RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
China's economy has had a spectacular run. But last year, it grew at its slowest pace in 26 years. And as it attempts to transform an economy based on building things to one based on consumers buying things, Beijing is making painful cuts. Millions of workers in the country's state-run coal and steel sectors are being laid off.
But as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, those on the losing end of China's big economic transformation will not go down without a fight.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The streets of Dalianhe are lined with black snow. The town in China's frigid Northeast is home to one of China's largest open-pit coal mines. Workers drive me through its front gate into a massive gorge with cliffs the color of ink.
We are now in what is this enormous canyon of coal. And my ears are popping because we're descending pretty quickly here.
Thousands of feet below, it's silent but for the sound of melting snow. It didn't used to be this way. Thousands used to work inside this mine on the northern fringe of China's rust belt. It was established in 1960 during the height of Mao's China.
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SCHMITZ: Back then, the Communist Party considered this region a worker's paradise where coal mines and steel mills employed millions. Now it's littered with deserted fossils of a bygone era. The 21st century's communist leaders are transforming China's economy into a paradise for consumers. They've ordered inefficient state-run mines like this one to close.
A dozen workers fill a tiny room whose only decoration is a painting of Chairman Mao. They're big, brawny men, and working at their hometown mine is the only job they've ever known. They work for Longhua Harbin Coal Company, a subsidiary of China National Coal Group, the third-largest coal mining company in the world. Longhua has told the 4,000 workers here they'll all be out of a job by the year's end.
The mine will be shut, wiping out the town's main source of revenue. Worker Wang Fuxiang says they'll soon be the poorest residents of an already poor region.
WANG FUXIANG: (Through interpreter) President Xi says nobody should be left behind on the road to China's prosperity. But now we won't be able to feed ourselves. If they paid us our pensions and health insurance, we'd at least be able to survive.
SCHMITZ: Forty-year-old Wu Songtao doesn't know where he's going to find work now. His grandfather worked at this mine in the 1930s when the Japanese ran it. And his father worked at the mine after the communists took over. Mining coal is all he knows.
WU SONGTAO: (Through interpreter) This is a dangerous job. Accidents have killed dozens of workers here. We've risked our lives for this mine and we earn just enough to afford cabbage. Now we won't be able to take care of our parents or children.
SCHMITZ: Wu's son is 18. He's about to graduate from high school
WU: (Through interpreter) Honestly, my only dream now is that my son can someday become a government official. That way, he can take bribes and live well. In the People's Republic of China, only officials and their businessmen friends become rich.
SCHMITZ: According to brochures Longhua distributed to workers, the company is offering a severance of $500 times the number of years they've worked - no more pension, no health insurance, just a lump sum of money. Longhua also offered a $5,000 bonus for employees who took this offer before the end of last year. Not a single worker out of 4,000 signed up.
Labor unions are banned in China, so they've organized over WeChat, a popular social media app.
WU: (Through interpreter) We have multiple chat groups devoted to discussing the severance and investigating corruption among the company's leadership.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).
SCHMITZ: Workers have posted videos like this one, a protest in front of company headquarters and another from a demonstration in Beijing, where they've attracted the attention of netizens and labor groups. But in China, social media is a double-edged sword. It also attracts the attention of police. That's what happens in the middle of our interview.
A local officer has infiltrated the workers' WeChat group and seen video of them talking to me.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
SCHMITZ: His timing is impeccable. He arrives as the workers tell me they're not scared of the ramifications of speaking to a foreign journalist. The officer orders me to turn my recorder off and checks my journalist card.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
SCHMITZ: After he leaves, the workers reassure me. Don't worry, there's 4,000 of us and just a dozen of them. They wouldn't dare bother you - famous last words. Fast forward to the next morning.
It's now 6:30 in the morning, and I've just gotten a call saying that the police from Dalianhe, where I was yesterday talking to workers, have come to Harbin, three hours away, where I'm now staying at a hotel. And they're waiting for me downstairs in the lobby. They apparently have been here since 2:30 in the morning. They want me to hand over the recordings, and they've also said that they've contacted the airport and they're not going to let me leave. Hotel staff is not allowing them to come up to my room. So we've got a bit of a standoff here.
They forced Wu Songtao, one of the younger workers I interviewed, to come with them. After some back and forth, they finally settle on having me come downstairs so that Mr. Wu can record himself saying that everything he said yesterday, his anger with the company, the severance package and with being unemployed, is a lie. So I take the elevator to the lobby where an exhausted Mr. Wu waits.
WU: (Through interpreter) They want me to tell you that everything I said isn't true. They're asking me to lie.
SCHMITZ: Dalianhe's police chief and Longhua's Communist Party secretary are waiting for him outside. He tells me they don't want me to record or take pictures of them. But that's where I go to ask them questions. By the time I get outside, they've run away. Back inside the lobby, Mr. Wu is desperate to get this over with.
He asks me to listen to his statement while both he and I record him.
WU: (Through interpreter) Everything I said yesterday was a lie. I didn't see things clearly. I don't want you to air this story.
SCHMITZ: I tell Wu that I hear what he's saying, but that I still plan to air this story. He nods and walks outside. After I return to Shanghai, I reach the company that owns the Longhua mine. They issued a statement. We're following the relevant laws. Everything is going well, and we don't want to trouble you with a return to Harbin. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Heilongjiang Province, China.