A mining tycoon has been detained in northwestern China after a media report accused him of overseeing a massive illegal open pit coal mine in the ecologically critical mountain area, despite it being one of President Xi Jinping’s priority conservation zones.
Officials in Qinghai province announced on Sunday that Ma Shaowei, the low-profile owner of mining company Xingqing, had been detained and five officials in Haixi prefecture were sacked and placed under anticorruption investigation.
The announcement came after Economic Information Daily, a newspaper affiliated with state news agency Xinhua, reported last week that Xingqing made 15 billion yuan (US$2.15 billion) in profits over 14 years from the illegal coal mining operation in the Qilian Mountains.
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According to the newspaper’s two-year investigation, Xingqing had mined coking coal on the Qinghai side of the mountain range since 2006 without a mining permit.
Li Jiexiang, the senior deputy governor of Qinghai, said on Sunday that initial investigations confirmed Xingqing had engaged in illegal mining.
Two task forces – one from the police and the other from the anticorruption agency – would investigate the scandal, he said.
“[The provincial] police and anti-graft agency task forces will conduct thorough investigations and will show no mercy to those who committed wrongdoings, no matter who or what rank they are,” official media quoted Li as saying.
The mountain range on the border of Qinghai and Gansu provinces rises to 5,800 metres (19,000 feet) and is covered by glaciers and permafrost. It is also the source of the Yellow River and Qinghai Lake.
In recent years, the company has sought to rebrand itself as a responsible corporate player helping to restore the environment of the mining area. But it continued its massive coal mining activities.
Economic Information Daily reported that Xingqing’s mining operation had created a pit 5km by 1km and up to 500 metres deep, with 50 metre-high slag heaps littering nearby grassland.
Citing Xingqing insiders, the report said the mining firm appeared to be tipped off every time provincial or national inspectors were on their way. Mining operations would then stop for a few days and machines and trucks were relocated to slag heaps, to make it appear that they were rehabilitating damaged terrain. Sometimes the mining resumed the night after the inspectors had left, the report said.
Scientists feared the damage to the soil in the area would be permanent, leading to the environmental decline of Qinghai Lake and upstream of the Yellow River, the report added.
Environmental protection has been one of Xi’s priorities since taking power in late 2012, and between 2014 and 2016 Xi issued repeated instructions about conservation of the mountains, according to a state television documentary.
In 2017, more than 100 officials including Wang Sanyun, the former Communist Party chief of Gansu, were held responsible for failing to carry out those instructions. Wang was later expelled from the party and sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption.
In 2019, Xi went to Gansu to check on conservation efforts in Qilian, saying the mountain range was “a vital shield for ecological security” in western China and its conservation was of “strategic importance” to the protection of the country’s environment.
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This article China detains tycoon after media accusations of massive illegal mountain mine first appeared on South China Morning Post