January 28, 2003
China's Coal Miners Risk Danger for a Better Wage
HONGYANG, China — Liu Fengtong does not need reminding that it is perilous to dig for coal in Chinese mines. He broke his foot and his shoulder when a tunnel collapsed on him six years ago, and he lost his front teeth when a rock fell on his face a few years later.
When he leaves home he walks past the village walnut tree, once the daily meeting place of his two brothers, Liu Fengwu and Liu Fengmin. They worked the same shift at a nearby mine until Oct. 23, when an underground methane gas explosion reduced the family mining fraternity from five men to three.
Then there is Mr. Liu's 77-year-old mother, frail and prone to tears, who tells her sons that they must never again go down into the mine shafts.
"I lie to her and tell her I work in a factory now," Mr. Liu said on a recent frigid morning, slipping on his inky canvas overalls and attaching his headlamp. "She could never take it if we told her the truth. But I can't survive without going down."
Becoming a coal miner in China is less a career choice than an act of desperation. It is a job for the poor who calculate that the income, however modest, outweighs the likelihood of injury and the constant specter of death.
China began shaft mining at least 1,800 years ago and now produces more coal than any other country, about 1.3 billion metric tons a year. The Chinese coal industry also has few rivals in the number of miners killed and maimed on the job.
According to China's official statistics, 6,121 people died in mines last year, 8 percent more than in 2001. There were an average of 10 fatal accidents a day last year.
Mining is dangerous everywhere, but a Chinese miner is more likely to die on the job than miners in almost any other country. Last year 4.7 Chinese miners were killed for every million metric tons of coal produced. The only higher reported rate was in Ukraine, at 6 miners per million metric tons. A Chinese miner is 117 times more likely to be killed at work than an American miner.
Many more miners perish uncounted in prosaic tunnel collapses, explosions, fires, floods and elevator failures that mine owners never report, Chinese coal experts say. Many mine owners keep their records secret. They do not want anyone to scrutinize operations that use manual labor in conditions not much better than those at the dawn of the industrial age in the 19th century.
The miners' days are filled with degradations. They share soiled sheets and hard beds in dormitory rooms. They work without union representation for bosses they never meet. Yet theirs is also a culture of dependency. Though they rarely make more than $150 a month, they do better than peasants who work the surface of the land. If mining kills or injures a family member, the healthy need extra income to pay medical bills and support dependents.
Fang Chunsheng moved to this coal region in Shanxi Province hoping to earn enough to start a business in his native Sichuan. He now uses his savings to help pay medical fees for Fang Jianjun, his little brother and a fellow miner. In November, a loaded coal cart spun out of control and punctured the younger Mr. Fang's body. He broke three ribs and doctors removed his pancreas.
In a place like Zhongyang, nestled in the dun-colored Luliang mountains of western Shanxi Province, coal is by far the most important industry, and the most pressing problem. Dense clouds of smog drift over the arid landscape, the exhaust of coking plants. Smokestacks and elevator towers above mine shafts seem to outnumber trees.
Everyone here depends more or less on coal, and nearly everyone knows someone whose life it destroyed.
All six brothers in the Jiang family, ages 32 to 56, work in the same mine, called Hou Wa, in a valley beneath their hilltop village. None had suffered major injuries for years, but that changed last Dec. 30.
On that day Jiang Wuchu, 33, was crawling through a 3-foot-high tunnel in a coal seam 400 feet underground when he heard a rumble. He regained consciousness as workers dragged him toward the shaft opening. He had no sensation in his legs.
The manager would not let workers use the company car to take Mr. Jiang to the hospital. "They were afraid I would die and cause them problems," Mr. Jiang said.
So they bundled him into the back of a taxi. The company agreed to pay for surgery to repair displaced vertebrae in Mr. Jiang's back, but only if it were performed in Zhongyang, where the local clinic resembles a two-story motel, with concrete floors and black curtains in the doorways to keep out the winter chill.
At least one of Mr. Jiang's brothers skips work each day to help feed, clean and administer therapy to him at the clinic. The mine has so far offered no compensation beyond the initial surgery, and the family has shouldered hospital fees and provided for his wife and three children.
Mr. Jiang still cannot move his legs. He often grimaces and complains of intense pains in his back.
"We would never tell him this, but our fear is that he is paralyzed," said Jiang Qihu, 56, the senior brother. "I don't want to think about it. We cannot afford even a pack of cigarettes."
The elder Jiang says he has debated whether to press the boss at Hou Wa, a private businessman he has never met, to help his family. But he has heard that the boss tends to retaliate against workers who want compensation.
"I'm afraid if we make a big issue he will fire the rest of us," Mr. Jiang says. "The boss has connections with powerful people. We are powerless."
China's government no longer controls mine production as it once did. Local officials supervise the biggest mines and often hire private businessmen to manage them. Tiny mines operating without permits account for a substantial share of production. Many do not follow the most rudimentary safety guidelines, like providing adequate ventilation in mine shafts.
Regulators often express outrage over the industry's atrocious safety record, especially after an undiminished spate of accidents in the last several years. Beijing has ordered small, shoddy mines to shut down, and it vows to punish irresponsible mine owners and the local officials who protect them.
But China's richest sedimentary rock basins lie beneath its poorest places — its northeast, central and northwestern regions. The incentive to exploit coal has tended to outweigh the penalty for unsafe production.
The government also seems inclined to tolerate a high death rate to keep coal, which still supplies about 75 percent of China's energy needs, abundant and inexpensive.
The situation persists because the people who have the most at stake, the miners, are too uneducated, disorganized or scared to do much about it. "Nobody is going to stick his neck out," said Liu Fengtong. "You open your mouth for nothing."
He has been mining for 18 of his 36 years. Although he takes daily detergent baths, the coal clings like a light beard to his face and snuggles into the folds of his skin near his deeply lined eyes.
Mr. Liu skipped work for a week in October to arrange the funeral of his two brothers, who died with 44 other people in a gas explosion at the Zhujiadian mine, just half a mile from his family village. The sprawling mine, one of the few in the area that is state-owned, is visible from his home, as are the tombs of some victims and the walnut tree where his brothers used to meet each day.
Now he does his best to forget. He lives and works at a mine in the hills, sharing a dormitory room with miners on his shift. They warm themselves by a coal fire in the early morning before strapping on their equipment. The conversation steers away from safety, as if addressing the topic might invite bad luck.
Mr. Liu's older brother, Liu Fengtai, did give up mining after the accident. He said he could no longer think straight when he was underground. In other words, he is scared. He thinks his little brother should be, too. "I want him to quit," Liu Fengtai said. "I would rather give him what money I have than to see him go down."
But Liu Fengtong says mining is his destiny. With two children in school, he depends more than ever on the income.
When his shift began, he squeezed onto a capsule-shaped shaft elevator and smiled at a visitor. The sun flashed off his silver front teeth before the elevator was swallowed by darkness.