No two industries better reflect China's extraordinary growth and transformation than steel-making and shipbuilding.
This is dramatically illustrated in the book "A Tale of Two Ventures – Wah Kwong at 60", by Hong Kong-based photographer Basil Pao. Selected photos from that book are presented here , depicting the construction of super-sized tankers and bulk carrier ships in China, their journey around the world to obtain cargoes of iron ore, coal, and crude oil, and their return journeys to China to fuel her ongoing industrial revolution.
It is useful to bear in mind that just 20 years ago, China was a relatively small player on the global stage in steel-making and shipbuilding. Today it is the leader in both.
Steel is one of the most important commodities in any industrialized country. It is a crucial component of infrastructure such as buildings, highways, bridges, railways and a wide range of consumer goods. China's emergence as the world's largest steel-producing country may be old news, but it's easy to forget the remarkable speed and scale of this achievement.
In 2000, just 22 years after the launch of the reform and open policy, China's steel production accounted for 15 percent of global output, with only two mainland steelmakers in the top 10. Today it produces roughly half of the world's steel and is home to five of the top 10 steel companies, and 10 of the top 20.
Iron ore consumption goes hand in hand with China's steel production. China is the world's top iron ore producer, but the low iron content of its ore – around 10 percent compared to 60 percent or more in imported ore – has forced it to become the world's top importer, bringing in more than 740 million metric tons in 2012.
To put the growth of China's iron ore imports into perspective, today's totals are more than ten times the 70 million metric tons it imported in 2000. Viewed another way, today China is importing nearly as much iron ore every month as it did in the entirety of 2000. Australia and Brazil, the main exporters of iron ore to China, have reaped significant economic benefits from China's ravenous consumption of the commodity.
The process of turning all that iron ore into steel requires substantial amounts of energy. This is where the increasing importance of another commodity – coal – becomes apparent. It is projected that beginning next year, half of the coal burned in the world will be burned in China. In this century's first decade, the fivefold growth in China's steel output was accompanied by a threefold increase in coal consumption.
No wonder that despite being the world's largest producer of coal, China is also the largest importer. Last year  China's coal imports jumped a remarkable 57.9 percent year-on-year, reaching 289 million metric tons. Despite major recent advances in China's green energy sector, the country's hunger for coal is unlikely to wane anytime soon – conservative estimates have its total coal consumption growing by at least two percent annually over the coming four years.
Aside from relatively minor amounts coming overland from Russia and Mongolia – less than nine percent of its total imports – the majority of coal entering China comes from much further afield. Well over half of China's coal imports come from just three countries: Indonesia, Australia and South Africa.
China's voracious appetite for imported iron ore and coal, most of which comes from overseas, has been a huge boon for the global shipping industry since 2000, most notably in the years between 2003 and 2008. Increased demand and charter rates turned out to be a mixed blessing however – when the 2008 global financial crisis triggered a collapse in demand and charter rates plummeted from an all-time record high to near-record lows. Nevertheless, shipping today is still integral to China's phenomenal growth story.
China's impact on bulk shipping during the fat years of the previous decade contributed to significant growth in the global fleet of Capesize bulk carriers, which feature payloads ranging from 150,000 to more than 400,000 long tons deadweight. These ships are primarily used for transport of iron ore and coal, which together constitute around 90 percent of Capesize bulk cargo.
Another commodity which China has been importing in increasingly large volumes is oil l. China was the world's largest net oil importer for the first time in December 2012, but in absolute numbers it is still runner-up to the United States. It is expected to surpass the US as the world's top crude importer by 2015.
The Chinese economy's growing thirst for oil has had also driven the manufacture of supertanker ships, some of which can carry up to two million barrels of oil. They are second in transport efficiency only to oil pipelines.
Since 2000 the skyrocketing demand in China for iron ore, coal and oil combined with a massive upturn in steel production created a perfect platform for the country to take the global lead in shipbuilding. China lagged well behind shipbuilding powerhouses South Korea and Japan in 2000, but today is the world's top shipbuilder. The last time China led the world in shipbuilding was during the days of Ming emperor Yongle at the beginning of the 15th Century, when Zheng He's massive flotillas of treasure ships sailed from China to Southeast Asia and East Africa.
Building ships and using ships are two very different propositions. That is where the expertise of Hong Kong's most powerful shipping dynasties has been invaluable. Possessing a knack for knowing which ways the winds of change would blow, the Chao, Koo, Pao, Tsao and Tung families relocated from Shanghai to Hong Kong in the late 1940s, returning half a century later to facilitate China's opening up to global trade.
Today more and more iron ore and coal transported by Chinese-made Capesize bulk vessels running on fuel imported by Chinese-made supertankers is used to produce steel that is in turn used to manufacture more ships that bring in more iron ore, coal and oil… and the cycle continues. These are key threads intertwined with the narrative of China's development, and they show no likelihood of abating anytime soon.
Photos reprinted with permission of Basil Pao and Wah Kwong Shipping, from "A Tale of Two Ventures – Wah Kwong at 60". Photographs by Basil Pao. Studio 8 Editions , October, 2012.