Beijing’s Last Steel Factory15 min read

Jonathan Chatwin visits the abandoned Shougang steelworks


On a sultry August morning, a taxi brought me through Beijing’s western suburbs to the literal end of the road. At a makeshift barrier, a young police officer waved us to a standstill. “You can’t go any further,” he told the taxi driver, glancing pointedly at the foreigner in the back- seat, “It’s a building site beyond here: residents only.” Behind him and the barrier he tended, an almost empty stretch of gloss-black tarmac ran west.

I told the driver I would get out. “Here?” he asked, raising an eyebrow in the rear-view mirror. Here was the very western limit of Beijing, where the frayed edge of the city rubbed against the rough dun stone of the Western Hills. Besides the checkpoint, there was nothing here but a few brick buildings, the forbidden road ahead and the construction site which bordered it, fenced off with blue corrugated iron panels. “Here,” I repeated, proffering my money.

I stepped out onto the roadside. The sky was uncharacteristically clear for Beijing, and the heat reflected back from the tarmac. As the taxi drove away, the same police officer, unsmiling but not unfriendly, asked me why I had come out here. “I’m walking across the city, to Sihui East,” I told him, naming the subway station on the opposite side of the city which was my destination. He paused. “That’s a long way!,” he said, with the up-down intonation reserved in Chinese for the expression of incredulity.

It had been four years since my last visit to this part of town. In place of the dusty traffic barrier which obstructed my progress, a traditional carved archway or pailou had then marked the end of Chang’an Jie and the entrance to a rambling industrial site, which covered nearly three and a half square miles and housed, at its peak, around 200,000 workers. Where now was a fenced-off construction site across which bulldozers meandered, there had once stood one of the largest iron and steel works in the country: Shoudu Gang Tie Chang, or Capital Iron and Steel Works – Shougang for short. Within its walls the company had provided everything required for the quotidian needs of its workforce, including canteens, schools, dormitories, clinics and shops: a necessity given its distance twelve miles from Beijing’s centre.

The Shougang Daily was the newspaper of record, with all the news that was fit to print in what essentially constituted a large industrial town. 

On the occasion of my last visit in 2012, the main production line at the plant had already been closed for over a year, but all the buildings – furnaces, conveyors, cooling towers, offices – had still been intact. Cathedrals of rusted steel loomed above and all around, pacifically awaiting their fate. Faded barber-pole striped chimneys dotted the skyline. Weeds grew up between the sleepers of train tracks which had once rumbled with cargoes of coal and ore. The rusting metalwork ticked and banged in the breeze: it felt as though the workers had one day gone on their lunchbreak and simply never returned. 

This was heavy industry with Chinese characteristics, with traditional architectural styles mixed in amongst the generic machinery. Adjacent to the entrance archway were offices with sweeping Chinese roof lines of glazed tile and upturned corners, whilst looming over the site on an outcrop stood a three-tiered pagoda. Motivational slogans were still emblazoned on banners around the place: Be happy at work, and return home safely exhorted one reassuring example. Where once had been fire and collective industry, however, silence reigned. The whole place had a melancholy feel, like a seaside resort out of season – an impression compounded by the concrete reservoirs of dark coolant water, where solitary middle-aged men tended to fishing rods cast, it seemed to me, more in hope than expectation.

The plant’s departure in 2011 hollowed out the centre of a community which had built itself around Shougang”

Many of those manning the rods were former Shougang employees, for most of the jobs of those who had once fed the relentless machines around them had by then been shipped out to Caofeidian, a reclaimed island which juts out into Bohai Bay two hundred-odd kilometres to the south-east of Beijing. In a 2007 piece on the impending move, published on the official government website, little discontent had been reported amongst the workers about moving to Caofeidian: “Though the employees feel sad about leaving Beijing, they are absolutely willing to relocate and are now making preparations to do just that,” the article asserted.

In reality, the plant’s departure in 2011 hollowed out the centre of a community which had built itself around Shougang, separated as it was from the capital’s main commercial areas. One retired worker told me at the time of the closure that some of those employed by the plant had continued to keep their home and family in Shijingshan, the suburb which abuts the Shougang site, and took a three-hour company bus to the new facility. Workers would spend ten days working at the plant in Hebei, and return to their families for four days off. Increasingly, however, employees were either moving, trying to find work elsewhere in the city, or taking advantage of the compensation offered for early retirement, for which the company was willing to pay between 15,000 and 30,000 yuan (between about £1,750 and £3,500) at age forty for women, and fifty for men. The promise of the site’s regeneration offered the potential of jobs in the years to come, but the factory had been the beating heart of Shijingshan, and for those who cast their lines into Shougang’s murky water back in 2012, there was little to be optimistic about.

