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This statement is, in a certain sense, true. China’s economic growth has been built on coal to the extent that coal is its main source of energy. We can argue that any modern economy’s economic growth depends on its source of energy.
In a more immediate sense, China’s economic growth has been built on things other than coal. It has been built on low labor costs. It has been built on the fact that it has a relatively reliable and educated work force. It has been built on the fact that it has a relatively stable political and economic system (at least to this point). It has been built on demand from the West and on a system of free trade that has allowed China to export. Lately, it has been built on the fact that it has a large middle class that is providing more and more domestic demand. In this sense, coal is not the basis of China’s economic growth.
However, we can argue that coal is at the foundation of the economic growth. The great majority of China’s energy is provided by power plants that burn coal. This electricity is, of course, absolutely necessary for China’s economic growth. In this sense, the growth has been based on coal as that is China’s source of energy.
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