Simon Elegant / Zhangjiachang
Old Zhao, his fellow miners called him -- a weary-looking man, 54, wearing a yellow safety helmet and a miner's lamp strung around his neck, black coal dust embedded in the lines on his forehead and lightly powdering the insides of his ears. Last May Zhao and a team of other veterans were assigned to search for the bodies of 57 miners killed in Zuoyun County, deep in China's Shanxi province. The dead men had accidentally tunneled into a flooded mine shaft next to their own. "Many of them are very young--just boys," Zhao says, pausing to light a cigarette. "I keep seeing their faces in my dreams, and they remind me of my son. He's 27 and works at a mine in the next county."
For 25 years, Zhao has worked as a miner in China's northeast, where much of the coal that drives the country's booming economy is mined. That longevity makes him a lucky man. Being a coal miner in China is one of the world's most dangerous jobs. Officially, about 5,000 of his fellow workers died in mining accidents last year. Unofficially, nobody knows how many were killed. In the space of a single week late last year, gas explosions and accidents in four mines left nearly 100 miners dead. Li Yizhong, head of the State Administration of Work Safety Supervision, described the carnage as "unprecedented" and blamed the deaths on collusion between local officials and greedy mine owners. Indeed, throughout China, the coal magnates of Shanxi are notorious for their extravagance. Chinese newspapers regularly tally the number of Hummers, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces in the otherwise impoverished province.
Coal powers China. The original fossil fuel is the source of explosive economic growth in China, just as it was in Britain at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and in the U.S. later. China is the world's biggest consumer of coal, its factories and homes using nearly a third of total world production. Much of that coal is dug in tens of thousands of mines scattered across the windblasted ocher hills northeast of Beijing. It is here--more than in the textile factories of the south where Western activists complain of sweatshop conditions--that Chinese pay in blood for their country's economic success. The official death toll fell some 20% last year, but as with many government statistics in China, the figures aren't sparking celebrations, even among safety officials. In fact, many industry observers believe that accidents are heavily underreported. Robin Munro, a human-rights activist at the Hong Kong--based China Labor Bulletin, working from an unofficial estimate given by a senior work-safety bureaucrat, thinks as many as 20,000 miners die in accidents each year. And that count doesn't include tens of thousands more of the country's estimated 5 million miners who die of lung afflictions and other work-related diseases every year.
The toll highlights more than the awful conditions in an industry that the China Labor Bulletin calls "blood coal." It also exposes one of the most critical issues faced by Beijing: the inability of the central government to get local authorities to follow orders. The official Chinese media repeatedly feature stories on how local administrators ignore orders from Beijing on everything from controlling public spending and cracking down on corruption to protecting the environment. "Mining is the perfect case study of central-government relations with local government in China," says Arthur Kroeber, editor of the China Economic Quarterly. "The clash is between the central government's desires and the local government's pressing economic needs, and in 99 cases out of 100, local government wins out."
That is a frightening prospect in a country whose future depends on how the current boom is handled. If China's economy continues on its hell-for-leather path, the country's air and water will become even more filthy than they are now, and its workers--many of whom labor in appalling conditions--will never enjoy the fruits of its economic growth. Yet no matter how enlightened Beijing technocrats may be or how thoughtfully new regulations may read, if local governments can do whatever they want, all is lost. Pan Yue, deputy head of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), regularly warns of looming environmental catastrophe. And yet there is no sign of any slowdown in the tide of pollution engulfing the country. Despite Beijing's condemnation of a huge chemical spill that left 4 million residents of the city of Harbin with no running water in November 2005, Pan recently revealed that over the next year, there were no fewer than 130 chemical spills around the country--a rate of one every three days.
SEPA, admittedly, is not a full-fledged ministry. The drive to improve safety in coal mines, by contrast, has had backing from the very top for years. In 2003 Premier Wen Jiabao celebrated the Chinese New Year by eating dumplings with miners 2,300 feet underground. When he visited their homes and families, Wen called for improvements in mine safety. Wen has stayed involved in the issue, regularly expressing concern for miners and their families and once tearfully instructing officials to learn "lessons drawn in blood." Indeed, within days of the Zuoyun accident, the Premier met with rescuers and called for a thorough investigation, noting that there was evidence of collusion between local officials and mine owners to cover up the tragedy. Officials at the company running the Zuoyun mine could not be reached for comment.
