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Monday, August 13, 2001, updated at 09:59(GMT+8)

China's 'Biggest Lie' Unravels to Expose Mine Culprits

The cover-up of the July 17 Guangxi tin mine accident that killed at least 81 people has been described by Chinese media as "the biggest lie in China".

As many as 300 miners were trapped in the mine in Nandan, Guangxi, which is run by the Longquan company, a firm jointly owned by tycoon Li Dongming and the Nandan county Government.

Both managed to cover up the accident for days, and denied that the mine disaster had happened, even when Chinese media began to report about the accident.

Despite their efforts, the accident came to light after one of the key mine managers had a guilty conscience and shed light on the darkest chapter in Nandan's mining history.

Based on reports by Xinhua, the People's Daily Web site and other Chinese media, the first 48 hours of the investigation were the most crucial in exposing the scandal.

The investigation team was thwarted from the start. On August 1, the first day of the investigation, the fact-finding mission found it difficult to find out what happened as they waded through the floodwaters of the mine.

Forensic experts said the workers' bodies would have begun decomposing within three days in such an environment.

Investigators, however, realised something was seriously wrong as every miner they spoke to claimed to be a newcomer and had no knowledge of the mine.

Even the mine's managers could not recall what had happened on July 17 and when the investigators tried to call witnesses, the telephone lines had been cut.

The July roster of workers mysteriously disappeared and mine operators were eventually only able to come up with a photocopy.

On the afternoon of August 1, Cao Bochun, Party chief of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region, arrived at the mine and established a provincial-level taskforce, promising to probe into the cover-up.

On the second day of the investigation, mine manager Li Jiaxi finally admitted after an overnight interrogation that the accident had happened.

About 80 miners were missing after water suddenly inundated one of the shafts in the mine at 3:30am on July 17, he said.

Investigators then contacted the family of victim Wei Haisheng and found out that the company had approached victims' families three days after the disaster and promised them compensation of between 50,000 and 130,000 yuan, Xinhua quoted Wei's brother as saying - a somewhat larger amount than the 20,000 yuan stated in the mine's employment contract.

Despite officials trying to buy the silence of the victims' families, relatives still tipped off the media. At least four media organisations had heard about the accident and sent reporters to the scene about 10 days after the flooding.

In retrospect, perhaps the most serious mistake the mine operators made was sending knife-wielding gangsters to bully journalists.

The threat of violence only served to prod journalists to break the news on July 30.

By this time, the picture of the accident had become gradually clearer as reporters and investigators revealed not only the largest cover-up in China's tin mine industry, but also a surprisingly well-developed underground world of gangsters orchestrated by Li Dongming.

Before the tin mine accident, no one had ever heard of impoverished Nandan county and the mogul that was earning huge amounts from the Longquan mining company. He dressed modestly to remind those around him of his poor roots as a rural teacher.

But in fact, Li was running an empire consisting of 17 mines and factories. He had fixed assets of 450 million yuan, plus a capital flow of 90 million yuan, a forest covering 7,337 hectares, as well a private railway.

Mainland media alleged that Li possessed not only a railway but also an army, calling them his bodyguards.

His bodyguards were armed with handguns, some with silencers, the Yangcheng Evening News reported. Li was officially detained by the Public Security Ministry on August 5. The story of the tin mine tycoon's rise to power and fall from grace also includes gangster connections and intimidation.

The Yangcheng Evening News accused Li of being the big brother of a local gang called the Wild Ducks, while the Southern Metropolitan Daily newspaper also accused him of using his private army to scare away potential competitors.

Although the accident has now been revealed, the media has had its day, and Li, county leaders, and even those at a provincial level are likely to be held responsible, local residents are still left pondering if the new county leadership will be able to find a work alternative to the dangerous tin mining industry.

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The cover-up of the July 17 Guangxi tin mine accident that killed at least 81 people has been described by Chinese media as "the biggest lie in China".

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