After the Chenjiashan Coalmine accident happened on 28 November 2004 in which 166 miners were killed, Premier Wen Jiabao went to visit the victims' families in Tungchuan City, Shaanxi Province, in January 2005 and he said to them: "I come to bring you justice." Now, one year has passed but justice still eludes the victims' families.
On 12 November 2005, prominent civil rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, who had provided legal assistance to the victims' families to fight for compensation for their loved ones, wrote the following article to mark the first anniversary of this disaster after he went to visit the bereaved families. China Labour Bulletin has translated the article from Chinese into English as follows.
By Gao Zhisheng
A massive gas explosion at the Chenjiashan Coalmine took the lives of 166 miners at 7.10 am on 28 November 2004. They are Ding Dayuan, Ding Aiguo, Ma Ruxiao, Wang Kuangsheng, Wang Shigen, Niu Tieqi....
Nearly one year later, at 4 pm on 11 November 2005, at the end of my visit to Chenjiashan, the widow of coal miner Wu Yindi brought me to the graveyard and showed me the graves of those 166 miners. Stretching across a mountain slope, these 166 graves looked nearly identical, except for the names on the headstones. After a minute's silence for the victims, I read each name and put them in my heart.
In April 2005, I had received 19 letters from the families of the Chenjiashan victims. In them, they revealed the true cause of this calamity and reflected the true face of the local officials. They said the officials showed a sad and sympathetic face to the media and outside world, but their faces were devoid of any compassion when they met the grieving widows and fatherless children in this village.
After reading those letters, I decided to meet them in Xi'an. And now, whenever I recall that meeting, my heart aches. At that time, all outsiders were regarded with suspicion and scores of policemen and their vehicles were stationed along the highway leading to Chenjiashan, in order to prevent anyone from outside investigating the accident. The bereaved families were also regarded suspiciously and any trip outside Chenjiashan by any of them was closely monitored. My appointment with the group, in all 19 widows and their 22 children, was for 9.30 am that morning, but they did not reach the hotel where I was staying until noon. Although they had set off at dawn, they were late because they had to take different routes and climb over several mountains to escape the police surveillance, before boarding buses at different stations for Xi'an.
The scene at the meeting was heartbreaking. Many of them broke down and cried, attracting the attention of the entire floor of residents of the hotel. I wrote to a friend who worked for the government later, telling him, "Anybody who witnessed this meeting with the Chenjiashan victims' families would immediately feel sick and disappointed with our government officials."
Seven months passed before I met them again on 11 November 2005. "Chenjiashan coalmine is in fact in a valley. You can call it Chenjia Valley," the taxi-driver told me.
Chenjiashan is in fact located in a long, narrow valley with a small river flowing through it. There are roads approaching the valley from either side. I set off from Xi'an at 8 am and reached the nearest village from Chenjiashan at 10 am. I was about to ask for directions when my mobile phone rang. A nervous voice came through. "Lawyer Gao, please don't drive up here. Before dawn, lots of police arrived and they have blocked the road. All roads are guarded by police. It is just like when (Premier) Wen Jiabao came. They are going to detain you. Now, I'll tell you where you should hide your vehicle, then you have to walk to our place. I will give you instructions. They have been watching us since last night, but we know how to handle this."
With the help of this lady, I hid the taxi and started to walk along the railway which crossed over the mountains. Before long my dark suit was white from the dust that covered the high grass I was walking through. Finally, I arrived at a remote house.
A group of widows waited there. They forced out a smile when they saw me. But when we settled down, Wang Xiaoling, the widow of Gao Zibin, started to weep. One could tell that she was trying to control her emotions but her sadness and feelings of loss were too much and she could not control herself. When the other women in the house heard her weeping, they couldn't hold back their tears either. "They treat us so inhumanely. The Mining Bureau celebrated its 50th anniversary and each employee was given a 1,300-yuan bonus. The leaders even received thousands yuan. But as for us, we weren't given a penny, even though our husbands died for this coalmine. We fought that for a long time, but in the end they gave us only 100 yuan for each family," one of the widows said.
Another lady said, "How can they act like this? How can they behave so mercilessly? Our house is about to fall down, and my family is very scared to continue living there. We have sought help from the leaders, but they just ignore us. It could collapse at any time."
Liu Li (pseudonym) sobbed, "Lawyer Gao, who can bring us justice? Apart from you, who will listen to us and take our problems seriously? In the past year, the mining bureau has treated us like thieves. For the first six months, they set up checkpoints on the highway and wouldn't allow anyone from the victims' families to leave this valley. On average, each family received 80,000 yuan in compensation, which is lower than other places in China. No official has been sentenced (for causing this accident). Each family here faces so many difficulties and when we go to the leaders, they act impatient with us, or they ignore us, or even beat us up. Zhang Ning (a widow) was beaten by a police chief and sent to hospital. When we try to find the senior leaders, they (the police) stop us on the highways and arrest us. Once 14 of us tried to sneak out but we were caught and brought back. Now the mining bureau is getting smarter. They realize that manning checkpoints on the highways 24 hours a day requires a lot of effort, so they have sent out messages to all the drivers in the region, telling them that anyone who gives us a ride will have his driver's or operator's license taken away. Now, no bus in the area dares to pick us up. Where can we go now? Nowhere! And the mining bureau is relieved," said Zhang Yan (pseudonym).
