China is rising as a global superpower in the mining industry. Ore from mining companies all around the world is shipped to Chinese ports to fuel the growth of the economy. Building relationships with Chinese government and customers is a top priority for many business leaders. However, few people in the industry know that China itself is a major producer of many minerals. This article explores the Chinese rise of production, the rise of demand, the rise of Chinese mining firms and the rise of investment and sketches the implications for the mining industry of the changing role of the country.
1. The Rise of Production
China’s mining industry is the world’s largest in many aspects: the country has 200,000 collectively owned mines1, employing over 10 million miners; it is the world’s major producer of coal, lead, zinc, tin and rare earth minerals and also ranks high in output of iron ore, gold, bauxite and other minerals.
The country has been a major producer for decades, but the enormous demand, the opening of the market to private investors and the introduction of modern mining techniques has boosted the productivity and production of the industry. Significant reserves of most minerals allowed China to grow the market share of mining output for all major minerals in the past 15 years (Figure 1). The growth of the iron metal content output share is even more remarkable when considering that Chinese iron ore typically has a very low metal content: while share of iron content grew from 14% to 15% since 1995, the share of gross weight grew from 24% to 37%2.
The largest part of worldwide reserves of rare earths, titanium, tungsten & molybdenum are in China. These minerals are crucial in the production of many high tech products, giving China a powerful position in international trade. Recently the country has demonstrated this power by implementing export quota for rare earth minerals, favoring the domestic high tech industry.
2. The Rise of Demand
China hardly exports any minerals; all domestic mine production is absorbed by the domestic. Value of total mineral exports in 2009 was a mere $0.2bln, 60% of which was molybdenum3. Until a few years ago the country was a net coal exporter, but the growing demand from the utility and steel industry has turned it into an importer. Though the country does not export ores, it has been building a large iron and steel industry, exporting at a total value of $53bln in 2008. In the same year the production of 500Mt of crude steel accounted for 38% of the world production2. In 2009 the imports exceeded exports, as steel companies responded to the crisis by cutting production. Stepping up production will turn the country into a net exporter of steel again.