Energy & Resources

Still the pits

New scandal at Chinese mine reveals safety problems remain

Still the pits

Not a safe vocation

Under a law introduced to improve safety in China’s coal mines last year, shift manager Qi Guming should have been stationed down in the pit with his miners when the explosion ripped through his colliery in the southern province of Yunnan earlier this month, killing 43.

Instead, he was safely above ground, sleeping in the mine’s office. So when Qi awoke to news of the accident, he ran into the mine, smeared himself in coal dust and staggered out, telling rescue workers that he had escaped from the stricken shaft using a parallel tunnel, the Beijing News reported.

Qi’s story soon began to unravel and he was arrested for giving false testimony. Under a new law introduced last September – which aims to improve safety by exposing bosses to the same working conditions as their staff – he faces a fine of up to 80% of his annual salary, as well as a lifetime ban from mine supervision.

Because of Qi’s play-acting, the Yunnan disaster has fed into the wider debate on personal responsibility (see the story on Wang Yue in WiC127), this time in the context of the drive to improve safety in China’s enormous coal industry.

“Qi Guming’s behaviour was a shock for even people numbed by the normal bad news from the mining industry. It has heightened awareness of the coal industry’s lack of human conscience and morality,” claimed a Worker’s Daily editorial on November 16.

Despite a raft of laws in recent years aimed at improving conditions in the country’s mines – many of them accepted as genuine improvements – China still accounts for a staggering 70% of the world’s mining fatalities.

At the root of the problem, say experts, is demand for coal. China relies on coal for 70% of it energy needs and the pressures of economic growth mean that this requirement will remain high for the foreseeable future.

China is home to one third of global coal reserves and about 25,000 mines. Although the government has been trying to close the smaller pits – those thought to be least able to invest in modern safety equipment – it is reluctant to put too many of them out of business lest it affect coal supply

Critics also say the bodies set up to regulate the industry are not sufficiently independent because they often report to organisations which own the pits, such as the provincial governments.

Competing legislation and ministerial rivalries also make the prosecution of violators almost impossible, experts say.

“Only a thorough reform of the related legal system, economic structure and coal mining institutions will improve the safety situation,” Da Sulin a professor of management and politics at Nanjing University argued in piece on the industry published in the China Daily.

Doubtless the government would argue that there has been progress, since the introduction of new laws, like the one that Qi flouted. And to be fair, the annual death toll from mining accidents has fallen from 7,000 five years ago to 2,433 last year.

But whereas a few years ago a coal accident in Yunnan might have earned little wider comment, there is a newer tendency among some of Chinese netizens to look at apparently unconnected tragedies as part of the same wider problem.

“From little Yueyue’s case to the rape case of the joint defence team, from Chinese football to Shanghai’s high-speed railway, from the mining accident in Yunnan to drunk driving, from newborns thrown away as dead to the collapsed bridge in Hangzhou, from fake military licence plates to chengguan beating people up, from China Unicom’s monopoly to forced evictions, I see corruption, bribery and decadence at work,” one netizen, Xiaodeyouxing, declaimed from his weibo account.

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