A sister’s search for the truth about her brother’s death at a Xinjiang coal mine

18 October 2011

Wang Jinmin left his hometown in Gansu in 1995 to look for work in the north-western region of Xinjiang. In 1997 he got a job at a coal mine in the Kazakh autonomous prefecture of Yili. A year later, his family lost contact with him. After two years had passed, his then 15-year-old sister Huiping followed in his footsteps to find work and look for her older brother. She posted flyers all over the streets and alleys of Yili. Finally, Wang Huiping found someone who said that her brother had died at a coal mine in January 1999. Wang immediately sought out the mine boss, who firmly denied it. She went to the Yili Prefecture Public Security Bureau, who also said they had no record of his death.

Eventually, with the help of others, Wang Huiping found her brother's grave and went back to the Public Security Bureau, who finally allowed her to search their records. There in the archives, Wang found her brother’s name but there was no cause of death listed or any evidence of an investigation. There was only a flimsy sheet of paper with his home address, ID number, and a record of an interview signed by one of his co-workers. With this evidence in hand, Huiping sued the owner of the coal mine and, after an appeal, was awarded 150,000 yuan in compensation.

A few days after the judgement, Wang Huiping talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang about her long and arduous journey to find her brother, the difficulties she and her family faced, and the legal process she undertook.

The Death of Wang Jinmin

Wang Jinmin apparently died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his sleeping quarters at the coal mine in Yili on 23 January 1999. “The incident happened at the coal mine in 1999, and they didn't say anything. They just said that the person who died was buried directly. Didn't they mess things up?” she asked.

No death notice was ever sent to the family. “I spent 14 years looking for him,” Wang stated flatly:

In the first half of 1998, he had been in contact with our family, but we didn't have contact in the second half of1998, and there was no communication from then on. We felt that he would come back home and we would just wait. Our family is poor. We didn't even have money for a trip. So we couldn't do anything but wait for two years. When he still didn't come, I left school and came out to work and look for him while I was working.

Wang Huping was only 15 when she left home to find her brother. “I was just about to go to high school, but there was nothing I could do; our family was poor, so I went out to work and look for my brother. I didn't get to high school,” she said.

In the winter of 2008, I got to Yili and heard that he had been working there. I put up advertisements, put missing person notices in newspapers everywhere, and someone said that my brother had gone to a coal mine, and then I went to the mine. When I found the coal mine in the winter of 2008, a woman said that my brother was already dead.

Wang was told the mine owner was the boss of the local village.

I went to look for him, and found the boss, who did not admit it. He said no, it was not my brother who died. I had his picture and his ID card number and a missing person notice, and he said no, it was not him. He was deceiving me, because that woman had heard that a kid from Gansu had died. She had heard that he was unable to continue working on a construction project here and went to the coal mine. Because my brother had been a construction worker…So I felt like these things were all in line with what my brother did, and she was able to say it was a kid from Gansu.

Wang then took the next step. “I went to the Public Security Bureau, who looked in the files, and they said he wasn't there. They told me that my brother was not in their records,” she said.

This made Wang more determined than ever to find her brother. “I looked for all of 2008, 2009, and 2010. In the end, I found out, you see, I found the reason for my brother's death, and found some of the co-workers who had worked together with my brother… they said it was those co-workers from the coal mine who buried him!”

Armed with new evidence, Wang eventually persuaded the Yili Public Security Bureau to cooperate.

After I found my brother’s grave, I went again to the Public Security Bureau, and I said that I wanted to look at the records myself. The political commissar knew that I had been looking for a number of years, and he let me look through the records, because I said I had already found the grave, so I didn't believe they did not have a record of his death… By then I had walked so much that my feet had gone bad, it was winter, and my feet were in bad shape. I just took my shoes off, and I said to him, ‘You look at my feet,’ and he said they did not let people casually flip through the files! I said to him, ‘You look at how hard I've worked to find my brother; look at these feet,’ because my feet were so bad I was using toilet paper to wrap them, and blood was oozing out of my socks. That political commissar saw that my feet hurt and said, ‘All right, you go ahead and look through them’… On page 1,999, there was a record with my brother’s name, ID number and home address. It was crystal clear. This was proof!

Family Burden

Wang Jinmin’s widow had remarried and left the family back in the late 1990s, leaving Huiping to provide for her elderly and infirmed parents and her brother’s two children. She took any job she could find while travelling around Xinjiang to support her family back home in Gansu. “Oh! I did everything,” she said, “drove a taxi, repaired pipes in the Gobi Desert, and then in 2007 I started up a solar oven factory. In 2008, when I found out that my brother was gone, I just abandoned the factory… Now the cement has weathered. It is useless, I just left it, and it can't be picked back up again.”

