On Myths and Mines

(Originally published in CLB issue#43, Jul-Aug 1998)

The creation of myths is the stuff of all States. Most modern myths contain a kernel of truth that facilitates their development into accepted "versions" of past events; or, worse still, actual written histories easily distilled into mass consciousness by various outlets of the mass media. The firmer the grip of control a government or ruling class exercises over the people it rules, the more fantastic may become the myths on which it relies to shore up that control. Conversely, the greater the degree of freedom citizens -- or a class or section of them -- wrest from their rulers, the more likely it is that myths, past and present, will be shattered. Thus the spurious collection of lies and falsehoods that made up the myths behind apartheid rule were exploded by militant South African workers and unionists in the 1980s. And the great lie of a workers’ paradise nestling behind the iron curtain was first seriously challenged by Solidarity in Poland in the same decade, and finally destroyed when thousands of East Germans poured across the Berlin Wall in 1989.

One such "kernel" of truth that the Chinese ruling class's myth-making machine relies on is the brief foray into genuine working class activism that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched itself into in the 1920s. Its serious attempts to organise workers and improve conditions -- and build the Party -- were brought to a violent and tragic end by Guomindang troops and their supporters from organised crime in the 1927 Shanghai massacre.(1)

One Step Forward

In the years leading up to the 1927 defeat, the CCP had made considerable gains in organising workers: a success epitomised by the strikes in the coal mines around the city of Pingxiang in the southern province of Jiangxi. Since coming to power, the CCP has put great store by its early successes in the mines and eulogises the period to justify the spurious notion of China being a "workers' state". Yet it is in the mines -- including those around Pingxiang -- that the myth is perhaps currently at its most tenuous.

Two Steps Back

Little wonder then, that, earlier this summer, the Pingxiang authorities abandoned all restraint and sent armed riot police to violently disperse demonstrations by laid-off workers -- including miners -- and their supporters. The demonstration took place in mid-April when thousands of laid-off workers from the famous Anyuan coal-mining district marched to Pingxiang City centre to petition the government. Their demands included the right to adequate welfare and the right to work. After a two-day stand-off, during which local government leaders refused to negotiate with workers' representatives, frustration boiled over and the workers marched to the train station and blocked the line. They demanded that a train take them to Beijing so they could alert the central government to their plight.

Most of those involved in the protest where laid-off and retired workers from a chemical fertilizer factory in the famous Anyuan district. The factory had been closed down in 1996 and owed many months of back pay to its former employees and pensioners. Most workers accepted the explanation that the factory had no money and had no choice but to close. However, when management quietly sold off the equipment and failed to explain where the money from the sale had disappeared to, people started to organise a fight back and demand their legal right to welfare payments from the proceeds of the equipment sale. Other workers in Anyuan district joined the protests, but local officials still refused to negotiate which directly led to the decision to block the railway line and demand a train to Beijing.

The authorities promptly sent in a squadron of armed riot police to disperse the demonstrators. It is still not clear what has happened to the 13 organisers who were arrested or how many people were injured when the riot police moved in. Some reports indicate that the workers' leaders arrested may have been charged with blocking transport.(2) Jiangxi PSB and provincial party committee sent teams to investigate the situation and ordered that the workers and pensioners be paid one month's welfare payment of Rmb 120.

Unhappy Anniversary

The protests came as the authorities were preparing to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the opening of the Anyuan Mine in 1898. CCP activists -- and later leaders -- Liu Shaoqi and Li Lisan were sent to organise miners against brutal working conditions in the 1920s and played a role in the famous Anyuan Railway Workers and Miners Strike in September 1922. The strike focused on the right of Anyuan workers to organise the Workers' Club -- effectively a trade union -- through which they could negotiate with management. The "Pingxiang Anyuan Railway Workers and Miners Strike Declaration" issued by the Anyuan Workers Club raised demands that workers in today's China are still being arrested for:

"We work in bitterly harsh conditions for pitiful wages and are treated as packhorses…the persecution has reached an extreme stage and we demand 'better conditions', 'better wages', 'and a union -- the Workers' Club'. People are trying to smash our Club and they are not issuing our wages. We have already sent out our demands three times to the authorities but have had no answer. This society gives us no room to speak out." (3)


The strikers held out against violent attempts to break the action by the mine owners and an agreement was signed between workers’ representatives and management eight days later. The agreement included the right to organise a Workers’ Club.

