Wealth trumps safety in China's coal mines


QITAIHE, China - The sign near the small coal mine where Liu Quanju's husband and son died makes clear in bold red characters that, at least in words, the government supports mine safety: "Managing methane is a great responsibility. Fulfill your duty at work and inspect conscientiously."

Such signs urging safety in coal mines are as ubiquitous as the proclamations by political leaders on the subject. But in a state where propaganda often runs counter to reality, all the posters and proclamations serve merely to underscore just how unsafe China's coal mines are.

Many mine operators and their government patrons are reaping financial windfalls from the nation's energy-hungry economic boom, by producing as much coal as possible as cheaply as possible - a credo that is not recorded on propaganda signs.

On March 14, Liu's husband and son died with 16 others in the bowels of the Xinfu coal mine, their fates sealed underground by a methane explosion. Liu's younger brother was one of just two survivors, but he is in jail for allegedly shirking his duty as methane inspector - a post that his family members assert neither he nor anyone else at the mine held permanently.

The mine, run by a government safety official, was cutting corners to make more money, they said.

The story of how this one coal mine in remote northeast China became a death trap amounts to two sometimes contradictory tales, one of them told by this grieving family and the other reported in a spare official news account.

Taken together, though, both versions explain why the system that issues edicts from Beijing to improve coal mine safety is the same system that ignores those edicts every day in thousands of mining villages.

They also begin to explain how some of the more than 1 million people who toil deep inside these mines - people who have literally lost their brothers - can still have faith in Communist Party leaders in the far-away capital.

16 deaths a day

Six thousand miners died in 3,629 reported accidents last year, an average of more than 16 deaths a day. Labor watchdogs suspect the real annual death toll in China's coal mines might be two or three times higher, because many incidents are believed to go unreported.

The families of many miners insist that the country's leaders are surely unaware of the dangers.

"They don't know," said Zhang Peixing, Liu's elder son, in a rural refrain about central leaders that harks back to imperial times. Liu continued working in another mine after losing his father, his brother and a cousin in the March accident. "The country attaches a lot of significance to the safety issue."

This is the second in a series of occasional articles examining how the Communist Party of China sustains itself in part on the declared good intentions of the leaders in Beijing, whatever the harsh realities many people must endure.

The country's coal mine industry demonstrates that no matter how much leaders in Beijing might truly want mines to be safe, the system those officials perpetuate - a system of corruptible bureaucrats with unchecked power - almost ensures the mines will remain deadly.

More news reports

China's state news media, often forbidden in the past to report on disasters, has in recent years begun to report more frequently on major coal mine accidents, a sign that central leaders recognize the severity of the safety issue. But the coverage is steered carefully. The reports provide an outlet for public frustrations while also crediting leaders for taking action.

This damage control has been on vivid display in the past year, especially after two accidents claiming a total of 380 lives. Chinese reporters filed sympathetic dispatches about the devastated families and safety violations, matched by prominently displayed dispatches repeating the bold promises of top leaders on improving safety.

"This mine accident leaves us a lesson of blood," Premier Wen Jiabao said during a Jan. 2 visit with grieving relatives at a government-owned mine where 166 people died. "We will definitely attach a lot of importance to safety production and will never let such a tragedy happen again."

In addition to strong statements such as Wen's, Beijing announced efforts to make mines safer, funneling more than $2 billion into the task this year and pledging up to $4 billion more in the next two years.

Routine precautions

Most of the mining deaths in China could have been prevented if safety measures considered routine in developed nations, and technically required here, had been observed.

But miners continued dying in great numbers. According to official statistics, 1,113 people died in coal mine accidents in the first three months of this year, an increase of 20 percent over the corresponding period last year. That included the 18 men who died in the March 14 explosion at the Xinfu mine in Heilongjiang province - during a purported provincial campaign to step up mine safety inspections.

The Xinfu accident, in its small way, suggests that the party-run bureaucracy either cannot or will not bow to central government edicts. At its worst, that bureaucracy is hollowed out by corruption and greed; even at its best, it is organized to fail at reining in law-breaking mine officials - including those who work for the government itself.

The official New China News Service report of the accident, published two months after it occurred, provides the best-case scenario.

The report revealed that one of the two contracted operators of the government-owned mine was Peng Guocai, the brother of a high-ranking official with the local state-owned coal group. Peng was also the deputy chief of the Work Safety Administration Bureau of the district where the mine headquarters was located. As the purported safety expert of the two contractors, he was apparently in charge of safety inspection for the mine.

But according to the official report, Peng and provincial safety officials knew the mine was unsafe.

The Heilongjiang Province Coal Mine Safety Administration bureau chief, Wang Feng, told the news service that the pit didn't have a methane detector, workers were not properly equipped for emergencies, the pit had too many underground passageways, and the narrowness of the passageways meant working conditions were poor.

Armed with this information, coal mine safety officials ordered the mine to shut down for improvements three times in the months before the accident, the last time just four weeks before the accident, according to the official report.

But officials didn't follow up, and the mine never closed. Several days before the accident, the article reported, the man jailed as the methane inspector, Zhang Huanzuo, had complained to the bosses that the mine's ventilation equipment wasn't working.

