CHINA: Behind the horrific mine tolls

Issue 

Eva Cheng

On February 14, while 574 miners were working 242 metres underground at the Sunjiawan coal mine in China's Liaoning province, a blast occurred, killing at least 213 of the miners. This was the deadliest mine accident in China since 1949.

The horrific mine disaster occurred on the sixth day of the Chinese New Year — when most Chinese workers were still enjoying time off. The Sunjiawan mine workers were forced to resume work so soon because 300 yuan (US$36) had reportedly been deducted from their wages to ensure they complied with the boss's demand.

China's previous worst coal mining disaster since the 1949 revolution took place on November 28 last year at the Chenjiashan mine in Shaanxi province, when 166 workers were killed.

On January 17, China's State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) reported that 6027 workers died in 3639 coal mine gas explosions, floods and fires last year — some 80% of world coal mine fatalities. China accounted for 35% of worldwide coal production in 2004.

Furthermore, according to a November 17 official Xinhua news agency report, the SAWS reported that by late 2004, some 600,000 coal miners in China were suffering from pneumoconiosis, a lung disease caused by prolonged dust inhalation.

Not 'accidents'

This high incidence of coal mining disasters is a product of the Beijing regime's drive to restore capitalism, with mine operators being free to sacrifice workers' safety to capitalist profitability.

In the 1990s Beijing made high-profile efforts to reduce fatality levels in China's coal mining industry. Things seemed to improve for a while but then went backward. Beijing's efforts to improve mine safety standards have been counteracted by its own policy of taking China down an energy-intensive and energy-wasteful path of industrial growth.

China is heavily reliant on coal production because other energy sources, such as oil and gas, are far less plentiful. China has 11.65% of the world's coal reserves. From a low base, its coal production has increased since 1949 at just under 9% per year, reaching 1.667 billion tonnes in 2003.

According to a 2004 study by Wang Shaoguang, chief editor of the Hong Kong-based China Review, fatalities at China's coal mines hovered around 700 a year in the first eight years after the 1949 revolution, but shot up to 5098 in 1959 and 6036 in 1960 — at the peak of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward. The numbers of deaths dropped after that to about 1000 in 1965, but increased again during the late 1960s, at the peak of the so-called Cultural Revolution. Mine fatalities were 4500 in 1978.

China's coal mining fatality rate (deaths per million tonnes of production) was 8.17 in 1980 (compared to 1.33 in India and 0.89 in South Africa), but improved to 6.78 in 1988. Despite an apparent downward trend in the official coal fatality rate since then to 4.64 in 2002, Wang reported that coal mining safety standards deteriorated in the 1990s.

Echoing other commentators' observations, Wang pointed out that the official fatality rate tended to be an understatement due to widespread cover-up of deaths in the industry by mine managers.

Dangerous operators

A 1983 government decision to encourage coal mining throughout China opened the way for ill-equipped village and township enterprises (VTEs) to get involved, en masse, in this dangerous industry that requires considerable resources to ensure high safety practices. Prior to this, coal mining was predominantly undertaken by large-scale state enterprises, which were much better resourced.

Owned privately or by local governments, VTEs are generally small, employing up to 20 or so workers, profit-driven and won't or can't afford to devote resources to workplace safety. According to Wang, the VTEs' share of China's coal production jumped from 18.3% in 1980 to about 50% in 1995-96.

Many of the VTEs engage in coal mining without licences or site permits. Some, Wang noted, mine illegally on the fringes of state-owned mines, endangering safety at these mines.

In 1993 Beijing deregulated coal prices, triggering a hike in prices and luring large numbers of VTEs into the industry. By 1997, a glut in production capacity became evident. Coal prices plunged. According to Wang, hundreds of even medium-sized state-owned collieries had to close. Many smaller ones were put up for privatisation. Those still nominally state-owned, were leased to their managers or other licensees, and operated essentially as a private businesses. Maximising profits became mine managers' overriding concern.

Between 1997 and 2001, the central government forced more than 50,000 small coal mines to close. But faced with a growing energy crisis throughout China in 2003, many dangerous mines were allowed to reopen.

Competition between local officials to impress their superiors or expand their power base has led to serious duplication of energy-intensive projects that consume coal wastefully.

Before 1988, Beijing made state budget allocations for mine safety. Between 1981 and 1985, such investments amounted to 1.15 billion yuan. Beginning in 1988, such spending came from a special fund financed by a tax on coal production. The central government controlled the fund, which according to Wang worked well for a few years. Since 1993, however, when "increased autonomy" for state enterprises began to be promoted, Beijing began to lose control over the mining safety fund.

As a special measure to promote coal mining safety, an average of 840 million yuan a year was allocated from the fund for state-owned mines during 1996-2000, Wang reported. But only 400 million yuan a year was spent.

Profits before safety

Small mines find it especially costly to take safety precautions because of their poor economy of scale. The lack of an effective system to punish negligent managers has meant safety is rarely taken seriously. It often cost much less to pay off the relatives of dead victims than to invest in safety systems.

With both output and profit maximisation now the overriding concern of even state-owned mines, workers' safety has become a marginal concern even at these mines. The methane gas explosions on February 14 in Liaoning province, on November 28 in Shaanxi province and on October 20 in Henan province, which respectively killed 213, 166 and 148 miners, all occurred at large state-owned mines.

The Daping mine, where the Henan explosion took place, had already experienced three fatal "accidents" before October 20 and its operator, the Zhengzhou Coal Industry Group "has been hit frequently by accidents", reported the January 20 China Daily. For his part in not doing enough to stop fatal explosions from recurring, Henan vice-governor Shi Jichun was given a mere "administrative warning" by Beijing.

China's fiscal decentralisation has also seriously compromised mining safety. The township and county governments are supposed to ensure safety regulations are enforced. But most of these local administrations are heavily reliant on taxes on coal production for revenue. It is also not unusual for these authorities to own a share of the local mines. They therefore have every incentive to turn a blind eye on costly safety issues.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which has a state-enforced monopoly of union organisation, is not in the business of protecting workers' rights, despite official rhetoric to the contrary. In addition, most coal miners are peasant workers in the poverty-stricken rural regions where there are large numbers of desperate job seekers. A survey at the end of 2002 revealed that coal miners' pay was the second lowest among 49 industries under study.

From Green Left Weekly, March 9, 2005.

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