19 December 2009
At 1.50am on November 21, a safety officer in the Xinxing coal mine in Heilongjiang noticed a sharp swing on his instrument that measures underground gas. He sent an alarm, advising evacuation of the 528 men at work.
Forty minutes later, an explosion rocked the mine, leaving 104 dead and 65 injured. It was the worst coal-mine accident in China since 107 were killed in the Hongtong mine in Shanxi in December 2007.
On November 23, coal prices at Qinhuangdao, a major domestic port for coal distribution, reached a year high of 660 yuan per tonne, while the price at Guangzhou port rose to 795 yuan a tonne. The increase is a result of an economy in recovery, strong demand for winter heating and the state-ordered closure of small and medium-size mines.
The 169 dead and injured miners at Xinxing in Hegang city, Heilongjiang, were the victims of criminal negligence driven by a desire to profit from these rising prices. Coal powers two-thirds of the mainland's electricity generation and has become one of the most precious commodities of the past 10 years.
Luo Lin, the head of the State Administration of Work Safety, said the Hegang accident was due to negligence, the failure of management to evacuate the miners, and too many workers underground. He fired the director, deputy director and chief engineer of the mine.
The most detailed explanation of what happened was provided by Southern Weekend, one of the mainland's boldest newspapers. It said that previously, gas inspectors had the power to order an evacuation, but now, to boost production, only management could give such an order. Last January, the mine extended the mandatory time per shift from four to seven hours; if a miner came up after less than seven hours, his shift would not count and his foreman would be fined. The miners receive no base salary and are paid according to their output. At the time of the explosion, most were 800 metres below ground.
The paper was unable to say exactly what happened at the management office between 1.50am and 2.30am and why it did not give an evacuation order. But it said the managers had established a culture of "money first, safety second" that was a strong factor in the accident.
Making it worse for the government was the fact that Xinxing is a major state mine, in operation since 1917, with an annual output of 1.45 million tonnes and more than 3,000 workers. It was designated this year as a "model anti-disaster enterprise" because of its advanced security and information systems.
Its parent, Heilongjiang Longmay Mining Group, said in May that it planned to raise 10 billion yuan (HK$11.3 billion) through an initial public offering. After the accident, Beijing banned the company from listing for three years.
China's coal mines have the worst safety record in the world. In the past decade, the blackest year was 2002, with 6,995 deaths, work safety administration figures show. In the first half of this year, 1,175 miners died in 749 accidents, down from 1,440 dead in 953 accidents in the same period last year. The drop was mainly due to the closure of small mines with little or no safety equipment.
To feed the mainland's fast-growing economy, coal output has nearly tripled in 10 years. Last year, it reached 2.72 billion tonnes, up from two billion in 2004 and one billion in 2000. It is expected to near three billion this year and 3.06 billion in 2010. After years as a net exporter, China became a net importer last year.
Such demand has made coal one of the most profitable commodities and coal companies the darling of investors. The Shenhua Group, the country's biggest producer with output of 159 million tonnes in the first nine months of this year, announced an increase in net income to 26.03 billion yuan in the period, up from 22.7 billion in the same period of last year, with profit up 14.6 per cent. Its shares have more than doubled this year, compared with a 54 per cent rise in the Hang Seng Index.
Shenhua and other companies have grown rich on China's economic miracle, their coal feeding power stations, steel furnaces, cooking stoves and the homes of tens of millions of people during the freezing winter. The coal miners are an essential part of this miracle, and many have paid a fatal price.
When a dozen relatives of the dead miners in Hegang went to the entrance of the mine on November 23, they were met by a line of police and security men in dark uniforms. They complained about a lack of information and their inability to reach any officials.
"None of the officials have died, all the dead are workers," one shouted. "Not one of those officials has even been down into that mine." Some of the women were taken into the company compound and others put into a large, white van and driven away.
What they encountered is standard practice after mine accidents. The local government sends "consolation teams" to the families of the victims, to listen to their grief and arrange the terms of compensation, which is usually about 200,000 yuan per victim.
One condition of the payment is that they keep their sorrow and their story private, for the sake of "social stability".
This is one reason, despite seven deaths a day, mine accidents rarely make the news. It is only major tragedies such as those at Hegang that attract the attention of the central government and, with it, the media.
It was so serious that Beijing sent Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang to the city at the head of a top-level delegation. Their presence made it possible for the media to report the accident in some detail. It is usually in the interests of everyone to keep silent - the mine owner, the local government eager to protect the good name of the city and the police eager to avoid any cause for protest.
The Ministry of Public Security has published a booklet in Beijing on how to manage public protests. "In principle, they cannot be reported. If they have to be reported, the propaganda department of the city police or of the unit dealing with it must report them in a unified way. Major protests can only be reported briefly, with such official approval, allowing room for manoeuvre."
The media are an important part of this process. Editors and reporters routinely receive payments from mine owners and local officials not to report accidents.
Late last month, mainland media reported that 58 journalists had been punished for accepting 319,300 yuan in bribes not to report a mine accident in Shanxi. Four received 35,000 yuan, another 14,000, and the deputy editor of a magazine received 10,000.
The General Administration of Press and Publications said four reporters had been sacked and barred from working as journalists for five years.
Another case occurred after a mine accident in Yuxian county in Hebei province in July last year, three weeks before the start of the Beijing Olympics; mine owners paid 10 journalists 2.6 million yuan not to report it. Thirty-four miners and a rescuer died.
"The accident led to the death of over 30 miners," said Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. "Their bodies had been taken away and cremated and their families given 400,000 yuan on condition of remaining silent. The journalists and other people in the locality were paid off. This is normal practice. Accidents with less than 10 dead are normally not reported.
"These coal bosses run the county and the local public security bureau. They can get away with murder."
But mainland journalists who seek to report accidents without the approval of the local government may face the threat of violence from those hired by the mine owners and, in extreme cases, death.
On January 9, 2007, two men at an illegal coal mine in Huiyuan county, Shanxi, violently beat Lan Chengzheng, a local reporter for the Beijing-based China Trade News; he died of his injuries the next day.
Later, local officials said Lan did not have the proper journalist documents and police accused him, a former miner, of blackmailing the mine owners for money to keep their illegal operations out of the paper.
Official restrictions on the one hand and corruption on the other put editors and journalists in a corner. In such circumstances, it is hard for them to become part of the solution in reducing mine deaths - rather than be part of the problem.