A worker at Shougang in 2009 (The Beijing News)

Shougang was established in 1919, during the tumultuous warlord era which followed the end of China’s last imperial dynasty in 1912 and a subsequent experiment with republicanism. In keeping with the Chinese Communist Party’s tendency to play down the success of any endeavour dating from this period, the official history of the company emphasises that before ‘liberation’ in 1949, Shougang was an insubstantial plant, unable to produce steel at all, and producing cumulatively just 286,000 tons of iron in that 30 year period (in 2007 alone it produced four million tons of crude steel).

In the years after 1949, however, the Communist leadership invested heavily in the plant. Shougang’s location close to Beijing also chimed with Mao’s desire to transform the capital from a city of intellectuals to one of the working man. Shortly after the CCP had taken control of the country, Mao had looked out from Tiananmen and commented that he wanted to see a forest of chimneys as he surveyed Beijing. A few years later, still dissatisfied by the character of the city, he had asked his fellow leaders of New China whether they needed to consider moving the capital elsewhere – there were still, he felt, too few industrial workers parading in the National Day procession. Between 1958 and 1960 alone, 800 factories would open in Beijing; the suburbs of the city would come to reverberate with the sound of industry.

Industry – steel in particular – became an increasing preoccupation for Mao in the first decade of Communist rule. By the late 1950s, the Chairman was concerned with providing tangible evidence of China’s progress since the 1949 takeover, and steel production figures seemed to offer a way to “magically [distill] all the complex dimensions of human activity into a single, precise figure that indicated where a country stood on the scale of evolution,” as the historian Frank Dikötter has observed. Mao’s insecurity about China’s position in the global league table meant that, beginning in 1958, he began to push to drastically increase the amount of steel produced in China, setting unfeasible national targets. By September 1958, the Chairman expected a doubling of annual production, from 5.35 million tons in 1957 to 12 million tons in 1958, whilst by 1962, around 100 million tons were somehow to be produced as part of the planned ‘Great Leap Forward’. “By that time,” Mao asserted, “it will be said that we have basically transformed the entire country.”

This ambition was realised, though not in the manner he intended. The cost of the policies of industrial and agricultural reform during the Great Leap Forward was punishing, and is still being accounted by historians. In order to attempt to meet his startling targets, the government mobilised men, women and children across the country to help with the production of iron and steel. Backyard metal furnaces were constructed in their hundreds of thousands, fed by any wood that could be found, including coffins, whilst existing factories like Shougang ramped up their own production, supported by collective labour. Thousands of new modern steelworks were also planned. As a young married woman from Sichuan recalls: “In 1958 we were sent to the iron factory. In our area, everyone was requested to take part in the mass production of iron […] Every day we hammered at stones. We were told that it was the way to make iron. […] Blocks of carbon, steel sheets, and tree branches were all fed into the furnaces.” The British diplomat, Percy Cradock, travelling by train from the south of China during the period of the Great Leap Forward, recalled passing endless factories emblazoned with slogans: ‘Quicker, Faster, Better’ and ‘We’re going to overtake Britain in no time in the production of steel.’

This relentless focus on metal production had a calamitous environmental effect, with forests ripped up for firewood, and the land around left eroded or barren. Ironically, much of the metal produced, particularly in the backyard furnaces, was of desperately poor quality: “the entire labour force was sent into the mountains to make iron and steel. […] We tried to make iron and steel day and night, and in the end all we got was useless slag. We had to abandon the project,” one worker recalled.

Steel became an increasing preoccupation for Mao in the first decade of Communist rule”

It was not only manufacturing numbers for iron and steel, however, that were radically over-optimistic in Mao’s plan for the Great Leap Forward; the same rationale led him to believe that harvests of staple crops could be increased equally dramatically. The cult of personality which surrounded the Chairman ensured that none close to him would admit the unfeasible nature of the targets set, and this refusal to speak truth to power cascaded down from the national level to the provincial leaders, and then down through the county cadres to the rural towns and villages, with leaders at all tiers of the hierarchy overstating the production figures for crops. This meant that the proportion of grain taken by the state wildly exceeded what was sustainable to ensure that locals kept enough in reserve to feed themselves and their families.

The steel-making initiative had also taken rural workers from their land, reducing the labour force available to plant and harvest crops. This all led to unimaginable famine. The starving resorted to stripping the bark from trees, or boiling the leather from their belts, in the search for something to sustain them. Some ate soil, concreting their digestive system. Other stories, darker, sadder, and reflective of the utter desperation of those terrible years, tell of people who ate the flesh of others, often family members. Estimates vary, but historians in the West generally concur that in excess of 30 million people lost their lives between 1958 and 1962 as a result of the famine which resulted from the Great Leap Forward.

