The Geopolitics of Energy: China’s Coal Regime

The Russian oil boycott has not only shaken the global economy, but also exposes how overdue the world is for a transition to cleaner energy. Three scholars report on impacts of the boycott and emphasize the need for multilateral solutions that don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

Back of coal miner in gear walking down a dark tunnel

By Michelle Nicholasen

Second in a series of interviews on the impact of the Russian oil boycott on countries around the world. 

Worldwide cuts in Russian oil imports have sent a shockwave through the global economy, threatening a global recession, according to recent IMF forecasts. At the same time, the boycott is a blunt reminder that the world is desperate for a monumental energy transition to ease the climate crisis, and even the leading economies are not there yet.

But oil is here to stay, at least for the near future. Unlike a reduction in the supply of washing machines or computer chips, the need for energy security is a national imperative that can lead to some stark trade-offs. Throughout the modern era, the drive for unlimited fuel supply/oil has resulted in compromises in environmental health, human rights, ethics, and international peace. Today’s self-imposed oil shortage is forcing nations to find alternative sources of fuel and forge new relationships in a truly global market.

Book cover for Carbon TechnocracyIn part 2, Faculty Associate and historian of science Victor Seow talks about China’s carbon energy regime and the primacy and pitfalls of the technocratic tendencies that have long defined it. His recent book chronicles the massive excavation of coal at an open pit mine in northeast China—once the largest in the world—and the industry’s relationship to labor, the environment, and the rise of the modern state in China and Japan.

To learn more about the ramifications of the Russian oil boycott, we asked three scholars about the impacts in the countries and regions they study: Marino Auffant on Saudi Arabia and the EU; Victor Seow on China; and Oya Dursun-Özkanca on Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean. The three interviews in this series are edited for length and clarity.

Q: Victor, how has China responded to the Russian oil boycott?

VICTOR SEOW: Just as the Chinese government has yet to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has not participated in the Russian oil boycott— though for a while it held back from acquiring new Russian oil contracts, importing only the volumes set by prior arrangements.

However, just recently, Reuters reported that China had started scaling up its oil purchases from Russia, which is its largest supplier after Saudi Arabia. One estimate has China’s Russian oil imports for May pegged at almost two million barrels a day, which would put Russia ahead of Saudi Arabia as China’s main source of foreign oil.

China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), such as Sinopec, account for a good deal of this ramping up of purchases. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these SOEs bought about a third of the blended crude supplied through Russia’s massive Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean oil pipeline. They are slated to double those purchases this month..

One of the contradictions we see is that this increase in Russian oil imports is coinciding with a decrease in consumption, with economic activity slowing down because of the ongoing and intensifying lockdowns under China’s Zero-COVID policy, happening most vividly in Shanghai, but which certainly extends to other urban centers and beyond as well. So there is this spike in supply amidst this dip in demand.

Building of Sinotec headquarters

Q: You looked very closely at the rise of coal production and extraction in Southeast Asia. In your book Carbon Technocracy, you write that if the energy regime of coal helped facilitate modern democracy, then the energy regime of oil has served to dismantle it. Can you explain what you mean?

VICTOR SEOW: This gets to the broader question of the relationship between particular energy sources, such as coal and oil, and specific political outcome. I have to clarify two things.

First, this is actually not an argument I make. This is one that was put forward by Timothy Mitchell in Carbon Democracy, a book that I closely reference in my account of fossil fuels and technocratic politics in East Asia. The title of my book, which is a concept I develop within it, is in part also an homage to his. And second, this relationship between coal and oil and democracy, as Mitchell traces it, is a historical one specific to the areas of the world he focuses on (the UK and the US and their imperial projects in the Middle East) and not necessarily a deterministic one in which coal necessarily leads to democracy and oil to autocracy. And I share his suspicion of such energy determinism.

Mitchell contends that the energy regime of coal, which took root in the industrial era of the long nineteenth century, gave rise to material transformations on a scale unwitnessed in previous times. Notably, what emerged was a system in which we had rapidly expanding urban centers connected to and fed by sites of extraction through a growing transport network of coal canals and railway lines. 

This system was, however, as vulnerable as it was extensive. For if the transport lines were disrupted, the entire urban and industrial assemblage that was made and maintained through the harnessing of energy from coal as a resource would come apart. And where democracy enters Mitchell’s story is when workers who were involved in the mining or transportation of coal disrupted those lines through sabotage or strikes—or the threat of such—and, in return, won for themselves rights they had not enjoyed prior.

That is Mitchell’s coal story. And as he sees it, the turn to oil was a means to mitigate those vulnerabilities. Because of its material properties, oil can be extracted and moved through a technological system of pumps and pipes, greatly reducing the reliance on labor. And so transitioning to oil as the primary energy source in the global economy, by undermining the place of workers within the system, curtailed the power that these workers formerly wielded through their participatory politics. 

