Guest Post – Are we prepared to just stand by? – Coal mining in China

It’s early morning, the sun is shining through  kitchen windows, aroma of coffee wafts pleasantly as toddlers squirm and squeal at your feet. The husband is off busying himself for the office, life could not be better.

On the other side of the world, in a village in China, another person is preparing for his day at work. He, too, has a wife who stands in a small area where the cooking is done, also, a happy toddler wriggles and squeals on the floor. But this man will not be going to an office. He will head off to a different type of job for twelve hours, probably for his sixth day in a row.

That job is back-breaking, dirty and pays very, very little. But, it is a job. It keeps the family from destitution. He is  a proud man, this Chinese man, a loving man with a proud and loving wife in spite of their straitened circumstance.

At the end of the day, however, for one of these families their world will have changed, irrevocably, because one of these men is a coal miner, and, he will not be coming home.

A miner and his family pose for a photo at Xinyu Coal Mining Company in Jiexiu city, North China's Shanxi province, June 16, 2011 (China Daily)

The most dangerous occupation on earth…

It has been called the most dangerous occupation on earth. Some say you have a greater chance of surviving a war then you have of reaching retirement in this occupation.

Last year, 2,423, men died in Chinese coal mining accidents. That is marginally less than the 2,592 Coalition soldiers who have died in Afghanistan from 2001 to June 15, 2011.

Full year 2001  to end 2011, officially, 47,676 have lost their lives in mining accidents and these “official” figures are considered to be grossly under stated. My estimation, along with many other observers, is that since 2000 there have been upwards of 150,000 deaths. That is about the equivalent of wiping out Springfield, Missouri, Cairns, Australia or Dundee, Scotland.

These frightening statistics only relate to deaths on the job.There are countless non fatal accidents leaving miners injured and, most times, maimed for life. Then there is the “Black Lung” and other related bronchial diseases that, whilst not being as a direct consequence of a mine accident, cause untold deaths.

But we hear so little of this ongoing tragedy that is China coal mining. Maybe a headline here, or there, “27 trapped in Collapsed mine in…” and then, as if it never happened, nothing!

Nothing from the Chinese. Nothing from the Western press or Human Rights Groups. Nothing from international Coal Mining Associations or Organised Labour Groups. Nothing from the import/exporters of Chinese goods made with the energy these miners liberate from the bowels of the earth, and, nor from you or me who blissfully use our iPhones or turn on our computers unaware of the very sad “input costs” of their production process.

What then is being done and what can be done?

Firstly, credit to the Chinese Government. In the five years till end 2010 the fatality rate per million tons of coal produced decreased 73 percent. The central government has tried to crackdown heavily in an attempt to wipe out illegal mine operations and to enforce OH&S standards on legal ones.

They have displayed an intent but do not have the will and undivided focus to fully succeed because, in China, even the power of the supreme Chinese Communist Party has nothing on the power of the almighty Yuan.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of China is aware of the blight of corruption that festers at all levels of Chinese government and officialdom. Corruption allows illegal mines and dangerously unsafe mines not only to operate, but to prosper enormously. Even legal mines are involved in paying off inspectors to “not see” obvious breaches of existing OH& S laws.

But while the Government does have a desire to see mining accidents decrease there is no blowtorch being applied to them to instill a steely will. It is not being applied to them from either the media in China or the west, nor from international governments, nor from Human Rights Organisations.

Whilst good men, loving men, lay at the bottoms of cold, wet, dark, coal shafts waiting to die and others await their turn to die tomorrow, and the day after, we are, it would seem, prepared, to just stand by and do nothing.

Stephen Sullivan is a social commentator and blogger. His interests are Australia, China, the Uyghur people of Xinjiang and human rights in China. You can follow him on twitter @ChinaLetter, or read his blog China letter, and his tumblr photo blog.

