China is prospecting for mineral treasures around the world as it develops faster than any major economy in history. Its copper use is growing so quickly that by 2035 global demand for the metal may outstrip supply by 11 million tons, according to CRU, a London-based mining and metals consulting firm.
More than half of China’s 1.3 billion people live in rural areas. Over the next 15 years, the country will need 50,000 skyscrapers, 170 mass transit systems and urban housing for 350 million people as it develops the interior, according to a 2009 study by the McKinsey Global Institute, a research arm of New York-based McKinsey & Co. That represents a potential doubling of the domestic market for autos, appliances, televisions and other consumer goods.
Copper—first smelted over wood fires 10,000 years ago—is at the center of it all, conveying the country’s electrical pulse and providing the nervous system for the computers, dishwashers and microwaves China makes for the world.