Zhang was told not to worry about it.

Just a scapegoat

That was the official news report. Inspector Zhang's family offers a different version. His relatives insist that he wasn't a methane inspector, that he has been made a scapegoat. They also said that safety officials couldn't have had a clear sense of what was going on down the shaft.

"When inspectors came from the government to inspect this coal mine, they would not go underneath," Liu said.

The New China News Service article left unexplained how a mine run by a government safety official could get away with ignoring repeated orders to shut down and make improvements. And Liu couldn't explain why safety officials would closely inspect other mines but not the one where her husband and son died.

But the nature of the Chinese bureaucracy offers some explanations: City and provincial safety bureaus answer not to senior bureaucrats in Beijing but to local party officials. It's the local officials who set the bureaus' budgets and have the power to end or make careers.

No incentive for safety

Top provincial and local officials routinely have personal financial stakes in government-owned and -contracted mines. The safety inspectors, in turn, have little incentive to crack down when they can receive bribes from operators for looking the other way in service of their party bosses.

All this has been magnified by a surge in demand for coal to fuel the nation's economy, and an even greater surge in profits. The country produced nearly 2 billion tons of coal last year, according to official statistics, an increase of 42 percent over two years earlier. Major coal companies, which produce more than three-quarters of the country's coal, reaped profits of more than $3.7 billion last year, more than double their 2003 profits, according to official statistics.

With so much money to be made, large state-owned mines and small privately contracted mines alike have pushed even harder to increase production, sometimes beyond the bounds of what is considered safe. Local governments, which collect taxes based on how much coal is produced, have had even less incentive to rein in the mine operators. So, too, the government officials who stand to profit personally - either from stock in the mine companies or from bribes and kickbacks.

And the limited influence of the central government regulators is eroded still more by those local, money-driven interests.

Official collusion

On occasion, this sort of bureaucratic dysfunction emerges in the pages of the state media in the outraged voice of a fangless Beijing regulator. It's left for the reader to discern whether the outrage reflects an official's genuine frustration or a corrupt administrator's expedient cry of shock at a situation he has been familiar with for years.

"Extremely audacious and ridiculous!" was the opening salvo in an article that appeared in June in one of the nation's leading papers, China Youth Daily, quoting the words of the nation's top work safety administrator. "Li Yizhong indignantly denounces the collusion between officials and coal [bosses]," the headline stated.

The article went on to describe an accident on June 8 in which 22 people died at a coal mine that had been listed as unsafe less than two weeks earlier by the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety, which is under Li's command.

It reported that Li called for an investigation of whether the coal mine boss had connections with government officials, and that he described a widespread practice of officials holding financial interests in coal mines they oversaw.

"It has become a common phenomenon in many coal-producing provinces. The exchange of power and money has turned the legal licensing process for operating coal mines and the legal supervision responsibilities of some government agencies into waste paper," China Youth Daily reported, in one of the most sweeping condemnations of the coal mine bureaucracy to appear in the state news media.

Blame deflected

Such reports still deflect the blame away from the center toward local officials. There are no explanations about why a local official technically belonging to Li's sprawling bureaucracy, Peng, could manage to take over a mine and then brazenly ignore safety regulations with impunity until a deadly accident occurs.

To go any further is politically unacceptable in China.

After accidents that are reported, some government officials might be suspended or demoted, and coal mine operators can face jail time. But the officials in charge of government-run coal mines, where some of the worst accidents have happened, might escape a prison sentence, possibly getting fired and stripped of party membership instead.

Peng, the private operator of the Xinfu mine, has lost his party membership and his government job. He is in jail awaiting further consequences, according to official news reports.

One of the few weapons the party has at its disposal to combat the greed within its ranks is money of its own. Mine safety at many large state-owned mines could be measurably improved if a substantial fraction of Beijing's expected $6 billion investment in mine safety improvements actually makes it to unsafe mines - rather than into the pockets of officials down the line, a perennial risk.

And if the central government were able consistently to force mine operators to pay large sums in compensation to widows, that might encourage bosses to cut fewer corners. In many past accidents, families have been compensated $6,000 or less for the death of a miner. Liu said she has received $19,000 for her husband's death, which she bitterly says is not enough.

Danger pays

But unscrupulous bosses will keep finding miners to send down the shafts because money is their lure, too. It was for money that Liu's family endured endless workdays, leaving home at 6 every morning and returning at 11 at night to help the Xinfu mine produce 30,000 tons of coal a year.

And it was for money that her husband and son continued to work in the mine when others seemed safer: They could make about $240 a month at Xinfu, almost twice as much as they were making at a larger, government-run mine a year earlier. The Communist Party does not allow independent labor unions - they would threaten the party's grip on power - so miners have no say on working conditions.

Liu's remaining son, Zhang, continues mining because other work is hard to come by and the money at his government-owned mine is decent, up to $150 in a good month. She admits being worried but doesn't try to stop her son.

"How can I not be worried? I am worried that I will lose everything eventually," she said. "It's bad. It's bad. But if you do not do this job, you don't have money."

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