New project: Mining for Tourists in China


Maris Gillette, professor in Social Anthropology, has been awarded SEK 1.9 million from Riksbankens jubileumsfond for her new project Mining for Tourists in China. The topic of the project is industrial heritage at China’s new national mine parks, and its role in economic, cultural and ecological regeneration.

Since 2005, China's government has designated seventy-two inoperative state-owned coal, mineral, and oil shale mines as parks. This redevelopment is intended to attract tourist spending and new business to municipalities with underperforming economies and degraded environments. It is also part of China’s program to build an “ecological civilization” that balances economic growth, environmental protection, and concern for people’s quality of life.

“If China’s national mine parks follow the trends found at industrial heritage sites around the world, they offer interpretations and experiences that 'improve' history and nature for visitors by displacing the political and economic decisions that caused environmental pollution, layoffs, and socioeconomic decline. One goal of my research is to draw attention to the class implications of this process. I think it is helpful to conceptualize industrial heritage as a material and interpretive process of gentrification, and I plan to test this idea by studying the processes happening at these mine parks,” said Maris Gillette.

“I also hope to contribute to a literature that looks critically at tourism initiatives, and question the received wisdom that tourism brings benefits to local communities. I think we need to look carefully at the benefits and disadvantages of heritage tourism, including at social, political, and environmental levels. Finally, the project should also contribute to our understanding of an ‘ecological civilisation’ as a goal and a lived practice.”

Maris Gillette became interested in mine parks during her first visit to Sweden in 2013, when she toured the former copper and silver mines Falu and Sala.

“Those were my first visits to industrial heritage sites and my first mine tours. Even more than other industries, mining produces permanent changes in local landscapes. If the mine closes, mine pits, shafts, slag heaps, and abandoned machinery have to be dealt with somehow. In addition, it often happens that mining becomes a dominant source of employment in an area, and a part of a local identity. This too has to be managed if the mine closes.”

Heavy industry in China, including large-scale extraction, was tightly linked to modernization and the Chinese Communist Party's vision for the nation's future during the 20th century. The party has moved away from this vision and ushered in an era when markets drive most economic activity.

“To me, this poses particular socio-political challenges. The 'old' vision of modernity is unwanted, and so are the mines and the environmental degradation that accompanied them, and the workers who were once China's vanguard. I think we can learn a lot about China's present and future by attending to how the nation manages this past,” said Maris Gillette.

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Maris Gillette, professor in social anthropology at the School of Global Studies.