Since the CCP won power in 1949, the history of the strike has been gradually distorted to suit the needs of the party in its role as the ruling institution in China -- many official histories now award a major and largely mythical role to Mao Zedong. To protect and legitimise its dictatorship, China's rulers are especially harsh on present-day independent trade unionists seeking "room to speak out" for Chinese workers. Such a demand, even if framed strictly within the law, can land you with at best three years’ re-education through labour and at worst 15-20 years in jail.(4)

Coal Crisis

The backdrop to the recent events in Anyuan is a crisis in the mining industry that reveals possibly the darkest side of the reform process and the myths surrounding it. In coal mining, China produces more tonnage than any other country in the world. However much of this coal is low-grade and produced in highly inefficient pits. According to pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji is particularly concerned about the state of the industry and the effects the recent Asian financial crisis is having on it. In the first quarter of this year, 94 major state-owned coal enterprises posted losses amounting to Rmb 1.54 billion. According to Zhu, a continuation of the trend will prevent China from reaching its 8% growth target for this year.(5) Meanwhile, as more and more privately owned pits -- legal and illegal -- open up, often through a complex network of subcontracting even down to individual shafts, supply is far outstripping demand. This uncontrolled overproduction is driving down the price of coal and placing great pressure on working conditions and jobs. Output of raw coal reached 1.35 billion metric tons in 1996, exceeding demand by as much as 50 million tons.(6) Following an explosion, killing 28 miners, at Jiaoping coal mine in the central province of Shaanxi in November 1997, a shocked mining official telephoned CLB and explained the situation behind the fatally high and out-of-control production statistics:

“There are many migrant miners at the Jiaoping coal shafts. They are forced to sign a contract which caps the compensation paid to families at Rmb 2-3,000 if the employee should be killed in an accident. In the pits surrounding Jiaoping state-owned coal mine, there have been a number of township and private mines opened. These do not bother with any safety procedures whatsoever. This competition has made the state mine much less profitable and the management have begun the practice of subcontracting individual coal shafts to private companies and individuals. Safety is non-existent and the explosion occurred in such a sub-contracted shaft.”


The pressure on wages is real. In 1992, miners' wages in state-owned mines ranked 12th in the national table. In 1993 they dropped to 30th and in 1997 ranked 50th..(7) Meanwhile the major state-owned coal mines owe workers over Rmb 2 billion in wage arrears. Some mine bureaus have taken to allocating just 20 pounds of rice instead of monthly wages..(8) In 1997, 70% of all coal mines defaulted on wage payment.(9)

The table above illustrates how the privatisation and subcontracting of the mines is directly affecting the income of miners and leading the attack on pay and conditions. The formation of a labour market has adversely affected the real income of all miners, but is especially harsh on those working in township and village collectively or privately owned mines.


Annual Wage Increase in Different Kinds of Mines in China

Average Wage (RMB)

1995 1996% increase

State-owned mines 495 559 12.9

Township and Village Collectives 306 330 7.8

Privately Owned 431 435 0.9

Source: China Statistical Yearbook 1997 p128-132


The average labour costs in the smaller township and village mines are approximately 41% lower than their state-owned equivalent, making a mockery of the notion that the establishment labour markets is in the interests of workers.(10)


Safer in Hell

The present safety levels in China's mines are arguably the worst in the world. Official statistics reveal that the total fatality rate has remained at approximately 10,000 miners killed at work every year (1990:10,476, 1991:9,819,(11) and 1996:9,9,74(12)). Put another way, an average of one miner is killed during every hour of production and there is an accident killing three miners or more every day, and 10 miners or more every week. An average of 30 miners die at work every week in China. Coal mines account for 80% of the deaths, with township and village collectively and privately owned mines accounting for 60%. The fatality rate for every one million tons of coal mined is 125 times higher than the US and eight times higher than India.(13) The situation appears to be worsening: incomplete statistics for January to June 1997 reveal that 6,304 miners were killed at work.

