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Is China's coalmine safety "Achilles Heel" ?

10:17, July 23, 2010

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By Li Hongmei

There is a wide-spread sad joke saying what is even worse than going to Hell would be boarding an Indian train and being a Chinese coal miner. Albeit that the annual number of mine-related deaths has decreased steadily since 2002, according to government statistics, China remains a coal-dependent nation, and its mining industry is still taken as the world's deadliest.

Coal is a dilemma for China's energy security. On the one hand, coal could be irreplaceable as the primary form of energy driving China's galloping economic engine for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, sending miners down to the depths to get coal out is not only risky, but also fueling a safety (and environmental) crisis in China.

China's vast coal mining industry is notoriously accident-prone due to lax regulation, corruption and inefficiency as mines rush to meet soaring demand.

Since July 17, an incessant gush of coalmine accidents across china has thus far claimed 44 lives. The most deadly one came about late Saturday in the colliery in Shaanxi province---All 28 miners were killed after electrical cables caught fire.

Earlier this year, an explosion killed 47 coal miners in June at a privately-owned mine in Henan's Pingdingshan city when a store of gunpowder kept underground detonated. In March, a flood at the huge, unfinished Wangjialing mine in the industry's northern heartland of Shanxi left 153 workers trapped underground. A total of 115 were recovered alive, in what was seen as a "magic rescue".

In addition, a total of 2,631 miners were killed in China last year, according to official figures, but people believe the actual figure could be much higher as many accidents are covered up to avoid costly mine shutdowns.

Coal mine safety has long been one of the government's biggest headaches. In efforts to increase safety standards, the central government has levied heavy fines and implemented region-wide mining shutdowns following serious accidents.

All the recent high-profile accidents aforementioned have highlighted the dangers, and again pressured the government to act to head off public discontent over the issue.

China's government is currently trying a new motivation to compel coal-mine bosses to make their notoriously deadly mines safer: self preservation, as an extension of the latest nationwide crackdown on violators of mine safety regulations, which began in April.

Premier Wen Jiabao said mine bosses should be forced to start descending into the shafts themselves to work alongside miners.

"Enterprise leaders shall take turns working on-site shifts, while coal mine and non-coal mine leaders must work shifts and go down into mine pits with workers," the People's Daily reported Wen as saying.

Wen's demands came at an executive meeting of the State Council, in which he discussed improving safety in a number of historically dangerous industries, in particular, the "still grim" coalmining status quo.

The State Administration for Work Safety (SAWS) and the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety (SACMS) also steps up the effort to ensure mine bosses to share more in the risks and make sure companies observe safety regulations by raising the work accident compensation to 600,000 yuan (US$ 88,560) and hereby increasing the cost of fatal accidents.

However, many government endeavors to bring China's vast and atomized coal industry to heel have not proved as fruitful as expected. The reasons behind can be both historic and chronic. Just for one thing, the endemic corruption throughout the coalmining industry is just as real as ever and dies hard.

There must be getaways in a place where "the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away," as goes an old saying. That means even capital punishment is often an insufficient deterrent to greedy officials as the gains at stake are huge. On Aug. 26, 2005, Beijing launched a drive to cleanse the coal mining industry of shareholding by officials, requiring all government employees and heads of state enterprises to withdraw their personal ‘investment' in collieries. However, the new anticorruption campaign immediately bogged down at the local level, when officials in some coal-producing regions squarely refused to withdraw their investment; others simply transferred their shares to relatives and friends.

In addition, due to the poor technology and low productivity of China's coal industry, millions of workers are necessary for China's coal-mining industry to meet the growing demand for the resource. The high number of workers often leads to crowded underground mines and explains why accidents in China often have very high fatality rates.

To reverse the vicious circle in coal industry, the government needs first of all to consider tackling coal mining-related corruption as part of an integrated framework. Besides, establishing a stable regulatory framework for safety standard setting and enforcement is also imperative, though the government has yet to be completely successful in this endeavor. And China also needs to borrow some tenable measures from many other countries that have pursued the low-risky coalmining successfully.

After all, the blood-stained GDP is nothing of renown, but a nightmare that is lurking in the rear and will plague the future.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.


Li HongLi Hong

After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to english.people.com.cn in March 2009.

Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.

Dai MinJohn
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."