shipped across the sea and turned into steel. Soon it will be used in manufacturing or construction in China or shipped back over the sea, maybe back to Australia. Maybe even turned into a ship itself.
The plant delivers a lesson for visiting Australian journalists on the importance of history in China. The company evolved from an operation which was established in 1890 by Zhang Zhidong (1838-1907), an official in the Qing Dynasty and early industrialist. An exhibit at the plant includes an approving quote from Chairman Mao: “We cannot forget Mr Zhang Zhidong when we mention heavy industry.” The plant was moved from eastern China to Chongqing in 1938, beyond the reach of the invading Japanese army but not its air force. Then the plant was fought over in the struggle between the Communist and the Nationalists.
There was another, more immediate, lesson for visitors. Chongqing Iron and Steel might be a massive operation, producing about 8.5 million tonnes per year, but the guides are careful to explain that China has 30 steel plants that are the same size or bigger. The steel game is about scale, as well as history.
Similar themes emerged back in Chongqing, which runs alongside the rocky upper reaches of the Yangste River. China’s manufacturing hot spots have shifted inland to places like Chongqing, where labour is still cheap and plentiful. The industrial scale here is huge – mass production of cars and around 9 million motorcycles a year, steel, aluminium, glass and TV sets. The city hosts IT majors like HP, Acer, Toshiba and Cisco and some 700 components makers who last year produced about 42 million laptops.
Yet again, there is history. The local media and academics were delighted that we five Australian journalists visited the restored World War II headquarters of the US General Joseph Stillwell. The city was then the seat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government, which ruled alongside the Japanese and the Chinese communists.
“Vinegar Joe” Stillwell served three tours in China between the wars as a young officer and learnt Mandarin. During World War II, he presided over vital but lesser known campaigns in the China-Burma-India theatres. That role included bringing supplies into China from India along the tortuous Burma Road and a perilous airborne supply route known as The Hump.
Chongqing then hosted many international delegations, including from Australia. The city was bombed many times but is still proud of its time as the nation’s de facto capital. “The history of the Second World War is the most precious heritage of this city,” said a local historian.