Miners martyrs of China's "miracle"
ANGUISHED relatives of trapped Chinese miners toppled a security fence and fought with police on Sunday, as it appeared that a rescue operation was being called off, and hope for the 172 men underground faded.
Flash floods caused by torrential rains had breached a levee and poured into an old shaft, engulfing the mine in the city of Xintai in Shandong Province on Friday. It was the latest of a number of tragedies that have befallen miners in China. China has been the world's biggest coal producer in recent years, and coal provides two-thirds of the electricity powering China's much-famed economic growth. But China's mining industry has one of the poorest safety records in the world.
A crowd of 200 people, angry at the lack of information, toppled an iron fence and broke into the compound of the Zhangzhuang mine, clashing with security officers. Some people threw stones at administration windows and fought police. But later officials insisted that the rescue operation was continuing, though the head of the Work Safety administration, Li Yizhong, said rescue teams had to proceed with caution because of the dangers of further flooding and gas leaks in the pit.
CCTV state television reported that high speed drills had been brought to the site to cut through the rock to accelerate the pumping operation, while Xinhua said 11 pumps had been installed by more than 6,700 rescue workers.
China's coal mines are some of the most dangerous in the world and fatal accidents happen almost every day. More than 4,700 workers died last year, according to official figures, but independent labour groups say the real toll is nearer 20,000 annually, because many accidents are covered up.
China's leaders have sought to speed up coal output to meet growing energy needs and avoid power cuts which hit many provinces a few years ago. But while the government promised to improve safety, the price has been high.
After 166 workers died in the Chenjiashan explosion in November, 2004 the State Council ordered an inquiry and newspaper editorials called for a more humane and balanced view of economic progress. An editorial in China Daily said the authorities should pursue "more serious actions for safety despite an energy shortage".
The Chenjiashan mine had reportedly failed a safety test days before the explosion, and had frequent fires. Relatives of the dead blamed managers' pursuit of a 400,000 yuan bonus for beating output targets.
In 2005 a gas explosion at the Shinjawan mine in north-east China killed 214 miners.
China has two kinds of mines: big, state-run mines, which are generally thought to be safer, and smaller private mines where the majority of deaths occur. "They're technically illegal, but they also have certificates. They pay money and get a licence," says film-director Li Yang, who spent 18 months making a film, Blind Shaft, set in small, private mines.
During filming, he lived in half a dozen mines and spent 50 hours underground. He counts himself "lucky" to have been asleep in the pithead dormitories when a roof collapse killed two miners. The response was matter-of-fact. "They cleared up the debris, cleared the shaft, treated it no differently from a traffic accident."
Miners had helmets and lamps, but most wore soft rubber boots. He never saw steel toe-caps. Ear mufflers? He laughs at the question. "They had no training."
Miners worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, earning roughly 1000 yuan ($120; £62) a month. Pay was linked to how much coal they cut. Gas is the biggest killer, but miners often carried on working "even when it's close to the warning level", says Li Yang.
Increased demand for coal has kept the private mines running profitably alongside the sped up state ones. Miners lives have been sacrificed to "growth", but then, not theirs alone. China's record of factory fires, in which the victims are often women workers, recalls some of the worst history of unregulated capitalism.
Capitalists from abroad, as well as home-bred, find the state bureaucracy a helpful partner in exploitation. Earlier this year almost 500 slave workers, including children, were freed from brick kilns in Henan and Shanxi provinces, north China, where they had been put to work, with the connivance of local Communist Party officials. This was an extreme case, and the authorities intervened. But the way Chinese embassy officials reacted to a strike by ill-treated Chinese building workers in Israel, ordering them back to work, underlined the irony of thinking the People's Republic a "workers' state"; and the terrible fate of Chinese migrant workers drowned in Morecambe bay in England while picking winkles, exposed the desperation that had driven them to pay for the privilege of working abroad.
Only the day before the Xintai disaster, it was reported that striking miners at the Tanjiashan Coal Mine in Hubei Province had suddenly been surrounded by more than 200 part-time security guards hired by management to break the strike. According to a report by Radio Free Asia, the security guards set about the workers and in the ensuing clash at least one worker and one security guard died. The conflict lasted about two hours. Workers vented their anger by attacking company offices and two nearby police vehicles they believed had been used to transport management's hired security guards to the mine. The dispute arose over allegations that management were diverting money allocated by central government for redundancy payments.
The Chinese government says it wants to make the mines safer by bringing them all under central control. But what is really needed is the right of working people in China to organise freely so they can assert some control over their conditions and working lives, as well as their environment, and press political leaders for the laws they need, and for these to be enforced. Workers' rights and democracy are not a luxury extra for socialism. They are a matter of life and death.