Hegang tragedy highlights numerous problems that still need to be addressed in China’s coal mines

23 November 2009
A gas explosion on 21 November has killed at least 104 workers at a mine at Hegang, Heilongjiang province, official sources are reporting. The China Daily reports that the blast occurred at 2:30 am on Saturday – 53 minutes after dangerous gas levels were detected and orders were sent out to evacuate the mine. At the time, 528 miners were working underground, but most managed to escape.

This accident was one of the largest coal mining disaster at a State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) in recent years. Additionally, the tragedy has intensified some sharp debate about how to prevent mining accidents, and has highlighted some of the common practices used by officialdom to suppress worker participation in the name of “stability”.

In light of Shanxi province’s recent calls to re-nationalize the coal-mining sector as a means to improving safety, “re-nationalization vs. continued privatization” has often been the focus of debate, especially on the Internet. For example, Li Ping (李平) of the Apple Daily reports that ten Chinese intellectuals in Beijing recently denounced the Shanxi’s re-nationalization plans as part of the broader phenomenon that “As the State-Owned Industries Advance, Private Industries Fall Back” (国近民退). Similarly, criticism has come from a group of entrepreneurs in Zhejiang asking the Shanxi government to make the re-nationalization efforts legal, and with proper legal review process. In turn, “leftists” on websites like Utopia (乌托之乡) have harshly criticized liberals and privatization advocates, asking them to hear the cries and see the tears of people suffering in Hegang.

However, CLB director Han Dongfang in his editorial about Shanxi’s re-nationalization plan has pointed out that focusing on privatization vs. re-nationalization misses the key issue:

As early as 2006, China Labour Bulletin published a research report highlighting the collusion between government and business as one of the fundamental reasons for the sharp spike in coal mine accidents in the early 2000s. And while it is true that this current action to forcibly close and merge small mines could curb corruption among Shanxi officials, it will not address the other more important reason for coal mine accidents, namely that, in both state-owned and privately-owned coal mines, mine workers have no right or opportunity to stand up for or defend their personal interests with regard to work safety, wages and benefits, working hours etc. Indeed, employers in both state-owned and privately-operated coal mines tend to view mine workers as little more than “mining tools that breathe.” Up until now, the Shanxi provincial government has not even raised this problem, and as a result I doubt the extent to which this much-publicized restructuring measure will bring about any real improvements in safety.

My first question is, would the nationalization of coal mines guarantee the safety of miners? As an enterprise responsible for profits and losses, state-owned coal mines are just as concerned with profit maximization as privately-owned coal mines. And their managers’ disregard for miners’ lives in the push for profit or the drive to exceed production quotas is just as appalling as in privately-owned mines.

Unfortunately, the fact that this mining accident that killed over 104 people occurred at an SOE gives support to Han Dongfang’s point about re-nationalization not necessarily being a cure-all for the notoriously deadly mining industry. What is needed, instead, is the establishment of directly elected coal mine safety supervision committees. Together with management, coal mine workers in these committees could then participate in the drawing up of safety plans, buying safety equipment, and in conducting regular safety meetings. Also, a collective bargaining system should be set up. Through collective bargaining, workers could have a say in not only in the important areas of health and safety, but also in areas like wages and compensation.

However, currently, this sort of worker participation is virtually non-existent. As CLB correspondent Cai Chongguo has pointed out, all efforts have been made to limit or “harmonize” any potential political problems stemming from the coal mining disaster. All media outlets seem to be using the standard Xinhua version on the incident, a practice that analysts like David Bandurski of the China Media Project have identified as a key component of “Control 2.0”. Under this formulation, the government recognizes that in the age of the Internet, some negative news cannot be covered up, but the government can nonetheless go on the offensive by “reporting at the first possible moment those news events that cannot be concealed, getting the government’s official explanation and version of the facts out first. This preempts other media, including international media”. It’s not surprising in this Hegang case, therefore, that most media outlets are using the Xinhua draft, which emphasizes the collective rescue efforts and the actions of high level officials more than it emphasizes the cause of the accident or any individual family member’s story.

Cai Chongguo then notes that the local government had sent over 324 officials, in teams of three, to give bereaving family members things like rice, wheat, and cooking oil – while also carrying out “comfort work” (安抚工作) with the goal of stabilizing the family members’ emotions. This may sound harmless enough, indeed, even welcome in times of utmost grief. However, as CLB’s research report “Bone and Blood: The Price of Coal in China” has shown, these post-accident settlement teams usually serve to individualize the tragedy by preventing the family members of the deceased workers to unite as a community to ask for justice. By atomizing families into individual units, and by working with family members right after a tragic event, the government is often able to negotiate a better lump sum settlement than it could if the family members could freely communicate, consult lawyers, compare settlement deals, and negotiate collectively. Indeed, the China Daily/Xinhua draft reports that family members at Hegang are each expected to get 250,000 yuan, which the paper notes is “25 percent more than the standard compensation for fatalities in negligent incidents in China”. This relatively high compensation figure, drawn up in less than two days since the tragedy took place, underscores how settling quickly is often an official negotiating tactic.

Finally, the China Daily notes that that the mine’s director, deputy director, and engineer have all been fired. Again, quickly firing a director and other mine management is par for the course in coal mine accidents. However, this prompt sacking brings up a series of questions. With the investigation still underway, do we know if the engineer was necessarily responsible? If management knew about high gas levels 53 minutes before the blast, then wouldn’t that point to human error rather than mechanical error? Furthermore, we do not know if the deputy director or if the director were working when the accident occurred. While these people may have been seriously negligent in their safety duties, simply sacking them before the investigation results are in is an emotional response to quell public anger, and not a “scientific” and fair response that would help identify specific problems and find effective solutions to avoid mining accidents in the future.
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