Huiping admitted that she had not told either her parents or the children about her brother’s death:

Our old parents at home still don't know about my brother's death. His 15-year-old girl doesn't even know what her father looked like, and now she is in middle school. I don’t dare to tell the children about it. I'm afraid that, as soon as I told them, they would not study hard. My parents have waited for my brother for so many years, so many years; I don't dare to tell them. My mother's health is not good, I am afraid to tell her because my brother was the only son in our family! My parents would not be able to cope with it.

What was most important for Huiping was that her brother’s children were cared for and got a good education.

The oldest is 17- and the youngest is 15-years-old. The youngest has never seen my brother…and four months after she was born my sister-in-law left, leaving them with my mother… For the three years after my brother left, my father could not plant the fields, and I never did it…I said, you take care of the two kids and I'll find work to earn some money, that's all.

You can say the reason I did not get an education was because of our family's situation. So I can't let them fail in their studies!...My brother's son is in his second year of high school and is doing especially well…I don't dare to disrupt him, and I don't dare tell them. I have only said I found his father and when he grows up I'll take him to see him. I said, ‘When you get into university, I'll take you to see your father.’

She did not yet know whether her nephew would get into university, but felt that he had a good chance as long as he could continue to focus on his studies.

An initial lawsuit

In 2010, Wang Huiping filed a lawsuit against the coal mine owner in Yili. However the court rejected it on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. Huiping did not give up and got the local government to intervene, and the court finally accepted the case. “When I went to the court, they would not accept it, and they said ‘This has expired,’” she said.

They said the case had expired, so I started going everywhere! I wrote a letter to the mayor of Yili prefecture, who gave me the run-around. I got something from the Labour Bureau and something from the Public Security Bureau, and started the lawsuit in April of 2010… It was April 2010 that I brought the suit but the trial did not begin until 28 August.

The focus of the lawsuit was on the poor conditions of the workers' sleeping quarters. They could hardly be called dormitories, since they consisted of a series of small caves (地窝子) dug into the earth. One person slept in each cave using coal burning stoves for warmth. Eventually, after his initial denials, the mine owner admitted that Wang Jinmin had died in these quarters. “In the beginning he didn't admit it, but I found witnesses,” she said.

Wang Huiping had sought compensation of around 170,000 yuan for her brother’s death but the court only awarded her 39,000 yuan. The court ruled that Wang Jinmin had been largely responsible for his own death. “They said that my brother had used his own stove and had died of coal soot poisoning as a result,” she said. But, she added, this judgment was based on flimsy evidence. There was no autopsy report or determination of the cause of death. “The coal mine and the Public Security Bureau had no medical records, no cause of death, no forensic medical records, nothing conclusive.”

The Public Security Bureau admitted that the documentation in her brother’s case was incomplete. “They said that, at the time their files were not complete and that sometimes it was possible that some of the information was lost,” she said. The Bureau admitted wrong doing and offered her 25,000 yuan in compensation, which she refused.

Wang Huiping angrily rejected the court’s offer of 39,000 yuan as well and filed an appeal. “The judgement was handed down for the first trial. It was 21 October when I received it. They sent it back to our home town, and I had someone send it back to me, had the lawyer send it back,” she explained.

A second judgement

On 6 December 2010, the appeal court increased the compensation award to nearly 150,000 yuan.

It revoked everything from the first trial because they said it did not meet the requirements … It was based on the things I had put in place. The only thing it did not provide for was my parents' maintenance costs, pension costs.

Though she was compensated 30,000 yuan for mental anguish, and received an amount for taking care of her brother’s children, Wang was concerned about the outcome regarding the support of her parents. “They said that at the time my brother died, my parents still had the ability to work.” Huiping said she felt this was not true but she did not have it in her to try to prove otherwise.

Despite its shortcomings, Wang Huiping agreed to accept the award because of the legal and other bills she had incurred during the litigation process. Wang had incurred “over 10,000 yuan in lawyers' fees, 7,000 yuan the first time, and 3,800 yuan the second time. I also paid court costs, 3,800 the first time, and the 3,700 the second time,” she explained. She also had to pay travel expenses. She had borrowed money, and with the New Year approaching she needed to repay her debts.

People say that I have truly won this lawsuit in the end, and ask me how I feel. I just feel I have gotten a little bit of justice. This from the bottom of my heart; I believe that I did not meet my goal. I feel that I have failed to meet my own expectations.

I really don't have the energy to talk about this lawsuit anymore, because talking about it gives me a very bad feeling. There is only room in my head for my brother. I can't get out from under this shadow. I don't want to talk about these issues any more, I'll just resolve them however I can. Anyway, my brother can't come back to life; there is nothing I can do.


Han Dongfang's interview with Wang Huiping was first broadcast in four episodes in February 2011. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.

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