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China: Dying In The Mines

A miner rests during the Daxing rescue effort (file photo) Scarcely a month seems to go by without news of at least one coal mining disaster somewhere in China. China's coal mines are the most dangerous in the world. Official statistics put the annual toll of on-the-job deaths at about 7,000, but some foreign NGOs say the real figure is probably closer to 20,000, Radio Free Asia's Mandarin Service (RFA) recently reported. Even the official figures are 10 times those of India, 30 times those of South Africa, and 100 times those of the United States, according to the "Los Angeles Times" of 16 August.

The Chinese State Administration of Work Safety recently announced that 693 coal miners have died within the past six weeks alone.

In the most recent tragedy, at least 120 miners are still missing and presumed dead as a result of a flood that began on 7 August in the Daxing Coal Mine in Xingning in southern Guangdong Province. The government announced on 12 August that it is launching an investigation, but past practice suggests that publicity and an investigation of one specific incident are unlikely to change much in the mining industry overall. After all, on 24 October 2004, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) daily "Renmin Ribao" ran an article about a coal-mine disaster in Henan Province, in which the author called for plugging loopholes in safety legislation and stressing the need to "put people first." However, the death toll in 2005 is reaching new heights.

The reason for the catastrophic safety record is simple: there is big money in coal mining and few checks or balances to ensure that mine owners respect safety regulations or elementary workers' rights. According to the June issue of the "Far Eastern Economic Review," China's booming economy is the world's second-largest consumer of energy and the largest consumer of coal. It consumes 30 percent of the world's coal, and coal meets 65 percent of China's primary energy demand.
"Not a single accident has been the result of natural or unavoidable circumstances." -- Labor union official

Chinese mines produce about 2 billion tons of coal per year. As with much of the Chinese economy, the trend is away from large state-run enterprises to smaller ones run by local officials or private individuals. Veteran China-watcher Jasper Becker wrote in 2000 in his book "The Chinese" that already in that year there were probably 80,000 small coal mines throughout the country, producing about half of its coal.

Safety Last

Becker has also described the Chinese economy as a "collection of family businesses" -- and that suggests part of the problem with mine ownership. Briefly, many businesses in China involve interconnected networks of entrepreneurs, local government, party officials, and, sometimes, officers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which owns many kinds of factories in its own right.

The atmosphere is cozy and clearly conducive to corruption. The Daxing Coal Mine, the scene of the latest tragedy, began producing in 1990 as a state-run company and was sold to private owners in 1999 for $625,000. It was designed to yield 30,000 tons per year, but the 38-year-old owner reportedly cut corners on safety measures in order to produce 50,000 tons. Local officials reportedly were also involved in the mine's management. Prior to the accident, Daxing operated without a license and in violation of a government order for local mines to close pending an investigation of a recent flood at a nearby mine.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is not difficult for such enterprises to find workers. "Renmin Ribao" itself wrote last October that China has "300 million surplus workers," who are often poorly educated farmers willing to risk their personal safety for the sake of an income. "Most [coal mine] owners offer no training," the "Los Angeles Times" reported. "New employees often find themselves descending deep underground within an hour of being hired." Such individuals generally consider a miner's monthly wage of $120 a fortune, and "some even rationalize that, should the worst happen, they are worth more to their families dead than alive" because the government now requires mine owners to pay miners' families $24,800 per accidental death. RFA quoted one Daxing miner as saying that "most private companies don't insure their workers," despite national regulations requiring them to do so.

Improvement Unlikely

As the "Financial Times" noted on 13 August, there is such a big a market for coal and such money to be made that the safety situation is unlikely to be remedied in the foreseeable future. The paper quoted a mining official in Shanxi Province as saying that demand for coal is so great that government safety policies are unlikely to be enforced lest production fall. "Developing mines not only enriches local officials but also creates jobs. A massive closure [of mines found to be unsafe] will have an impact on the entire local community, cutting the income of both local government and ordinary peasants," the official said. Beijing's "China Daily" argued, moreover, that local governments are "certain" to protect mine owners and added that the owners "are not interested in investing in safety equipment as this costs much more than paying off the families of the dead."

It is not clear what will be the outcome of the Daxing case. Soon after the flood began, the owners and managers fled, taking their records with them. They subsequently returned, but only after the authorities gave them a deadline to do so lest they face draconian measures. The Guangdong provincial government has meanwhile suspended the mayor of Xingning and his colleague in Meizhou for "incompetence" in supervising local mines. At least 11 other officials have been detained.

In late November 2004, in response to a series mining disasters that year, RFA interviewed Tang Chun, who is a safety specialist for the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions. "One hundred percent of the mining accidents that take place [in China] are ones in which someone bears responsibility," Tang said. "They all happen because national safety regulations have not been followed properly or have been breached entirely. Not a single accident has been the result of natural or unavoidable circumstances."

See also:

"Strapped For Energy Resources, China And India Look For Alternatives"

Beijing Looking To Tehran To Fuel Its Booming Economy