MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Update on Mining in China

Published by MAC on 2005-11-07


Last week, China's president was warmly greeted by the Queen of England and prime minister Blair, at the start of an official state visit. But Hu Jintao couldn't quite avoid the attentions of protestors against the repression increasingly charactistic of his regime on the mainland as well as in Tibet. Now a leading Chinese civil rights lawyer and his law firm, which took up a key mining case in 2004, has been ordered to stop all operations for a year.

Beijing Orders Law Firm Run by Prominent Rights Lawyer Gao Zhisheng to Close for One Year

November 7 2005

China Labour Bulletin (CLB) Press Release No. 10

A leading Chinese civil rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, has been punished by the Chinese authorities for handling a series of high profile human rights cases involving the detention or abuse in custody of Falun Gong practitioners, rural rights campaigners, labour activists and others. On 4 November, the Beijing Bureau of Justice ordered Gao's Beijing-based Sheng Zhi Law Firm to suspend all operations for a period of one year.

According to news reports, the authorities imposed this punishment after Gao Zhisheng refused to renounce a letter he sent to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao on 18 October calling for an end to the widespread detention and torture of Falun Gong practitioners in China, and after he refused to withdraw from other politically sensitive legal cases as demanded by Beijing officials. Gao had posted his letter to China's top leaders on the Internet and distributed it widely by email.

Less well known is the brave and outspoken work undertaken by Gao Zhisheng's law firm on behalf of workers' rights in China over recent years. One example was the law firm's court defence of a group of workers who faced criminal charges after participating in mass protests in April 2004 against poor working conditions at two shoe factories in Dongguan City, Guangdong, owned by the Taiwanese firm Stella International. Thanks to the principled defence case put forward by Gao and his colleagues, all the workers were eventually freed. (For background on the case, see: The Stella Shoe Workers Protest.)

Other civil rights cases undertaken by Gao Zhisheng include his legal assistance to a former worker named Wang Guilan, who in August 2005 was detained for trying to enter the United Nations office in Beijing and has since been sentenced without trial to 18 months of "re-education through labour." Gao is currently helping Ms. Wang, who was in the midst of undergoing a series of operations after suffering severe facial burns several years ago, to sue the Enshi City police for wrongful detention. (For further details, see: The Case of Wang Guilan.)

In addition, Gao has been assisting the family members of miners killed in the Chenjiashan coal mine explosion in Tungchuan City, Shaanxi Province, in November 2004 to launch a lawsuit in which the families will seek up to 1 million yuan each in compensation from the mining company. (For details of the Chenjiashan disaster, see: below.)

"The Beijing authorities' vindictive retaliation against Gao Zhisheng's law firm is deplorable," said CLB's director Han Dongfang. "It directly undermines the government's claim to be promoting the rule of law and a sound civil society. Gao is a front-line human rights defender, and an attack on him is an attack on citizens' rights in general."

China Labour Bulletin calls on the Chinese government to show respect for its own legal system by immediately rescinding the closure order against the Sheng Zhi Law Firm.


A reminder of the Chenjiashan disaster

Several Hundred Bereaved Families of 166 Miners killed in Shaanxi Coal Mine

Explosion Protest, False Death Toll and News Blockade

Sources: China Labour Bulletin, Xinhua News Agency, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters

21 December 2004

Several hundred angry and distraught family members of the 166 miners killed in a gas explosion in Chenjiashan Coalmine in Tungchua City, Shaanxi Province on 28 November, stormed the mine and local government offices, accusing mining officials of failing to tell them the genuine death toll and of stopping journalists from reporting the accident.

Sources told China Labour Bulletin that when the government announced that there was no hope of finding the missing miners, hundreds of their relatives went to protest at the mine and the nearby Chaowan Town government office. An eye-witness told CLB that stones were thrown, smashing some windows. A retired worker there also told CLB: “About two to three hundred people surrounded the town government office. A reporter and some government officials and police officers were trapped by the crowd. The reporter was released.”

Officials said rescue efforts had been hampered by fires and thick toxic fumes in the state-owned Chenjiashan Coalmine. A total of 293 workers were working underground when the accident happened on 28 November. Some 127 miners escaped. The mine employs 3,400 workers and produced 2.3 million tonnes of coal last year. Another gas explosion there in 2001 killed 38 people.

A deputy supervisor of the mine’s propaganda department told CLB that a duty production supervisor had been surrounded and beaten up by a group of miners’ families because he had been “unable to answer heir questions about the company’s responsibility for the accident and for mounting a rescue operation.”

