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China: the mines that kill

As shown by the tragedy in West Virginia at the start of this year, mining is hard, unpleasant and dangerous work. Coal is the main substance mined, so naturally that is where most of the fatalities occur. The annals of the coal industry are indeed full of appalling disasters: over four hundred miners killed at a pit in Senghenydd in Wales in 1913, for instance, and over three hundred at the Monongah mine, also in West Virginia, in 1907. Even a list of disasters, however, says nothing about the many more whose lives have been crippled and shortened by diseases resulting from working in a mine. As the industry in Britain has been progressively closed down, mining and its dangers have been shifted to other countries, especially China. The disasters have been exported there as well:

‘China produces 35 per cent of the world’s coal but accounts for 80 per cent of fatalities globally. The death rate is 30 times that of South Africa and 100 times higher than in the United States. Mining coal in China is probably the most dangerous job in the world.’ (http://www.chinalaborwatch.org/en/web/article.php?article_id=50250)

Over six thousand Chinese coalminers were killed at work in 2004 (the equivalent of one Senghenydd-like death toll every three weeks or so).
In August last year, for instance, the Daxing mine in Guangdong province was flooded and 123 miners killed (Beijing Review, 25 August). The previous month, another mine in the same area had been flooded, killing sixteen miners; after this, the local government ordered all mines to close for a safety inspection, but this did not happen. The Daxing mine, which was privatised in 1999, was producing well above its intended capacity. The millionaire owner of the mine had paid out massive bribes to local officials: the mine received a safety certificate in June, which it clearly should not have done. Many of the mine managers have gone on the run, and the local mayor has been suspended from his office. Corruption and the ignoring of safety regulations are the immediate reasons behind the tragedy.

The list goes on and on: 171 killed in an explosion in Heilongjiang province in November, this time at a state-owned colliery; 214 at the Sunjiawan mine in Liaoning province last February; 166 killed in an explosion at Chenjiashan mine in Shaanxi province in November 2004. In March last year eighteen miners died following a gas explosion in the Xinfu mine, also in Heilongjiang: the owner was deputy director of the local safety bureau. Xinfu should have been closed on account of its fairly scanty coal reserves, but it had been registered as having nearly three times the actual figure.

It is not just the disasters themselves that are so appalling. After the Chenjiashan explosions, widows of the dead miners were harassed by police and others, and contact between them and anyone outside the local area was made as difficult as possible. They were paid less in compensation than in other cases. Nobody has been charged in connection with the deaths.
Safety regulations in Chinese mines are (pardon the unfortunate play on words) a dead letter. The rules and regulations may exist, but mine owners, whether the state or private capitalists, have little incentive to enforce them. Bribery and corruption are rife, with many local officials in the pay of the owners and so encouraged to turn a blind eye to violations and to ignore safety inspections. The regulations are more for show than for the safety of the workers. As with capitalism anywhere, output and profit take first place, with consideration for the producers a long way behind. At Chenjiashan, the mine manager is said to have told the safety chief, “The management wants coal, not miners.”

Nor can everything be seen as a consequence of the recent partial privatisation of the Chinese mining industry. Some disasters have occurred in mines that are still state-owned, while the biggest death toll in a Chinese mine was at Laobaidong in Shanxi province back in 1960, when no fewer than 684 died.
Despite the increase in the use of oil, coal remains the primary source of energy in China. The country burns a quarter of the world’s coal, with coal making up two-thirds of China’s energy consumption and being used mostly for power generation. Yet much of the equipment is outdated and many of the smaller mines in particular are very inefficient. With the demand for energy ever-increasing, there is bound to be pressure to produce more and more, with the inevitable short cuts and downgrading of safety issues. As always, it is the miners and their families who suffer while the owners, whether private capitalists or those who control the government, are those who benefit.
A Socialist society would presumably do its utmost to replace human miners with robots or to find other sources of energy besides coal. Capitalism, in China as elsewhere, is a violent and murderous system that should be replaced as soon as possible.

Paul Bennett