新疆

Xinjiang Is Changing the Way China Uses and Profits From Energy

 

Two truisms about China should carry the disclaimer “except in Xinjiang”. China is a densely-populated country, except in Xinjiang. China is short on natural resources, except in Xinjiang. Representing over 15% of the China’s land mass, but with a population of just 30 million, or 0.2% of the total, Xinjiang stretches 1,000 miles across northwestern China, engulfing not only much of the Gobi Desert, but some of China’s most arable farmland as well. Mainly an arid plateau, Xinjiang is in places as green and fertile as Southern England.

Underneath much of that land, we are beginning to learn, lies some of the world’s largest and richest natural resource deposits, including huge quantities of minerals China is otherwise desperately short of, including high-calorie and clean-burning coal, copper, iron ore, petroleum.  How, when and at what cost China exploits Xinjiang’s natural resources will be among the deciding issues for China’s economy over the next thirty years. Already, some remarkable progress is being made, based on two past visits. I return to Xinjiang tomorrow for five days of client meetings.

Because of its vast size and small population, Xinjiang hasn’t yet had its mineral resources fully probed and mapped. But, every year, the size of its proven resource base expands. Knowing there’s wealth under the ground, and finding a cost-effective way to dig out the minerals and get them to market are, of course,  very different things. Until recently, Xinjiang’s transport infrastructure – roads and railways – was far from adequate to provide a cost-efficient route to market for all the mineral wealth.

That bottleneck is being tackled, with new expressways opening every year, and plans underway to expand dramatically the rail network. But, transport can’t alter the fact Xinjiang is still very remote from the populated core of China’s fast-growing industrial and consumer economy. Example:  it can still be cheaper to ship a ton of iron ore from Australia to Shanghai than from areas in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang’s key resource, and the one with the largest potential market, is high-grade clean-burning coal. Xinjiang is loaded with the stuff, with over 2 trillion tons of proven reserves. Let that figure sink in. It’s the equivalent of over 650 years of current coal consumption in coal-dependent China . The Chinese planners’ goal is for Xinjiang to supply about 25% of China’s coal demand within ten years.

Xinjiang’s coal is generally both cleaner (low sulphur content) and cheaper to mine than the coal China now mainly relies on, much of which comes from a belt of deep coal running through Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Shandong Provinces. Large coal seams in Xinjiang can be surface mined. Production costs of under Rmb150 a ton are common. The current coal price in China is over four times higher for the dirtier, lower-energy stuff.

For all its advantages, Xinjiang coal is not going to become a primary source of energy in China. The Chinese government, rightly, understands that the cost, complexity and long distances involved make shipping vast quantities of Xinjiang coal to Eastern China unworkable. Moving coal east would monopolize Xinjiang’s rail and road network, causing serious distortions in the overall economy.

Instead, the Xinjiang government is doing something both smart and innovative. It is encouraging companies to use Xinjiang’s abundant coal as a feedstock to produce lower cost supplies of industrial products and chemicals now produced using petroleum. All kinds of things become cost-efficient to manufacture when you have access to large supplies of low-cost energy from coal. Shipping finished or intermediate goods is obviously a better use of Xinjiang’s limited transport infrastructure.

I’ve seen and met the bosses of several of these large coal-based private sector projects in Xinjiang. The scale and projected profitability of these projects is awesome. In one case, a private company is using a coal mine it developed to power its $500mn factory to produce the plastic PVC. The coal reserve was provided for free, in return for the company’s agreement to invest and build the large chemical factory next to it. The cost of producing PVC at this plant should be less than one-third that of PVC made using petroleum. China’s PVC market, as well as imports, are both staggeringly large. The new plant will not only lower the cost of PVC in China but reduce China’s demand for petroleum and its byproducts.

Another company, one of the largest private companies in China,  is using its Xinjiang coal reserve, again supplied for free in return for investment in new factories, to power a large chemical plant to produce glycerine and other chemical intermediates. This company is already a large producer of these chemicals at its factories in Shandong. There, they run on petroleum. In the new Xinjiang facility, coal will be used instead, lowering overall manufacturing costs by at least 20% – 30% based on an oil price of around $50. At current oil prices, the cost savings, and margins, become far richer.

The key, of course, is that the companies get the coal reserve for free, or close to it. True, they need to build the coal mine first, but generally, that isn’t a large expense, since it can all be surface-mined.  This means that the cost of energy in these very energy-intensive projects is much lower than it would be for plants using petroleum or, to be fair, any operator elsewhere who would need to purchase the coal reserve as well as build the capital-intensive downstream facilities.