When researching such controversies, I often found it illuminating to consult my copy of the official timeline of the People’s Republic, optimistically subtitled The First Sixty Years. Published by China’s Foreign Languages Press, part of the nation’s soft-power apparatus, it provides an instructive summary of the official version of these pivotal moments. Its entry for the Great Leap Forward is critical, if euphemistic: “some leaders at the central and local levels … became complacent and boastful in the face of temporary victories. […] The ‘Great Leap Forward’ disrupted national economic order, caused vast waste in manpower and resources, and caused serious imbalances in the development of industry and agriculture.”

Shougang’s status as a flagship facility ensured, however, that it expanded significantly during this period, developing its steel-making capability by building new furnaces and drafting in rural and urban workers to help keep them running twenty-four hours a day. One contemporary account tells of factory leaders calling a meeting and declaring to their 5,000-strong audience the need for a new steel furnace. Without further prompting, the workers reportedly streamed from the auditorium to a nearby cornfield where, in fourteen days, they built a new workshop. Predictably, the writer admits, the quality of the metal produced left much to be desired.

Permanent jobs at Shougang were highly prized: there was cachet to working in the nation’s vanguard industry at its most high-profile site, and the promise of the security of the so-called ‘iron rice bowl’, as posts in well-supported state enterprises were known, added to the appeal; working men from the plant were viewed as particularly eligible husbands by the local women. Communist Party leaders such as Liu Shaoqi and Zhu De visited regularly to rouse the workers and spur on the production figures. 

After Beijing secured the hosting of the 2008 Olympics in 2001, the decision was made that Shougang needed to go”

However, beginning in the 1970s, the plant began to attract a reputation as a bad neighbour to Beijing. One local who had grown up at Shougang, talking to me of the government’s new plans to make this a place for healthy living and eco-tourism, noted the irony: “Before, when Shougang was still there,” she said, “it meant one thing: pollution.” The dust and smog generated by the workings was so bad that those living in the shadow of Shougang had to avoid eating outside or hanging out their washing, which would turn from white to black overnight. Each day they would have to clean their homes, and wipe up the black dust that had settled. As production capacity increased and the city suburbs spread out towards the plant over subsequent decades, this became even more problematic. According to figures released after the closure of the main production line at Shougang, the site was, at its worst, annually producing thirty-four tons of pollution for each square kilometre of the Shijingshan district, and was cited as the greatest single source of pollution in Beijing. Eventually, after Beijing secured the hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics in the year 2001, the decision was made that Shougang needed to go.

The initial intention was to ensure that the new plant was ready in advance of the Games, but the company ultimately missed the target and, instead, agreed to scale down production by almost three quarters during the Games, spending an additional 140bn yuan (£10.3bn) on “reducing pollution and improving energy efficiency.” Many industrial sites were shuttered for the duration of the Olympics, as is common during major national and international events in Beijing, but the need to close Shougang down for this period was exacerbated by its location close to a key Olympic venue – the velodrome and mountain bike track, which had been built just a few kilometres down Chang’an Jie. Looking west from here, the Shougang site formed an expansive industrial backdrop – a view which would not be enhanced, the city leaders felt, by chimneys spewing smoke into the sky.

Production finally ceased entirely on 13 January 2011. At the pithily named ‘Shougang Beijing Shijingshan Iron & Steel Main Process Discontinuation Ceremony’, Politburo member Zhang Dejiang brought the curtain down on nearly a century’s production at Shougang, with the company chairman promising in his speech a new future for the site, focused on the promotion of “a civilised Beijing; a technological Beijing; a green Beijing.”

In line with this ambition, vague but expansive plans for the redevelopment of Shougang were touted in the media after the closure, with the proposed division of the site into different areas, including a cultural and creative area, home to a proposed ‘Animation City’, a high-technology zone and an ecological tourist area along the Yongding River, which flows along the western periphery of the site. Civilised; technological; green – it met all the buzzword criteria: now they just had to get on and build it. ∎

This is an edited excerpt from Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China, by Jonathan Chatwin (Manchester University Press, September 2019), published with permission.
Header: Shougang Steel Works. All photos courtesy of the author or in public domain.
Editor’s note: Shougang is now the headquarters of China’s 2022 Winter Olympic Committee. Much of the industrial architecture has been left in place, but a snowboard ramp is being built running down from the top of one of the old cooling towers.