He managed to get away when public security officers stepped in. The propaganda department supervisor also said that the Shaanxi Provincial Party Committee had decided to issue permits to certain reporters only, in order to avoid coverage by foreign media. Miners’ families believe there was a press ban in force and confronted officials of the provincial propaganda department on 30 November.

The explosion is the most serious accident of many in the last five years, including a gas explosion in Daping Coalmine in Henan Province which killed 148 miners in October this year and another at Muchonggou Coalmine in Guizhou Province in September 2000 in which 162 were killed.

The huge number of deaths in the Chenjiashan mine accident and the frequent occurrences of other major mining accidents in the last two months once again prove the danger of working in Chinese coalmines, which are the world's deadliest.

Miners forced back down to the deadly coalface to ensure managers’ bonuses

The elder brother of a missing miner told CLB that he had tried to seek help from the mine's trade union, but staff there had refused to help. He said his brother, Li Zisheng, had told him that he had known there was a fire inside the mine before he went down. "I advised him not to go, but he said he was afraid that his wages would be cut. But now, he has gone and will never return." Li, who had two sons, had to work about 15 hours every day without a single day off all month, for a meager wage of 800 to 1000 Yuan a month.

Another miner’s relative told us she believed that the number of miners trapped in the mine was much higher than reported and she was sure that the death toll of the 2001 explosion had also been higher than that reported by the mine’s management. “Workers are afraid of the repercussions and therefore usually stop short of telling the truth to reporters,” she said. Trapped miner Li Zisheng’s older brother also confirmed that workers did not tell reporters the truth as they were afraid of losing their jobs, adding: As I’m unemployed, I dare to tell you the truth.

The wife and son of deceased miner Wang Zuoqin told CLB that mining officials had forced miners to go down to work in the pits even though fires had been breaking out underground since 22 November. “The officials are just after the luxury cars and money bonuses of 400,000 Yuan that they would receive for higher production. Everybody in the mine knows that! The city mayor was also there [when they forced workers to go down to work] and some miners were sacked....” The miner’s wife lashed out at mining officials for their reluctance to face workers and their failure to take action to save the miners. She said: “For three days after the accident they did not send anyone down to clear the blocked pits and save the miners. Neither did they provide a living allowance for miners’ families.” She accused provincial government and mining officials of not telling reporters the truth and the provincial propaganda department of interfering with press coverage of the accident. In addition, the authorities had taken a series of intimidating measures aimed at preventing the bereaved families from pressing their concerns and demands through collective action.

A manager at the mine admitted to CLB that the high death toll was a result of officials illegally forcing miners to work, and that miners’ families were very angry. He revealed that miners were required to work in the pits for more than 10 hours a day, 7 days a week and that their monthly wage was only 700 Yuan. However, a control room official denied that miners had been forced to go down to work in the pits. “We are a large-scale enterprise, and we don’t force our employees to work. You know, when an accident happens people say anything they want,” he said.

Bereaved families not consulted about compensation offered

A member of staff of the mine’s trade union told CLB: “I don’t know how the rescue work is going. Our task is to take care of the miners’ families.” He later said mining officials had decided to give the families of each deceased miner a compensation of 80,000 Yuan, but he was not sure if the officials had negotiated with the families about the amount. However, a manager told CLB that the trade union is directly under the control of the mine management.

A miner’s brother told CLB that armed police had been stationed at the entrance of the mine and he had heard that miners’ relatives had only been allowed to see the bodies of their loved ones after agreeing to the compensation terms. According to a report of the State Administration of Work Safety, families would be given 44,640 Yuan in compensation to include funeral expenses. The report also said that the government department responsible for the compensation had prepared an agreement, but no miners’ relatives had signed it yet. A miner’s brother said that nobody from the mine had contacted his family and that he had heard that each family would be given a compensation of 39,000 Yuan.

According to CLB’s sources, at no time have the bereaved families been consulted by either mine officials or the local government over what they themselves believe the lives of their lost loved ones were worth.

An official work safety expert, Zhou Qingyun, was quoted by Xinhua News Agency as saying that the carbon monoxide density in the Chenjiashan Mine was so high at the time of the disaster that even one intake of breath would have been fatal.

During a press conference on 1 December, Shaanxi Coal Industry Bureau chief Huo Shichang said there had been no chance for the trapped miners to survive in "an environment of high temperatures and toxic gas."

According to government statistics released on 14 December, 5,286 people have been killed in 3,413 coal mine accidents from January to November this year. The real figure is widely believed to be much higher, however. The government said that coal mine accidents in China accounted for 80 percent of the world’s total in 2003.

In a separate accident, 13 miners were killed and three missing in an explosion on the morning of 1 December in a coalmine in Guizhou Province.

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