Wealth trumps safety in China's coal mines

Accidents: While the same men make money from and regulate the mines, business booms and deaths mount.

August 13, 2005|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QITAIHE, China - The sign near the small coal mine where Liu Quanju's husband and son died makes clear in bold red characters that, at least in words, the government supports mine safety: "Managing methane is a great responsibility. Fulfill your duty at work and inspect conscientiously."

Such signs urging safety in coal mines are as ubiquitous as the proclamations by political leaders on the subject. But in a state where propaganda often runs counter to reality, all the posters and proclamations serve merely to underscore just how unsafe China's coal mines are.

Many mine operators and their government patrons are reaping financial windfalls from the nation's energy-hungry economic boom, by producing as much coal as possible as cheaply as possible - a credo that is not recorded on propaganda signs.

On March 14, Liu's husband and son died with 16 others in the bowels of the Xinfu coal mine, their fates sealed underground by a methane explosion. Liu's younger brother was one of just two survivors, but he is in jail for allegedly shirking his duty as methane inspector - a post that his family members assert neither he nor anyone else at the mine held permanently.

The mine, run by a government safety official, was cutting corners to make more money, they said.

The story of how this one coal mine in remote northeast China became a death trap amounts to two sometimes contradictory tales, one of them told by this grieving family and the other reported in a spare official news account.

Taken together, though, both versions explain why the system that issues edicts from Beijing to improve coal mine safety is the same system that ignores those edicts every day in thousands of mining villages.

They also begin to explain how some of the more than 1 million people who toil deep inside these mines - people who have literally lost their brothers - can still have faith in Communist Party leaders in the far-away capital.

16 deaths a day

Six thousand miners died in 3,629 reported accidents last year, an average of more than 16 deaths a day. Labor watchdogs suspect the real annual death toll in China's coal mines might be two or three times higher, because many incidents are believed to go unreported.

The families of many miners insist that the country's leaders are surely unaware of the dangers.

"They don't know," said Zhang Peixing, Liu's elder son, in a rural refrain about central leaders that harks back to imperial times. Liu continued working in another mine after losing his father, his brother and a cousin in the March accident. "The country attaches a lot of significance to the safety issue."

This is the second in a series of occasional articles examining how the Communist Party of China sustains itself in part on the declared good intentions of the leaders in Beijing, whatever the harsh realities many people must endure.

The country's coal mine industry demonstrates that no matter how much leaders in Beijing might truly want mines to be safe, the system those officials perpetuate - a system of corruptible bureaucrats with unchecked power - almost ensures the mines will remain deadly.

More news reports

China's state news media, often forbidden in the past to report on disasters, has in recent years begun to report more frequently on major coal mine accidents, a sign that central leaders recognize the severity of the safety issue. But the coverage is steered carefully. The reports provide an outlet for public frustrations while also crediting leaders for taking action.

This damage control has been on vivid display in the past year, especially after two accidents claiming a total of 380 lives. Chinese reporters filed sympathetic dispatches about the devastated families and safety violations, matched by prominently displayed dispatches repeating the bold promises of top leaders on improving safety.

"This mine accident leaves us a lesson of blood," Premier Wen Jiabao said during a Jan. 2 visit with grieving relatives at a government-owned mine where 166 people died. "We will definitely attach a lot of importance to safety production and will never let such a tragedy happen again."

In addition to strong statements such as Wen's, Beijing announced efforts to make mines safer, funneling more than $2 billion into the task this year and pledging up to $4 billion more in the next two years.

Routine precautions

Most of the mining deaths in China could have been prevented if safety measures considered routine in developed nations, and technically required here, had been observed.

But miners continued dying in great numbers. According to official statistics, 1,113 people died in coal mine accidents in the first three months of this year, an increase of 20 percent over the corresponding period last year. That included the 18 men who died in the March 14 explosion at the Xinfu mine in Heilongjiang province - during a purported provincial campaign to step up mine safety inspections.

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