The Xinjiang projects should lock-in a significant cost advantage over a significant period of time. As investments, they also should provide consistently high returns over the long-term. While the capital investment is large, I’m confident the projects are attractive on risk/return basis, and that in a few years time, these private sector “coal-for-petroleum” projects will begin to go public, and become large and successful public companies.

The Xinjiang government keeps close tabs on this process of providing free coal reserves for use as a feedstock.  Since in most cases, these projects are looking to enter large markets now dominated by petroleum and its byproducts, there is ample room for more such deals to be done in Xinjiang.

Deals are getting larger. This summer, China’s largest coal producer, Shenhua Group, announced it would invest Rmb 52 billion ($8 billion) on a coal-to-oil project in Xinjiang. The company plans to mine 70 million tons of coal a year and turn it into three million tons of fuel oil.

Remote and sparsely-populated as it now is, Xinjiang is going to play a decisive role in China’s industrial and energy future, just as the development of America’s West has helped drive economic growth for over 100 years, and created some of America’s largest fortunes.  My prediction:  China’s West will produce more coal and mineral billionaires over the next 100 years than America’s has over the past hundred.

Qinghai Province – The Biggest Small Place in China

Taersi

In most things to do with China, the “law of big numbers” applies. A population of 1.4 billion mandates that. So, whether it’s the fact there are over 50 cities larger than Rome, provinces with populations larger than any European country, or that more of just about everything is sold every year in China than anywhere else, the reality of China’s huge population is always a hulking presence.

Except for Qinghai Province. Here, the numbers are so small Qinghai can seem like one of the Baltic States. The province is a little larger than France, yet has a population of only 5.2 million, or 0.3% of China’s total. The capital city, Xining, where I’m now writing this, has about one million residents. Tibet to the south and Xinjiang to the north are both autonomous regions, rather than provinces. Both are far more well-known and talked-about, both inside China and out, and benefit from much more investment from the central government.

Qinghai is unlike anywhere I’ve been in China. It is so empty as to be almost desolate. Xining is in the midst of a very rapid transformation from a dusty low-rise backwater to a more obviously modern Chinese city, with high rises, two new expressways, broad boulevards and shiny new shops selling brands familiar in other parts of the country. It sits alongside a tributary of the Yellow River, wedged like a sliver between low barren brown mountains.

Xining is also the most conspicuously multi-cultural city I’ve been to in China, with a Han majority sharing the city with a large contingent of Tibetans, and a very significant population of Hui Moslems. The Dongguan mosque, on the city’s main street, is one of the largest in China. As many as 30,000 people can worship there. Every twenty paces or so you’ll pass a small brazier with a Hui cook barbecuing lamb kebabs.  Most also sell yak milk yogurt. It’s delicious, in case you’re wondering.

The Tibetans are more concentrated outside Xining. Qinghai makes up most of the Tibetan region of Amdo, and much of the province’s landmass is inhabited by Tibetan herdsmen. The current Dalai Lama was born not far from Xining, and had some of his first schooling at Kumbum Monastery, a 450 year-old establishment that has long been among the most important sites of religious worship and study for Tibetan Buddhists.

Kumbum is a half-hour drive from Xining.  I’ve wanted to go there for about 30 years, and finally got the chance on this trip. I always felt a pull towards Kumbum because it was established to venerate Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve lived for the last 15 years with a beautiful thangka of Tsongkhapa, and hang it near where I sleep. Here it is:


Tsongkhapa

If I had a patron saint, it would be him. Tsongkhapa was born where the Monastery now sits, in a small mountain village. The Monastery spreads lengthwise about one mile up a hillside. At its height, it was home to 3,600 monks. Now there are said to be about 500. A lot of the more ancient buildings were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and have since been rebuilt. There are also some newer structures in traditional Tibetan monastic style, including one built with a donation from Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing.

Tibetan pilgrims circumambulate the important buildings, do their prostrations, and leave offerings of money and butter. They share Kumbum with Chinese tour groups, who are for the most part respectful, attentive.

After visiting the Monastery in a steady drizzle, I went to see a doctor at the nearby hospital. I was feeling just fine, but for a little sleepiness from the high altitude.  I’ve had a long, intense interest in Tibetan medicine, and the hospital here is staffed by lamas educated at Kumbum and graduated with the equivalent of a PhD in Tibetan medicine.

I saw a physician named Lopsang Chunpai, dressed in maroon and yellow monastic robes. He took my pulse, pronounced me healthy, and prescribed a Tibetan herbal medicine called Ratna Sampil, a combination of 70 herbs that is compounded at the hospital. According to the package, it’s used “clearing and activating the channels and collaterals”.

