MAC: Mines and Communities

The high price paid by China's miners

Published by MAC on 2006-04-05

The high price paid by China's miners

By Daniel Griffiths, BBC News, Beijing -

5th April 2006

Every time they go to work, Chinese miners are gambling with their lives.

Rescuers assist a miner after he was trapped following a blast at a Chinese coal mine Mining accidents are frequent

The country is desperate for coal to feed its booming economy.

Coal is needed to generate more than two-thirds of the country's electricity, making China both the world's largest coal producer and consumer.

But profit-hungry mine owners are desperate to take advantage of soaring coal prices and often ignore safety precautions in an effort to increase production.

And Chinese miners are paying the price.

Nearly 6,000 died last year alone in more than 3,000 fires, floods, explosions and other accidents.

All that has landed officials in Beijing with one record they would rather not have - China has the most deadly mining industry in the world.

Reform promised

Nearly every day a cursory flick through the pages of the Chinese newspapers reveals details of fresh disasters and public anger about the issue is growing.

The Chinese president Hu Jintao declared earlier this year that the country's development should not come at the expense of human life.

So now Beijing is promising reform. It says all mines with a production capacity of less than 30,000 tonnes will be shut down.

The government says these small mines produce more than one-third of the government's total output, but are responsible for three-quarters of all deaths.

Most are expected to merge with larger supposedly more safety-conscious mines - but accidents continue even at the bigger operations.

Chinese miners

Beijing wants to improve the mining industry's safety record

And previous government safety campaigns have had a mixed record. The government says the situation is improving and thousands of dangerous mines have already been closed.

But the worst disaster in China's mining history came only last year, when 214 people died in an explosion at a mine in the north-east of the country.

And already this year more than 150 people have died, according to the government's own statistics.

Adding to the problem is the fact that many local officials have shares in the highly profitable mines, making it harder to enforce rules that might threaten their cut.

This despite a ruling from Beijing last year that all officials should get rid of their holdings in mining operations.

Protecting interests

The issue is part of a broader pattern emerging in China at the moment, whether it's mines, the environment, or land development.

China's central government promises reform but often other senior officials or those lower down the chain of command in the provinces have financial interests to protect - putting profit before the Party.

In one well-documented incident last year, dramatic television footage emerged of a violent struggle between armed thugs and villagers resisting the takeover of their property by an electricity company which wanted to build a power plant there.

It emerged that there had been a similar clash earlier in the year, which had gone unreported. Several local officials were eventually sacked and the villagers won their claim to stay on the land.

But they were the lucky ones. Far more have lost than won in the battle with officialdom.

And that includes the nation's miners.

Making the country's mines a safer place is going to be a slow, drawn out process - and while the waiting goes on, more Chinese are going to their deaths, deep underground.

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