20 responses to “Guest Post – Are we prepared to just stand by? – Coal mining in China”

  1. Yaxue C. says:

    To add into the picture a few details for better resolution, I’ll throw in “my twopence” (never seen a pence before, and courtesy to thenakedlistener). China has two different types of mines: the state-owned and the private. I grew up in Shanxi, or the coal province, where, until the 1990s, mines were strictly operated by the state. The mining companies are complete societies of their own with schools, residential apartment, shops, writers, and even musical teams, administratively unrelated to the local government. They had resources back then (as far as resources go at that time), they have more resources now, and disasters are NOT common in these mines. The private mines begin to spring up during the 1990s, they are operated by individuals who were quick, bold and had some connections; and the miners were local peasants seeking for better income than farming. These mines are poorly regulated, and the “coal bosses” (煤老板) often willfully ignore safety requirements and get away with it by bribing the relevant officials (the director of the Bureau of Mining Regulation in a small town in Shanxi, who was arrested for corruption, had over 100 million yuan cash and 30 apartments in Beijing’s most desirable areas). These have been the mines where disasters occur and lives are lost. In recent years, there have been tragedies in very large state-owned mining companies. A telling example of this breed of tragedy is the one occurred on March 28, 2010, in Wangjialing (王家岭), in the mountains of western Shanxi, when a newly-built mine was flooded and 152 miners were trapped under. A writer from my home province reported on this (you can read the report on his blog and the series has 15 posts). The direct cause of the disaster, according to an expert who worked with the rescue workers on site, was that the provincial government and the mining company had been in such a hurry to build this new mine and to start production that every aspect of the mine were unready, from the ventilation shafts to the above-ground infrastructure, from the permanent facilities down in the mine to power supply and water-pumping system, before they sent the miners down there. And on top of that, the mine was not equipped for quick response in the event of a disaster. When the rescue began, they found no pipelines for drawing up water from the mine , so pipelines had to be laid first; when the pipelines were laid and the pumps began to pump, the pipes kept bursting because they were too thin. The miners in question were contract peasant-workers who didn’t earn much and enjoyed no benefit from the state. In the end, 114 of them were rescued and 38 died. The rescue was billed as a miracle and “a triumph of the Party’s leadership”. I don’t know what have come to their “investigation” and their “accountability” talk, because, after reading this writer’s report, I was just too sick of everything to care.

    I will put down a few things for your thoughts:

    1. The CCTV live reported that there were six pipelines working to pump the water while, in reality, there were only two. The miners were so enraged that they stormed the CCTV truck and smashed their equipment. The foreman said, “My men were still down there! How dare you!”

    2. The last miners who had been rescued told the interviewer, reluctantly, how they initially were afraid that the “rescuers” were trying to kill them in order to cover up the incident, because one veteran miner among them had experienced incidents like that before in other mines;

    3. The rescued workers wrote red banners to thank the Party: “The party’s kindness is as great as the mountains” (“共产党恩重如山”), “The Party has given me a second life” (“共产党给了我第二次生命 !”). It is beyond shameless as how this Party lost no moment and no opportunity to exploit the simple gratitude of these simple miners, whom the Party couldn’t care less if you see how they sent the miners 200 meters down to the earth in the first place, for being alive!

    4. In relation to No. 3, a movie called “Eight Days and Eight Nights” is being made about this rescue operation, and the news release reads “it will depict the miracle of how Shanxi provincial Party Committee and the government did everything they could, worked day and night, to eventually save 115 miners; how they lifted up a Nova’s Ark of life in the pitch-black mine and created a miracle in the history of human rescues.” Talk about nausea, what does Sartre know?

    5. Trust me, the picture in this post is meant to showcase the happiness of this minery (hence all Chinese miners) and his family. And more certainly than not, he (if he’s a miner at all; I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to be an actor) works in a state-owned mine with decent benefits. The faces of the peasant miners and their family? You won’t see them in China Daily.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      Yaxue: You write graphically about the Chinese mines and you write with authority. I’d love to read the Blog by the Shanxi writer but I can’t read Mandarin. Therefore, your input with translations of the Miners’ banners etc, is very valuable to me. By the way “twopence” is a two penny coin in British money – practically worthless. So to say you give your “twopence worth” is to self deprecate your contribution – very British (and Chinese?).