Though I saw only a very small part of it, Qinghai struck me as an especially lovely place:  a wide, open and arid plateau not unlike parts of the American West. Even accepting the cold winter (with temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees below zero centigrade), it’s hard to understand the high vacancy rate here. It’s population density, at 7 people per square kilometer, is 0.3% of Shanghai’s.

It’s empty, of course, because comparatively few Chinese have emigrated here. That seems likely to change. The air is clean, the economy is booming and the infrastructure improvements of recent years are integrating the province much more closely with the highly-populated parts of China to the east.

Neighboring Tibet and Xinjiang have experienced large Han Chinese migration over the last 60 years. Not so Qinghai. Geography is destiny.  Qinghai, unlike Xinjiang and Tibet, does not border any other country. It has far less military and strategic importance. Xinjiang borders Russia and Tibet borders India. China has fought border wars with both.

Xinjiang and Tibet have also both recently had some serious ethnic conflicts, including anti-Chinese riots in both places in the last two years.  Although its population is about 20% Moslem and 20% Tibetan, Qinghai has stayed peaceful. It is China’s melting pot.

Qinghai is rich in mineral resources, including large seams of high-grade coal. As the transport system improves, more Chinese will migrate there to work in mines. Xining, as small as it is, is the only proper city in all of Qinghai.

The ostensible reason for my visit was to speak at a conference on private equity. The provincial government has a target to increase the number of Qinghai companies going public. The mayor of Xining, who I met briefly, was until recently a successful businessman, running one of the province’s largest state-run companies.

I met a few local entrepreneurs and visited one factory making wine from buckthorn berries, using technology developed by Tsinghua University. It’s a healthier, lower-proof alternative to China’s lethal “baijiu”, the highly alcoholic spirit, mainly distilled from sorghum,  that is widely consumed across China.

Up to now, as far as I can tell,  there’s been no private equity investment in Qinghai. I’d like to change that. It’s a special part of China. Though it’s statistically one of the poorest provinces, Qinghai will continue every year to close the gap. More capital, more opportunity, more prosperity — and more inhabitants. This is Qinghai’s certain future.


China’s Booming Hami Economy

dude with Hami

Xinjiang is a big place, with a land mass the size of Western Europe. It occupies 1/6th of China’s territory, yet contributes only 1.5% of its population. I think I now know why it’s so empty. All that space must be devoted to growing Hami Melons.

This fruit is Xinjiang’s most popular export to the rest of China. It’s high season now. Even here in Shenzhen, as far as one can travel from the melon-growing precints near the Gobi Desert in Xinjiang, the large Hami melons are pervasive – in fruit stores, supermarkets, pushcarts. You can also find them piled high on many streets all over the city, with each Hami hoard minded by a guy from Xinjiang with a long sharp knife and a small scale.

guy

The melons are generally oval-shaped and weigh about 10 pounds each. I’ve bought segments of ones weighing twice that. The most popular way to eat the melon is as a snack on the street. A tall thin slice on a wooden skewer sells for Rmb 1.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, a Hami tastes a lot like cantaloupe, but the flesh is much crunchier, almost like an apple’s.

This time of year, across China, Hami crowds every other fruit out of the marketplace. I can’t find any statistics on Xinjiang’s total production, but my guess would be it runs to the millions of tons. Imagine the logistics: a market of 1.4 billion all simultaneously ravenous for your perishable product, grown on the fringe of a desert in one of the most distant, infrastructure-starved corners of the country.

Just to supply the Chinese market must occupy the full-time summertime efforts of tens of thousands of farmers, packers, and shippers. The melons are grown, boxed and then shipped by road and rail to every corner of China. It seems like for every 100 melons exported from Xinjiang, one local Uighur must accompany the shipment, to run the impromptu sidewalk stalls selling the fruit.

If other parts of China also grow the melon, I’m not aware of it. To find buyers, they would probably have to falsely label their melons as coming from Xinjiang. In China, Hami belongs to Xinjiang the way champagne belongs to the Champagne region of northern France.

Shenzhen probably has a larger market for Hami, on average, than many other parts of China. It’s a rich city, and Hami melon is not cheap. Bought by the kilo, the price runs to around Rmb8 to Rmb 12, or about 70-90 cents a pound. I’m buying around 10 kilos a week.

You can also find Hami this time of year in Los Angeles, usually at Persian grocery stores. Parts of Southern California’s desert are similar to Xinjiang’s Hami growing region. But, the fruit is very much a minority taste in the US. It’s likely to remain that way. As big as it is, Xinjiang will never be able produce enough Hami to satisfy fully Chinese tastes, let alone an export market.