IT has long been customary to think of China's present and potential power as residing in her many millions of frugal, intelligent and industrious people. The capacity of Chinese laborers to over-work and under-live their competitors is indeed real, as witness the steady influx of Chinese rather than Japanese into Manchuria. But the world's work is no longer done by human hands. Energy derived in part from waterfalls but mainly from use of mineral fuels has taken over the job; and it is as true in China as elsewhere that the worker who eats, though he require ever so little food, can not compete with the invisible slave who works but does not eat. A ton of coal will do the work of a thousand men in a day, while to feed a thousand men would require more than a ton of much more valuable material. In China the household industries are retreating before the factories, as they have in every other country that has felt the energizing breath of the industrial revolution. When men compete with horses, as coolies in many parts of China do in the carrying of goods, they must accept the horse's standard of living and food -- and for men it is a miserable standard. How much lower, then, must they fall if they compete against mechanical power! History has shown over and over that they can not stand such competition but must instead accommodate themselves to the presence of the new power and make themselves its masters rather than its competitors.

Another lesson history has taught us is that a master inevitably takes on the standard of living proper to a master. This also is true in China. On many of the railways the engine driver insists on an assistant. To his way of thinking anyone capable of making so powerful a machine as a modern locomotive do his will, is much too grand a person to get down and minister to its wants by putting soothing drops of oil on hot bearings. It is a very human attitude. The world over, as machinery has come in and output of goods has increased, the power of the people to consume has followed suit. Standards of living have steadily risen. Visions of a "Yellow Peril" based on Chinese laborers equipped with modern machinery are unfounded. They leave out of view the essential fact that when and as Chinese (or any people) enter the machine age, they become like others -- at least as to their wants. They produce more, but they consume more. Despite all the distractions of civil war, and despite the growth of local manufacturing, the imports of China have gone steadily up. Regardless of effects on particular industries and lines of trade, the world as a whole may safely welcome rather than fear such industrialization of our great neighbor to the East as she may find to her own best interest.

But what resources has China on which to found an industrial civilization, meaning thereby one in which industry is specialized and in which mining, manufacturing, and transportation take their place as equals of ancient agriculture? It is an interesting field for study.

It must be noted that as regards goods the difference between ancient civilizations -- the Chinese is a contemporary ancient civilization -- and our scheme of things is less in the amounts we eat and wear than in the other goods we possess. It is these other "goods" that make the difference. And, to the extent that they are material, they are overwhelmingly of mineral origin. Our population curve goes up slowly. Wheat consumption increases but little faster. But the production of coal and iron, those master minerals of modern industry, is recorded in a curve like the slope of a mountain. As Prof. C. K. Leith pointed out in FOREIGN AFFAIRS in July, 1925, "The world has used more of its mineral resources in the last twenty years than in all preceding time, and there is nothing to indicate a slackening of the acceleration which has occurred during this period." It may be added that the bulk of this great consumption has taken place in Western Europe and the Americas. The great populations of Asia particularly are still living in the main as did their ancestors and ours, devoting their energies largely to feeding and clothing themselves year by year.

Of all the minerals coal is the most important to modern civilization. The industrial revolution came only when coal was set to work. It needed steam for power and coke for metallurgy to permit the quantity production that gives us much wealth in goods per capita. Coal not only gives us comforting heat in our homes and yields many products that enter into the very warp and woof of modern industry, but it does most of our work. The total water power available would be much too small to do the world's work today, and nature unkindly has often situated the great waterfalls where there is little else to induce settlement. But coal can be moved anywhere and accommodatingly supplies the power to move itself. But it is bulky and loses value en route. Industry, therefore, usually comes to the coal fields rather than the reverse. Whatever may be true at some distant period in the future, when we may be using other forces of which we as yet see little more than shadows, now and for such period as we can foresee the centers of the world's power are and will be in the countries that contain coal. Oil is important, but in the world's long history oil production is likely to figure as an episode rather than an era.