  2. Yaxue C. says:

    Thanks, 美丽,it’s only nominally self-deprecating though—-I really don’t know much at all. It’s just that I know China enough to see the nuances when I read things. And that writer is really a good writer, but among the very first sentences, he wrote something like, “I don’t know if anyone will appreciate a report like this, or whether it will cause trouble…” Such is the lot good Chinese writers find themselves. On the other hand, I as a writer am handicapped too for not being there and experiencing all.

    I personnally know a “coal boss” for whom my brother does legal work. On my visit to hometown in 2004, he held a banquest for me, and six people ate a banquest that cost, according to him, 10,000 yuan with shark fin soup and abalone. I was sick in my stomach both literally and figuratively. I had been travelling for days, was very, very tire, and had very little appetite; all the time during the banquest, I was craving for a simple bowl of home-made noodles with tomato and egg sauce and thinking about the sharks whose fin I was eating now, the young country girls around the table waiting on us, and how rotten everything is. The girls were all in their early 20s, giggled every time I said “thank you”, had very little education, and certainly were not thinking how life would unfold for them in the future. The coal boss kept asking me, with brimming proudness, “Do you eat this in America?” “Do you have that in America?” “No, I don’t eat this, I don’t have that,” I answered honestly. He asked me what work I did, I said I did translation for a living and I wrote stories to sustain my mind. Upon hearing the latter, he became very alarmed: “You don’t write anything anti-Party and anti-China, do you?” I said, “I do.” “Hahahaha,” he said, “in that case, I won’t entertain you anymore next time.”

    I wrote this scene into a story of mine.

    • Tom says:

      In all fairness to you Yaxue, I don’t think it is correct to call your stories “anti-China” just because they don’t embellish the party’s glorious history. I consider my site very much pro-China, in that it is in support of the common people of China, irrespective of my outlook on the party.

  3. John Book says:

    Tom, all of your posts have been of great interest to me. With a few exceptions, your co-posters have also added greatly to the info presented. My heart has been touched many times reading here. Today, however, I am moved emotionally, almost to tears. This to me is akin to the sex trade that is so prevalent in Asia. Humans using and abusing other humans for $$. Truly sick and disgusting!!

  4. Yaxue C. says:

    Tom, as you can imagine, I was having fun to just pique him, the pithier the better. For him though, anything short of extolling China in the most glorious terms would constitute “anti-China.” So, I could only say “I do” anyway.

    I also want to say a few things about the living conditions of the peasant-miners: They normally live in a kind of makeshift shed (工棚)near the mine; their wives and children stay behind in the village and don’t live together with them; they visit home no more than a couple of times a year, usually during the Chinese New Year. I was surprised to read that, in the accident I described above, when one of the wives were notified of the disaster, she didn’t even know exactly where her husband was working except that he was in the mountains of western Shanxi, but she was by all accounts an inteligent, caring woman with fortification.

    I don’t blame any of you for feeling sick: Just imagine, how many lives–lives of good, honest Chinese countrymen with family and children–were behind that Director’s 100 million yuan and 30 apartments in Beijing? And there are tons of directors just like him. Think about it next time you walk down a street in Beijing.

  5. Yaxue C. says:

    Corrections: banquet, fortitude, and more.

  6. Well I have never commented on one of my own posts before but may I say how incredibly impressed I am with the eloquence and passion of Commentor Yaxue C.’s responses, I stand very much in her shadow and thank her for what she has added to the story I tried to tell. Though I have not been as close as Yaxue C. I feel very deeply about this issue and thank you Tom for giving me the opportunity to have my tuppence worth as well. A fortune starts with the first Tuppence.

