China Ink

Survivor bias

The country has been gripped by the successful rescue of 115 miners at Wangjialing in Shanxi province. Many survived eight days trapped in shafts filled with water – 33 others have been reported dead, with at least 5 still missing.

Survivor bias

A miracle that so many survived?

The state press gave the rescue efforts blanket coverage and celebrated the survival of the 115 miners with obvious relief. Many drew wider lessons. It was an “amazing, miraculous rescue”, reported the People’s Daily, which proved once again the “indomitable, heroic spirit of the Chinese nation”. Xinhua was also elated, thanking the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee for an “unparalleled concern and passion for human life”. Even the People’s Liberation Army was moved to issue a statement, celebrating “the great superiority and cohesiveness of the socialist system.”

The international media praised the resilience of the surviving miners, as well as the scale of the rescue effort. It was less effusive on the political dimensions of the rescue. The New York Times reported that one letter sent down with supplies to the trapped miners read: “Dear fellow workers, the Party Central Committee, the State Council and the whole nation have been concerned for your safety. Hold on to the last”. But the newspaper wondered – like others – if there were not wider lessons to be learned. Far less was being written about a disaster in the same week in central Henan, in which 40 miners died.

But there was criticism in China too?

Xinhua reported that the government watchdog – the State Work Safety Administration – was investigating claims that warnings on water seepage were ignored. Too many work crews were underground to be safely evacuated as well.

The Global Times wanted to know the names of the surviving miners. Local hospitals have been slow to release information (saying that they did not want treatment interrupted). But this led to a punch-up between frantic family members and coal mine staff, according to China News Service.

It sounds like water rushed in from an abandoned neighbouring shaft, said the Wall Street Journal. The area is riddled with illegal mines that have been dug and abandoned but never registered. It also reported Chinese media coverage that the mine was rushing to get into production at least five months ahead of schedule.

How is the safety record going to improve?

The Beijing News was shocked that a major state mine project, with approvals going all the way up to the State Council, seemed not to have undertaken a full geological survey. But Dave Feickert, an advisor working for China’s Bureau of Coal Mining Safety, told the Global Times that managers usually focus more on production than safety.

Respondents to a poll on had a novel solution. The best way to prevent disasters in future, they thought, was to send coal bosses down into the mines alongside their employees.

Mining is a dangerous business, and not just in China. TIME magazine compared events in Shanxi to the deaths of 25 miners in a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia in the same week.

But fatality rates in the US had reached an all time low in 2009, at 34 deaths. Even though safety has improved in China too – from 6,995 deaths in 2002 to 2,631 last year – an average of 7 Chinese miners dies every day, the New York Times calculated.

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