CLB believes the above figures are conservative and that a number of objective and political factors hinder the presentation of a more genuine statistical picture. These factors include:


  1. Inadequate or non-existent registration of face workers entering a mine shaft.

  2. Under reporting or non-reporting of accidents as a result of the recent introduction of rules threatening punishment of managers, owners and officials with poor safety records.

  3. Remote location of many smaller township owned and privately owned mines.

  4. Domestic and international political "pressures" on the Chinese government to appear to be improving its safety record in the mines.

It is also reported that some mine owners will even give "hush" money to survivors in order to keep the true fatality figures a secret to avoid taxes or disciplinary measures. For example, managers deliberately lied about the death toll in a coal mine accident in Henan province to save on "accident taxes". Seventeen miners, not four as reported, drowned when the mine in Zhenxing flooded on May 1.(14)

Large numbers of miners are suffering from other work place hazards. Over 350,000 miners have the dust-related disease pneumoconiosis. Other hazards include extreme noise pollution and illnesses relating to radioactive material.(15)

The Next Step

The Chinese government is acutely aware of the appalling situation in the mines. It is equally aware of the tremendous potential industrial muscle that miners possess -- 70% of China's industry is powered by coal. The possibility of even a small percentage of the country's nine million plus mine workers organising themselves into democratic unions, which could have a real impact on working conditions, is a nightmare scenario for the government. No doubt it wishes it could improve the situation, but it is incapable of moving beyond the top-down authoritarian methods to do so. To date, these half-hearted efforts have been hopelessly compromised by the corrupt, get-rich-quick, market-dominated nature of the society they are creating.

Once the myths surrounding Anyuan Mine are stripped away, the truism remains that the CCP, for a brief period in its history, encouraged working people to improve their own lives through unions and workers' clubs. But it is over 75 years since those heady days of autumn 1922 and the miners' victory. The Party has since metamorphosed into a profoundly dictatorial organisation presiding over a vicious and repressive state -- as the protesting workers and their supporters from Anyuan will bear witness to. Genuine, democratic and independent trade unions can help to tear down the myths which not only shore up the CCP's rule, but shroud and conceal the real on-going tragedy still unfolding in China's mines.

NOTES:

(1) Workers struck en masse to greet Guomindang leader Chiang Kaishek's "liberating troops" as they entered Shanghai. Chiang, whose views on trade unions had more in common with Nazism than democracy, struck a deal whereby the workers were disarmed and returned to work. He then unleashed his troops on any suspected militants or communists. Thousands were killed in street corner executions.

(2) Ming Pao 3/6/98.

(3) Zhongguo meikuang gongren yundong shi (History of the Chinese Miners Movement) 1986, published by Henan People's Publishing House, p102

(4) For example, leaders such as Liu Jingsheng, a founding member of the Free Labour Union of China (FLUC) who was sentenced to 15-year imprisonment in 1994.

(5) Ta Kung Pao (Daily) 11/6/98

(6) ibid

(7) Nineties Monthly, 1/3/98 p74

(8) Ta Kong Pao, ibid

(9) Nineties Monthly, ibid

(10) This is only approximate and based solely on wage levels. The figure may be much higher if housing, provided in the more important state-owned mines, were included.

(11) "Zhonghua renmin gongheguo kuangshan anquan fa" shiyi. ("PRC, Mining Safety Law" Explained), published by Hua Xia, 1993, p6

(12) Hong Kong Standard, 16/2/98

(13) "Zhonghua renmin gongheguo kuangshan anquan fa" shiyi. ibid p7

(14) SCMP, 13/5/98

(15) "Zhonghua renmin gongheguo kuangshan anquan fa" shiyi. ibid p7

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Online:1998-08-31

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