Death imitates art in China’s coal mines

The similarities are chilling. In the multi-award winning movie Blind Shaft (盲井), two miners trick young migrants into working with them as their “relative” before killing them and extorting compensation from the mine boss.

In a case reported by the domestic Chinese media on 26 December, a group of criminals murdered at least 17 young men in coal mines across the country before demanding compensation from their bosses.

In the most recent incident, a miner was allegedly killed only two days after starting work at a mine in Hubei. A few days later, his “relatives” from Leibo in Sichuan arrived at the mine to demand 200,000 yuan in compensation from the mine owner. When police investigated, they discovered that a gang from the poverty stricken district of Leibo had committed similar crimes in nine other provinces over the last two years.

Blind Shaft, which was banned in China because of its uncompromising portrayal of life, sex and death in the coal industry, highlights the extent to which human life has become just another commodity in China’s coal mines. The standard price for a miner’s life is 200,000 yuan, and mine owners are perfectly happy to pay this price in return for keeping the death quiet – having the death publicized could lead to the mine being closed down and a much more substantial loss of income being incurred. Worst still for the mine owners, they could be detained by the police as was the case with five mine managers after a gas explosion killed 12 miners in Jiexiu, Shanxi, this weekend.

This cruel, callous and calculating attitude of mine bosses towards their workers can be absorbed by the workers themselves, particularly those coming from abject poverty, who have nothing to lose. They can come to see the lives of their fellow workers as just another means of making money, both for themselves and their families back home.

The two protagonists in Blind Shaft saw murder as a business venture that could provide a better living for their families. And in mainland media reports yesterday, people interviewed in Leibo seemed to view the multiple-murder case purely in economic terms. The local police meanwhile had done little to track down the culprits, preferring instead to blame mine operators for not checking and verifying the identity of their employees.

I fear that until mine owners really start to value the safety, welfare and lives of their employees, death will continue to imitate art in China’s coal mines.
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