"Our husbands were killed and now we live in fear. Do you think that is just? Wen Jiabao visited us in January, but I am sure you didn't see what really happened here on television. The provincial government and the mining bureau knew his schedule before he arrived. Police were assigned to our place a few days before Wen came, especially to the victims' families. People like Liu Chun-e, the poorest person in the region, were locked up, because they feared that we would complain to Wen about the forcible production which led to the deaths of our husbands. They didn't want Wen to know that they only cared about the coal, and not the miners. Yet, we, 17 women, managed to sneak out and walked a long way to get to a place where Wen would pass by. We divided into two groups, then kneeled down on the highway. Those awful officials forced us to do that, and we couldn't think of any other possibilities. When we approached the cars, many of the car doors opened, but I couldn't figure out who Wen Jiabao was. I grabbed the first one I could reach and asked him to investigate the cause of the accident, to punish the mine leaders who forced the miners to work. I asked that man if he was Wen Jiabao or Provincial Governor Chen, and the person next to him said he was Li, the general secretary of the provincial government, and the man sitting in the car was Governor Chen. When I was about to pull him out of the car, a group of policemen stopped me, and each of us [widows] was taken away by three or four policemen. I heard Zhao Yongmei crying, "We want to see Chairman Wen [Wen Jiabao], Chairman Wen must bring us justice." When I turned, I saw Zhao was grabbing a leader's hand tightly, and that leader said, "Just tell me. There's no rush, I am Wen Jiabao and I am going to bring you justice." When we heard him saying he was Wen, we couldn't believe it. We didn't know what to say and just cried out. Police, armed police started to remove us, so that Wen could proceed with his visit. Actually I guess he was forced to say he was going to bring us justice, because we had blocked the highway. He left ten months ago and we have heard nothing from him. Only one of the 19 families that visited you in Xian is doing okay. The rest are penniless."
"Did you read the letters we sent you? Do you know how the blast happened? In those days, the gas level at the pit was very high and when Liu Shuangming, the work safety chief, reported it to the mine manager, the mine manager shouted at him, "The management wants coal, not miners." Everyone has heard this story. On the 23rd [November 2004], there was a fire in the pit. Miners from the 8 p.m. shift and the general work supervisor hurried back to the surface, but they were all ordered to go back to work. On 24th [November 2004], the same shift of miners saw a fire; some got out immediately. Some even left their clothes behind. Yet, those poor men were forced to go back to work right away. On the 25th [November 2004], on the 4 p.m. shift the gas level was very high and the alarm kept going off. A supervisor who monitors the gas-level turned off the alarm. Wang Xiaobo, a miner, asked the one monitoring gas-level , "If you turn the alarm off, how can you tell when the gas reaches a critical level? The supervisor said, "My chief told me to turn it off. They don't want the miners to escape." But Wang did ‘escape' from work for few days and that saved his life. On the 26th [November 2004], our section chief wrote a report to the mine management, stating "Production must stop." His warning was not accepted, and instead he was reprimanded."
"My husband told me on the evening of the 27th [November 2004] that the mine was too dangerous to enter and it could take lives at anytime. I pleaded with him to take a few days off. He told him it was not allowed, unless he wanted to lose 20% of his wages and that month's bonus. He worked 12 hours a day (8 hours in the pit) and he earned at average 600 yuan per month, never more than 800 yuan. The next day [after he told me about the dangerous conditions in the mine], it [the tragedy] happened. He was murdered by those black-hearted leaders. They killed him intentionally." Ms Fu, a tough lady, told me all these details.
One funny thing was the mine management was aware of my visit to Chenjiashan. When I left the small hut, plain-clothes police recognized me and followed me quite openly. Most of the time, they were two to three meters away from me. At 3 p.m. I went to a restaurant for lunch and those three policemen took a table not more than 1.5 meters away. Their leader -- at least he looked like a leader -- was using his mobile phone to report my activities to the other side. "We found a man in a suit, yes, with a tie. I believe it is him." I couldn't help adding, "Lawyer Gao." He continued reporting, "Oh yes, it is him. He just said he is Lawyer Gao. He's brought a suitcase with him..."
"Now he's started to eat, right, a big bowl of noodles..."
"He's arriving at the graveyard. Now he's bowing in front of one of the graves. Yes, he is keeping his head low. Now he moves. He's taking off his jacket and now he's taking a photo. Shall I stop him? Hello.... Hey, he's getting in a car now."
When I saw the taxi driver, he told me that after I left to meet the miners' families earlier that day, a jeep approached his taxi and the people from that car watched him for a while.
That evening, exhausted and covered with dust, I fell asleep in the taxi as soon as it set off. I slept until 9 pm when the taxi reached Xi'an and the driver woke me up.
2 December 2005
China Labour Bulletin