In a country famously assumed to be authoritarian, like China, you might think such repeated investment of personal authority by a top leader would produce rapid results. Not so. In fact, central- government efforts to rein in local authorities have been not only ignored but also actively blocked. Last October Beijing announced that it was delaying until 2010 a plan that would have forced the closure of thousands of small mines, which account for the majority of accidents. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, the plan foundered because of opposition from local governments, which see mines as their "major capital sources." That, said Xinhua, led "many local authorities to protect unsafe mines for financial gain."
According to accounts in the state-controlled media, such small mines, which account for a third of China's total coal output, are commonly subcontracted by local governments to individuals. With some 17,000 of these small mines now operating (as well as thousands of illegal mines), supervision by government authorities is virtually nonexistent. To maximize profits, mine owners ramp up production far above sanctioned levels, exceed the regulated number of miners and neglect safety equipment and procedures. Mine owners often bribe local officials into turning a blind eye to their practices and have been known to ship corpses to other provinces to escape regulations requiring them to report any accident in which more than three miners die.
A glimpse of the hellish conditions in which millions of Chinese miners work can be seen in the documentary Yuan Shan (Distant Mountain), by filmmaker Hu Jie. Although the film was made more than 10 years ago, industry observers say conditions have changed little in China's private mines. Shot in Qinghai province, near Tibet, the film shows miners working in tunnels so low that they crouch at the coal face, dressed in little more than loincloths. After they fill their quota, the miners have to turn and crawl hundreds of yards, pulling a basketful of coal twice their body weight. The only illumination comes from candles in small lamps attached to the miners' heads--but Chinese mines are particularly prone to gas explosions, says Munro, making naked flames extremely dangerous.
The accident at Zuoyun, where Old Zhao recovered the bodies of dead miners, sums up everything that is wrong with China's mining sector. Media reports in the wake of the disaster put production from the mine, licensed to produce only 90,000 tons a year, at roughly four times that amount. And according to accounts in China's state-owned media, which gave the accident widespread coverage--another sign of Beijing's concern--the mine operators broke numerous other safety regulations, including the number of miners allowed in the mine and the depth at which they worked. But the principal operator of the mine, according to the press reports, felt protected by the fact that his brother was the senior Communist Party official in the area, responsible for supervision of mining. When news of the collapse emerged, the media have alleged, the contractors tried to cover up the seriousness of the accident by reporting that only five men were trapped, a delay the authorities say impaired rescue operations. On Feb. 26, a provincial court in Shanxi sentenced Li Fanyuan, who it said was owner of the Zuoyun mine when the accident happened last May, to 16 years in prison on charges relating to his responsibility for the deaths.
Such practices leave central-government officials fuming helplessly. After the string of accidents that left more than 100 miners dead in November, Li, Beijing's top official in charge of work safety, alleged that in one case, in which 32 died, local officials had ignored an order to close a shaft. "With local governments as backstage supporters, unscrupulous mine owners just keep operating illegally," Li was quoted as saying in the state-run English-language China Daily. "This is a direct challenge to the authority of state laws and regulations."
It is a challenge that the state does not yet know how to meet. So long as China's economy continues its giddy growth, the country's thirst for coal will continue to grow. China derives about 70% of its energy needs from coal, and production has nearly tripled in the past five years to meet soaring demand. High oil prices have added to coal's attraction. Beijing has plans to open 35 to 40 coal-powered electricity-generating plants annually in the next few years and to build two plants to convert coal to liquid fuel.
All that spells more Hummers and luxury condominiums in Beijing and Shanghai for Shanxi's coal barons. The cash to buy their cars and toys will come from the sweat--and perhaps blood--of men like Xie Daibing. Xie, originally from the remote and dirt-poor province of Gansu, on the border with Tibet, works in a mine less than a mile from the shaft in Zuoyun County where the 57 miners drowned. "No, I'm not scared," he says, although he looks it, a frown creasing his forehead and his fingers restlessly juggling his cigarette pack and lighter. Xie says he's confident that the central government is doing its best to protect miners. "I hear the government regulations say that production at illegal mines will be stopped and the mines blown up. I'm sure the State Council in Beijing will order that." It may. The question is whether anyone in Zuoyun County will listen.
6 months ago