One thing that I started noticing when looking at the coal mining industry in East Asia in the early twentieth century is that the elements that Mitchell identifies—the vulnerabilities of energy systems and the fear of worker disruption—were concerns long held by engineers and technicians in the past who were designing and running sites of extraction.

I am thinking here specifically of the Japanese technocrats who oversaw operations at East Asia's onetime largest coal mine, the Fushun colliery. (For context, Fushun is located in southern Manchuria—what is now northeast China—and it serves as the centerpiece of my book.) This site changed hands between various Chinese and Japanese states across the early twentieth century, and its history then enables me to provide a connected but comparative account of energy in the region.

Old photograph of open pit mine at Fushun Colliery

So these Japanese technocrats would develop and deploy various technological solutions to what they regarded as problems with the unreliability or volatility of the largely Chinese workforce. The most visual and extreme example of this would be in open pit mining—which is, in theory, carried out not so much by human labor as it is by an assortment of heavy industrial machinery, from steam shovels to large excavators. Fushun’s Japanese engineers excavated the first open pit in the 1910s. By the 1930s, the open pit mine here was a massive excavation. The amount of stuff unearthed to bring it into being was already three times that of the material dredged to create the Panama Canal. This would become Fushun’s most iconic feature.

Japanese technocrats took up open pit mining not only to extract greater quantities of coal from Fushun’s thick seams but also to do so while diminishing the enterprise’s dependence on labor. However, as I show in the book, for all the efforts to replace humans with machines, the colliery ended up needing more and more workers as their targeted output continued growing, and this also meant putting greater numbers of these workers in harm’s way as they labored deeper into the earth in what would be an increasingly engineered (and exploited) environment. And these were trends that extended beyond the period of Japanese management to that of the Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists thereafter. Thus, coal production and extraction in East Asia is less about democratic possibilities but instead technocratic machinations, which had considerable environmental and human costs. 

Finally, I want to also qualify that I do not think of this as particular to China and Japan. Technocratic approaches to issues of energy—and the costs that these incur—appear to be endemic to modern industrial society writ large, a common denominator across different forms of government.

Old photograph of about 15 miners posing for a picture inside a coal mine building

Q: Would a clean energy transition result in just another technocracy? Or is there something about green energy regimes that could be different?

VICTOR SEOW: As you know, I do not believe in energy determinism. Especially as a historian, I cannot stress enough how context and contingency matter. I completely agree with Marino Auffant’s argument about how the three postwar cases he mentions illustrate how the equation of oil with authoritarianism is suspect. My book, Carbon Technocracy, also calls into question the necessary tethering of coal to democracy.

But some of these associative notions—the “oil curse” being a prime example—are so prevalent in academic and public discourses. And this is true in relation to non-fossil fuels too. For instance, there is an idea that is gaining some traction that claims that green technologies will engender democratic outcomes. One line of thinking behind such an assumption is that something like solar power can be generated in a more decentralized way as compared to electricity from fossil fuels, and that decentralization may then be tantamount to democratization. Yet we only need to look at China today, which is by far the largest producer of renewable energy, with over three times the generation of the United States, to see that is not necessarily the case, and that even the massive uptake of renewables there is due to the initiative of a strong, centralized state.

Q: How is China responding to the pressure for clean energy?

VICTOR SEOW: China has, over the past decade or so, been a driver in the adoption of greener energy globally.

There were earlier efforts, most notably in dam building—although the greenness of hydropower can be disputed given problems of emissions and ecosystem disruption. Still, the 2010s witnessed rapid developments in terms of the generation of wind and solar power. This was spurred by environmental concerns, specifically concerns over air pollution, particularly after the “airpocalypse” in the winter of 2013, when the concentration of certain particulate matter in Beijing was forty times the level that the World Health Organization had deemed healthy. China had previously been the largest producer of photovoltaic cells. Soon, it would be the largest consumer as well.

These efforts at advancing greener technologies went hand-in-hand with attempts to scale back coal consumption, which declined between 2014 and 2016. This was a result of statist measures overseen by the newly established Ministry of Environmental Protection, from experimenting with cap-and-trade to introducing strict power plant efficiency standards.

Beijing National Stadium at the 2008 Summer Olympics, lit up at night

However, in 2017, the Chinese government began to relax coal restrictions amid fears of an economic slowdown. And it has gone back and forth since. The dynamic has largely been the same, though, with green initiatives being rolled back when anxieties over economic growth arise.

This is, of course, not only a China issue. Elsewhere, such as in this country, economic calculations and capitalist concerns over diminished profits have forestalled and led to the active undermining of necessary environmental action.

Q: In terms of final thoughts, as the world shifts to cleaner technologies, what are the most important lessons that you derive from your research? 

