questionableBut wBeijings that it will its trade inthe 17 rare elements,essential for the production of hi-tech goods from mobile phones to precision-guided bombs, the world stands to attentionThis week Chinaannounced plans to. It is not an international power play, but domestic concerns - that arelikely to have motivated the decision.
"Rare" earths are, in fact, not so rare, just difficult to mine. China does have extensive deposits, but so too Brazil, South Africa, Australia and the United States.What China also has in abundance, at least until recently, is an apparent disregard for environmental and worker safety standards. In the city of Baotou in Inner Mongolia, now the leading source of rare earths, processing plants contaminate the Yellow River, the primary water supply for much of northern China, with radioactive ore. In smaller scale operations in the south of the country, workers boil toxic chemicals in open cauldrons to separate the precious elements.
China long undercut the market by ignoring environmental safeguards, gambling that it could entice manufacturers of high-technology products to set up shop domestically.of, which will provide incentive for other nations to mine for the materials.. Southern California will resume production of them in 2011.
The days of China's monopoly are numbered, in part for its own good. "The pollution is too much for even our crops to grow, and a lot is from the rare earths plants," Wu Leiji, a farmer near Baotou, told Reuters. "It's not getting any better. In fact, it's worse. Look at the kids. They're the worst off."
The maxim, "the Middle East has oil, China has rare earths", attributed to both Deng Xiaoping or Mao Zedong, will mean far less ever before. Life is likely to improve in China because of it. But rare earths are simply too indispensable to stop mining for them. As new producers attempt to take a bigger share of the market, they might learn from the price that China paid.