China: The Deadly Cost of Growth

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A picture in the South China Morning Post shows this slogan on a banner hanging over the mine in northeastern Shandong province where 172 miners were trapped by a flood last Friday. As the accompanying story points out, some of the hundreds of relatives of the miners waiting outside the gates of the mine while the excruciatingly slow rescue attempt continues have been infuriated by the message of the slogan: “Heaven is merciless. But people can love each other. And the Communist Party has the greatest love of all.”

If you watch this video, you can get a sense of the agony these families are going through and also that the “rescue” effort, which has dropped the water level in the flooded mine only a few meters, is actually more of disinterment exercise.

The point of all this is that the death toll in China’s mining industry–anywhere between 40,0000 to 80,000 a year from accident and disease (see our story on this here)– even more than other problem areas like health care and the environment is one where the government could make a huge impact in a relatively short time but chooses not to. Of course, China is a huge country that is impossible to govern from Beijing, the provincial governments do what they want etc etc. But the fact is if they wanted to use their political capital, top leaders could do something about this. But coal (and most of the mining deaths are in coal mines) is the fuel that drives China’s economic juggernaut. In the cold, long term calculus they employ, continuing economic growth is essential to social stability and if that means sacrificing lives, so be it. It’s a judgment that the most flinty-hearted economists (opportunity costs etc) might understand, if not necessarily agree with. But watching that video gives a whole different perspective, one that makes you wonder just when the cost of growth will finally be reckoned too high.