VICTOR SEOW: In Carbon Technocracy, I foreground how the modern state, with its demands and ambitions, was a key player in the turn toward intensive fossil fuel extraction in the industrial age. And I also point out how states often relied heavily upon methods and mechanisms deemed scientific and technological in their pursuit of this fossil fuel extractivism. This, again, is where the technocracy comes into the picture.

Now there are at least three lessons that I think my book can offer as we witness the expanding use of cleaner energy technologies across the globe—a shift, I should add, that is really not happening as quickly as it should.

First is that the state has been and will continue to be a major part of this process, be this in China or elsewhere. And given the enormity of our planetary crisis, we may very well require states with strong hands and firm political wills to decisively adopt the adaptive strategies we need to secure a more habitable future—the switch to renewables being a key one. But, as I have pointed out in the case of China, which has, at least in scale, taken the biggest strides toward carbon neutrality, issues of climate are often subordinated to those of economy, leading states to reverse course when the latter appears to be threatened. The question, and it is a hard one, is then how might we, in such scenarios, get state actors to see the importance of staying the course? That is, how do we get them to take the long view?

Second, one of the downsides of technocracy is that it often puts forward narrow technoscientific solutions to multifaceted issues that have complex socioeconomic dimensions, as climate change does. And those technocratic solutions are often not only ineffective; they can also exact considerable human and environmental costs. This comes up time and time again in my book, across the different Chinese and Japanese regimes. With transitions to cleaner energy, we should thus be thinking not only about the installation of requisite technologies, but also about the social and economic dimensions of how these technologies are made and maintained.

And third, fossil fuel extractivism and carbon technocracy have been rooted in a deep faith in the essential inexhaustibility of energy resources. In my book, I show how Chinese and Japanese states were drawn to sites with massive deposits of carbon resources like Fushun and often regarded them as basically limitless, which informed the wanton extraction they then carried out at those sites. The relationship that modern industrial societies have with energy have been defined by this false promise that extends beyond fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy, which still require other materials in order to be harnessed.

Victor Seow quotation from blog post

And part of the problem is that technocratic solutions to energy questions are almost all about production and supply. We need to be also seriously thinking about consumption and demand. One common response to such a suggestion has been to raise the specter of preindustrial society and say that those of us calling for restraint are advocating a return to dark ages lit by candle light—to give one frequently evoked image. But we cannot turn back the clocks even if we wanted to.

Given that the climate crisis is in large part a product of unchecked consumption based on cornucopianistic fantasies, a habitable future must involve a curbing of our excessive appetites for energy and other resources.

Read more in The Geopolitics of Energy series

Contributor Bio

Headshot of Victor SeowWeatherhead Center Faculty Associate Victor Seow is an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is a historian of technology, science, and industry. He specializes in China and Japan in the long twentieth century and in histories of energy and work. At the core, his research revolves around questions of how technoscientific developments intersect with economic life and environmental change in the making and unmaking of industrial society. His new book, Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia, is published by the University of Chicago Press. 


  1. Miner in a tunnel. Kailuan Coal Mine Group, Tangshan Qianjiaying Coal Mine, China. August 2007. Credit: Flickr, Marcel Crozet/ILO (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
  2. Headquartered in Beijing, Sinopec Group is the world's largest oil refining, gas and petrochemical conglomerate. Sinopec headquarters, 22 Chaoyangmen North Street, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China. 16 August 2010. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)
  3. Postcard from the author’s collection. The Japanese text reads: “The Grand Sight of the Open Working Fushun Colliery;” with additional phrase: “inexhaustible treasure house,” appealing to the common perception of Fushun’s coal resources as limitless. This image, like several from Carbon Technocracy, comes from a postcard. Countless Japanese postcards in the early twentieth century depict sites of industry like Fushun, pointing to an industrial modern aesthetic that seemed to be in vogue at the time. Credit: courtesy of Victor Seow
  4. Inside the Oyama pit’s coal dressing plant. With the help of machinery, primarily the English-manufactured Marcus screen conveyor, workers clean and sort the raw coal by size into coal fragments, smaller pieces, and larger lumps. This photograph was likely taken in the 1930s, after the advent of open-pit mining at Fushun. There were, by that point in time, tens of thousands of workers (mostly Chinese) on site. Crowded into dormitories, Chinese laborers suffered dismal living conditions, while Japanese employees enjoyed updated and sanitary residential housing. The Japanese text describes the plant as “operating day and night,” and this facility did indeed run constantly, with three overlapping shifts of workers each laboring ten hours. Credit: courtesy of the Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University
  5. China described the Beijing Winter Olympics of 2022 as the first to be completely carbon-neutral. A variety of strategies were adopted to reduce emissions, including new wind and solar infrastructure; retrofitting venues from the 2008 Summer Olympics, and buying carbon offsets in the form of reforestation. However, critics have argued that coal power is supporting these reconstruction efforts. This photo of the Beijing National Stadium, site of the opening and closing ceremonies, was taken in 2011. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)