Life in Gansu’s villages goes from bad to worse

In the winter of 1988, I boarded a long-distance bus heading north out of the drab, smog enveloped city of Lanzhou, the provincial capital of Gansu. A few hours later, I got off and headed along a dirt road, through the barren hills lining the highway, up into one of the poorest, most desolate regions of China.

The villagers here lived in absolute poverty, battling drought and freezing temperatures, they struggled to cultivate one meager crop a year, which, if they were lucky, brought in about 200 yuan. There was no electricity, and the only modern appliance was the telephone in the village headman’s house. In order to make enough money for their families, the young men went out to work in Gansu’s many small-scale coal and mineral ore mines.

Despite the numerous poverty relief programs that have been implemented in the region over the last two decades, the scene recorded this week by the China Daily when it visited Gulang county, about 200 kilometres north of Lanzhou, was almost identical to that in 1988.

The village is a depressing and unwelcoming sight. Its streets are lined with houses built from loess and have thatched roofs, while the air is thick with the odor of cow dung, which residents burn to heat their homes in winter.

The newspaper visited the home of former miner, Ma Jiangshan, and reported that the family only had one electrical appliance in the house: a 1970s radio, placed on a table covered with a sheet of red cloth.

Life has clearly not got any better for these villagers. In fact, it has got a lot worse. Many of the young men like Ma who went down the mines in the late 1980s are now middle-aged men suffering from the chronic and fatal lung disease pneumoconiosis, caused by decades of drilling and blasting at the rock face with no masks or any other protective clothing. They are unable to work and are crippled by debt from their medical bills.

Ma Jiangshan was one the first villagers in Gulang county to be diagnosed with pneumoconiosis in 2002, after he first developed a cough back in 1989. So far, 304 miners have been diagnosed and many others are expected to get the same bad news when they visit the occupational disease centre in the city of Wuwei, the China Daily reported. The county authorities are trying to get compensation for the victims but they are hampered by the fact that the vast majority of victims worked in the gold mines of Subei, some 700 kilometres away in northwestern Gansu.

Unsurprisingly, the authorities in Subei, who patently failed to enforce the 1987 Pneumoconiosis Prevention and Control Law, and ensure that workers in its mines were adequately protected, have thus far refused to cooperate with the officials from Gulang county.

The Gulang officials are trying to gather evidence to prove that the villagers contracted the disease while working in Subei but, like nearly all migrant miners, the villagers did not have formal employment contracts with the mine. They only worked part time and returned to their home village every year to help with the harvest. All recruitment was done through a network of informal connections - nothing was ever written down.

It seems that the most the Gulang villagers can hope for is some kind of charitable compensation from the Subei mine owners or local authorities, although this might not even be enough to clear their debts, let alone compensate them for the loss of their family’s main breadwinner.

To date, seven Gulang villagers have already died of pneumoconiosis, including Zhang Yueshang, who worked in Subei for 13 years. He underwent an operation to clean out his lungs in 2005 but the damage was already too great and he died the following year. The hospital bills left his family 70,000 yuan in debt. His 42-year-old widow currently earns less than 2,000 yuan a year working as a cleaner.
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