  7. yaxue c. says:

    Thanks, Stephen, for your post, the opportunity it presents for me to share my thoughts, and for your compliment. You are right, a fortune starts with the first Tuppence (I have been busy dealing with British English, and now Australian too? :))

  8. […] 《中国见红》博客:我们就这么无动于衷吗?——中国煤炭产业  […]

  9. Yaxue C. says:

    I came across the following news item this morning, and, since we discussed this just days ago, I thought I would leave a link here for record. Reminder: this is NOT the same director that I quoted from my writer friend in my comments:

    Former Director of Coal Regulation of Pu County, Shanxi, amassed over 300 million yuan and 35 properties (山西蒲县原煤炭局长敛财逾3亿 名下房产35处)

  10. Thanks for that news article Yaxue C. This problem is incredibly rife and not only is this form of corruption wrong, obviously, but it causes deaths. What is happening in this industry in my mind is not just corruption it is murder and the law should reflect same. Only then perhaps may people see past the almighty yuan resulting in fewer innocent lives and families being destroyed. We in the west are not exposed to these articles as you have pointed us to so thanks again.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Stephen, I was just about to make a correction when I received your comment: The director in this news article is indeed the same director I quoted in my comments. At the time my friend wrote that report last year in which he made a mention of this director, he had been recently arrested, and what I read in the news today is the newest development.

      This is considered a “large case” (大案), and the state media loves to make a big splash out of it. Not that they shouldn’t, but it can give the false impression that corruption has been successfully tackled. The real picture is, the vast majority of China’s corrupted officials are less excessive and conspicuous, who not only go unpunished, but have slowly been accepted by the helpless public as the norm. But as far as lives and families being destroyed, they are just as deadly.

      Indeed, they are murderers.

      • Tom says:

        This goes with what I was talking about last week with the Chinese idea of justice, that you choose 1 or 2 people to punish for what in actuality is a widespread crime. Justice having been done, the gov’t eases back on monitoring, and keeps similar stories out of the news, lest it seem as widespread as it actually is. The attitude seems to be that 1 big case is better for the party than 100 small ones.

  11. Yaxue C. says:

    That’s right, Tom. If they start getting serious about corruption regardless size, the Party will have to topple itself first. The Party does just about everything in bad faith: The good they do, they do to serve themselves; the bad they do, well, they tell you it’s good even though they know it’s bad.

  12. You are totally right Tom these are “show cases” admittedly. I do however refer to my post and give some credit to the government as statistics do point ” officially”, anyway, to a reduction in deaths and this “official” result will have a flow on effect to the real figures. But more, much more has to be done as I am sure Yaxue C. will agree, because even given these improvements the figures remain at criminal levels. In a post on my blog sometime ago I urged tweeters and bloggers to read and retweet things like this to generally raise awareness because the government is reactionary and move quicker when the blowtorch is applied. I am currently doing some research on China’s Street children and you can see over a period of say ten years the spikes in government activity on children’s welfare when the harsh light is shone on the government’s face. That is what we are doing here in our small way, attempting to egg on action, to raise government activity to a higher level, one step at a time. To refer to the analogy we have developed here ” a fortune is accumulated from many “tuppences””

  13. […] and the ensuing discussion led me to this post, which cites that between 2001-2011, 47,676 coal miners died in accidents in China. That number is […]

  14. […] ChinaGeeks’ Charles Custer calculates that the official death toll in China’s coal mines over the past ten years—47,676—is equivalent to 31 Titanics, 15 9/11 attacks, 2 Battles of Thermopylae or 1,288 Ted Bundys. But Stephen Sullivan at Seeing Red in China estimates that even these deaths may represent less than a third of the true figure. […]

  15. […] and China’s coal mines are notoriously perilous. In the ten year span between 2001 and 2011, more than 47,670 Chinese coal miners were killed in mining accidents (for reference, that death toll is approximately equivalent to 11 Chernobyl […]

  16. […] and China’s coal mines are notoriously perilous. In the ten year span between 2001 and 2011, more than 47,670 Chinese coal miners were killed in mining accidents (for reference, that death toll is approximately equivalent to 11 Chernobyl […]

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