As China's deadly mine safety record goes, the death toll has been high and the reasons are gloomily familiar. Eighteen miners died on March 14 after being trapped underground following a gas explosion in Xinfu mine in Qitaihe, a city in the northeast province of Heilongjiang. The miners died due to a lack of basic ventilation and vital gas monitoring equipment down the mineshafts.
The tragedy was nothing new in a country where at least 6,000 miners have lost their lives in the past year. But what was extraordinary about the disaster was the degree of nepotism and corruption that lay behind it. And when the real truth emerged about the abuse of administrative power in Qitaihe, the incident made the Chinese government's recent promise to close down thousands of the country's collieries that fail to meet safety targets sound more hollow than ever.
The owner of Xinfu mine, Peng Guocai, was deputy director of the district Production Safety Supervision Bureau. The local safety inspector had just awarded his own operation a safety certificate: a conflict of interests with deadly consequences.
"The operational excavation area of the mine was like a rat hole," Wang Feng, director of the Heilongjiang Coal Production Safety Supervision Bureau, told reporters, after being sent to the scene to investigate. "They still used primitive coal excavation methods there."
But more evidence of misconduct emerged. Although the mine was listed by the Heilongjiang Qitaihe Coal Industry Clean Coal Group as being state-owned, it was actually controlled by Peng himself, flouting a rule that bans civil servants from running their own private businesses.
On top of that, Peng Guicai, Peng Guocai's brother, was deputy manager of the company that ran the mine. Local people accused him of shielding his brother during numerous mine safety check-ups, according to press reports after the explosion. He is also alleged to have helped his brother register the mine as having a reserve of 170,000 tons of coal. In reality, it had 60,000. Under Chinese regulations, this would have required it to close.
The 18 deaths at the Xinfu mine show that until the government is serious about tackling the problem of intermingled business and political interests, its outraged edicts about safety standards and directives about mine closures are meaningless. The problem is not one of a lack of work-safety laws or regulations, but about a lack of political will to enforce them on the ground, says Han Dongfang, director of the China Labour Bulletin.
"Terms like "legal" and "illegal" when applied to a mining operation usually mean little more than whether or not the mine's owner has paid off the right authorities," he said.
In the case of Peng Guocai and the Xinfu mine, this conflict of interests has rarely been clearer.
But the deaths of the 18 miners are also the result of a Chinese system of coal production that carries inherent contradictions.
On the one hand the government sends round an ever-growing number of safety directives to mine operators exhorting them to put the safety interests of workers first. But on the other, it sets production targets so high that workers' safety is necessarily compromised.
Cai Chongguo, China Labour Bulletin's trade union education director, says that China's budgeted coal production is set at an unrealistic level and the coal price has been set far too high. "Increasing demand for coal and [its] rocketing price has given rise to illegal mining in small shafts, leaving more and more miners' lives in grave danger."
Add to the mix a culture of local corruption and conflicts of interests, and the result is explosive.
The only way to tackle the problem at the root, says Han Dongfang, is to allow miners themselves to monitor safety conditions underground, and he has urged the government to take three immediate steps that would drastically reduce the number of fatal mining accidents.
First, miners should be allowed to form ad-hoc health and safety committees, with members directly elected by the workforce, not appointed by mine bosses. These committees should have the power to order a work stoppage when they believe the conditions are too hazardous.
Second, bereaved families should receive far more money when a miner dies at work. At the moment, a miner's life can be valued as little as $1,000 in some parts of the country. If the courts were able to hand down orders for punitive damages against the mine bosses who expose their employees to danger, it could lead to more safety improvements than all the central government's recent "urgent directives" combined, says Han.
Finally, any mine owner or manager caught putting profit before people by wilfully ignoring national rules on health and safety, must be prosecuted fully.
"Only when mine owners in China are made to realize that miners' lives are no longer cheap and easily disposable assets, and when they themselves face prosecution and jail if their workers' lives are at risk, will they begin taking China's work-safety laws and regulations seriously," says Han.
On May 11, less than two months after the Xinfu mine tragedy, another gas explosion in the city killed nine coal miners working underground.
15 September 2005