Blood Coal (with apologies to the China Labor Bulletin for borrowing their phrase)

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More depressing news from China’s mines. The most blood spattered of all the country’s industries, The news is rarely good but lately it has been particularly bad. Rookie reporter Lan Chengzhan of the Beijing-based China Trade News was beaten to death while attempting to report a story about coal mine safety in Shanxi province, itself practically one huge coal mine. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has had experience with mines, whose owners often have local authorities in their pockets, along with law enforcement (I recall attempting to interview workers recovering bodies at a flooded Shanxi mine back in July only to find the entrance “protected” by no less than three police cars; happily food apparently was a higher priority than protection and all three cars roared off to lunch at the stroke of 11.30). In a predictable reaction, some local authorities have said that Lan wasn’t a “real” journalist because he was only an intern, something his editors deny. Though there is some quibbling about his exact title, there’s no doubt he was sent out to collect news for the paper. There have also been the usual charges that he was trying to extort money from the mine owners, a smear so well worn that you’d think his accusers would be embarrassed to trot it out. (There are plenty of other cases of reporters being jailed on bogus extortion charges. Yang Xiaoqing, for example, is in jail in Hunan, tried and convicted by a court that reports to the same party secretary he had fingered for corruption). Lan, who was from the city of Datong in Shanxi, had himself been a coal miner, as had his father and evidently felt strongly about the subject. He had previously worked for a small local publication that reported only on mine safety. Around 5000 miners died last year (the official figures; indepndent researchers say the real figure could be as much as three or four times that), which makes working as a miner in China the world’s most dangerous job. The vast majority of accidents happen in privately owned mines that are sub-contracted out by the local authorities to individuals who then run them as cheaply as possible, sometimes kicking back cash to the officials who gave out the licenses. As all the major capital investment has usual already taken place, sub-contracting a mine in China is practically like owning a cash machine. There’s an endless supply of desperate migrant workers who will go down the mines for pennies and virtually no other costs. Certainly most don’t spend anything on safety. Senior officials in Beijing including Premier Wen Jiabao have made repeated commitments to improve mine safety, but tho officially reported deaths dropped last year, no one thinks that’s the beginning of a trend. There’s no better example in China of the Beijing’s inability to control the local governments when money is at stake, an alarming portent for the country’s future.

For the record, Lan left behind a widow and two young children. Oh, and news broke yesterday of yet another mine accident. This time it was an iron ore mine in Inner Mongolia. Thirty-five miners are trapped in the mine, which flooded. Police have arrested the mine owner. And so it goes….