China’s ‘Rare’ Monopoly

Rare earth metals are the backbone of your tablets and laptops along with cars and fighter jets. These metals, which line one of the bottom levels of the Periodic Table, were discovered in the United States and most notably applied to technology developments by Americans.

According to last night’s 60 minutes, the first rare earth mine was shut down because it was polluting the Mohave Desert and a major rare earth company in Indiana sold itself -and its patents- to China before many of us could imagine their current ubiquity in our lives.

Although, Lesley Stahl conveyed these facts in the segment, I sensed a propagandist tone against the Chinese in her phrasing.

For example, Ms. Stahl asks, “So how did they pull it off? What were the factors that allowed them (China) to basically take this away from us (United States)?”. Later in the segment she reemphasized, “The U.S. developed this technology, but China bought most of it right out from under us. For instance, in 1995, China bought the biggest American rare earth magnet company, “Magnequench” which was based in Indiana.” 

I am not arguing against guest Dan McGroarty’s confirmation that Chinese control of the industry creates dependency on China or that they are mining the metals without attending to environmental concerns.

Instead, my issue with the segment is that, to me, the tone perpetuates the media’s underlying narrative of the ‘evil Chinese’ rather than simply presenting the facts. “Take away from us..” and “…bought most of it right from under us” makes it sound like theft. Or like we are sore losers.

Contrarily, I think Ms. Stahl more accurately defines the circumstances in this transition, “The mine lay dormant (after the Mohave pollution) for a decade, giving China an opportunity.”.

As we try to revive the rare metals industry in the United States, it’s convenient to be outraged as we grip onto our cell phones and laptops. As I type this on my tablet now, I get the longing- but not the outrage. 




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