How much coal, then, has China? It is important to determine this if we are to gauge the part she may play in the future. At present, with a population four times as great as that of the United States, the annual work output of the latter is 7½ times as large. China now mines and uses from 20,000,000 to 25,000,000 tons of coal per year. The United States consumes normally about 600,000,000 tons. The average annual per capita consumption in 42 Chinese cities, according to C. Y. Hsieh, is now 0.32 tons; the highest is 1.3 tons. This highest figure is only a little beyond the figure of the coal consumed in the United States for domestic heating alone. For the whole United States the average is about 5.5 tons per capita, and in New England it is 7 tons per capita. Evidently if the Chinese come to use coal with the freedom we do they must enormously increase their output. It is a question of great practical importance whether their coal fields would meet such a demand for any long period.

The general subject of possible Chinese reserves of coal, and of other minerals, was recently studied by a group of members of the Council on Foreign Relations. Its report[i] need not be summarized here other than to say that the Far East was found to be generally deficient in minerals. The major exception to the rule was the abundance of coal in China. While the evidence was conflicting and estimates varied widely, it was none the less clear that China is one of the countries fortunate enough to possess immense quantities of coal. At the time there was no adequate basis for deciding between the different estimates, and since maximum possibilities were being sought, the largest figure, that of an American engineer, N. F. Drake, was accepted provisionally. Drake, for some years professor at the Pie Yang University at Tientsin, was a man of experience and judgment. But the country was large and his opportunities for personal observation were, after all, limited. His estimate of 996,612 million metric tons was submitted to the International Geological Congress in 1913 as the best then available. K. Inouyè, Director of the Imperial Geological Survey of Japan, also submitted figures; his total only came to 39,565 million tons, but this was admittedly incomplete. V. K. Ting, the brilliant founder of the Geological Survey of China, discussed the discrepancy and concluded that Drake's figures were, on the whole, "of the right order of magnitude." The Geological Survey was then young and, as is still the case, inadequately financed, so that although its staff is able, complete figures have accumulated slowly. W. H. Wong, successor to Ting, made up estimates on the basis of such surveys as had been completed and in the 1924 "China Year Book" listed a total of 23,435 million tons of fairly proved coal reserve and estimated 40,000 to 50,000 million tons as "a good figure for the total of Chinese coal resources." Fuller and Clapp, two experienced American geologists who had worked in Shensi and Shansi, early in 1927 published revised estimates of the reserves in these two provinces. Since the largest known fields are in these provinces, and Fuller and Clapp had excellent opportunity to determine the facts, their estimates are of first importance.

Recently there has been distributed by the Geological Survey of China a special report by C. Y. Hsieh which includes a "General Statement on the Mining Industry 1918-1925." Among other new data it includes a summary of the results of various coal field surveys made in recent years. Among the provinces that have been studied is Shansi, to which Hsieh credits a reserve of 127,115 million tons. This may be compared with the 190,909 of Fuller and Clapp, 5,830 of Wong, 1,200 of Inouyè, and 714,340 of Drake. It is explained that Wong's estimate included only proven fields, while Hsieh, as is usual and proper enough, has included all probable areas. The truth probably lies somewhere between the figures of Hsieh and those of Fuller and Clapp. There is less agreement as to Shensi, where Hsieh estimates 6,968 million and Fuller and Clapp 132,727. The total for all Chinese fields is now estimated by Hsieh at 217,626 million tons. This, it may be added, would give to each Chinese a reserve of 549 tons as compared with 94 allowed by Wong's estimate and 2,330 by Drake's. For comparison it may be recalled that the per capita reserve of the United States is 34,274 and of Japan 150 tons.

According to these latest figures the coal reserve of China, then, would be somewhat larger than that of post-war Germany, 163,516 million tons, but far below that of Canada, 819,465 million tons. That is sufficient to furnish power for considerable industrialization, but if China is going to use it with the same liberality per capita that the nations of Western Europe and North America have done, then clearly she has not got a coal reserve sufficient for any very long time future. On the basis of the same per capita consumption as now obtains in the United States, the Chinese reserve as estimated today would last 100 years, the Japanese 26 years, the American 6,230 years.

[i] H. Foster Bain: "Ores and Industry in the Far East," New York, Council on Foreign Relations, 1927, 229 pp.

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  • H. FOSTER BAIN, Secretary of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, author of "Ores and Industry in the Far East"
  • More By H. Foster Bain