The news of the death of 213 miners following a gas blast at a colliery in Liaoning on February 14 barely registered outside China, but it was further evidence of an ongoing tragedy, and symbolic of the enormous human cost that China is paying for its phenomenal economic growth.
Officially more than 6,000 Chinese miners lose their lives each year in industrial accidents. The real figure is believed to be much higher, however, because operators often conceal accidents to avoid fines and costly shutdowns.
China produces 35 per cent of the world’s coal, but accounts for 80 per cent of industry fatalities globally. The death rate is 30 times that of South Africa and 100 times that of the U.S. Mining coal in China is probably the most dangerous job in the world.
These disasters devastate the communities where they occur, and have become a national scandal. There have been demonstrations and protests throughout the coal-mining regions. In 2001, the government launched a campaign to regulate small, private mines, which had been accused of lacking adequate safety equipment and of having high accident rates. Yet, thousands of these mines are still open or have been reopened after being shut down for a short time. And they are operating with the same outdated technology. In addition, the large, state-owned mines, which are generally thought to be better equipped and therefore safer, are not much better. After every disaster, the government proclaims another clean-up or modernization program. Commissions are established and investigations initiated–and the deaths go on.
The problem is that Beijing is devoted to a policy of economic growth, regardless of the human cost. It is also devoted to its monopoly of political power, which means there are no effective counterweights to its control.
The rapidly growing economy places a high demand on energy, which the coal-mining industry can supply without advanced technology and safer–but more expensive–equipment. It has an abundant supply of workers, whose wages are kept artificially low by repressive policies. In a system where lives are so cheap, there are huge profits to be made–a powerful lure to maintain the status quo.
There are also political considerations. The Chinese government does not allow miners to form independent trade unions to protect their rights, nor does it allow non-governmental organizations to monitor the safety of the industry. Of course, the miners know the dangers they face, but they have no way of protecting their interests and rights. They have no option but to go down the mine each day in order to support their families.
Risking their lives, they barely make enough to survive–but they have helped owners gain increasing wealth. This is Beijing’s policy of “letting some become rich first.” The problem is that the rich have remained a relatively small group, and the majority is growing increasingly angry.
Ultimately the reason underpinning the frequent mining accidents is the government’s national strategy, which puts economic growth above everything else. Beijing, therefore, has an undeniable responsibility for the shameful conditions in the industry.
The development of any society should not be achieved at the expense of human lives. We do not want to read more reports about top officials going to accident sites, expressing their condolences and promising to investigate. The cause is obvious, and so is the solution. There is much talk these days about revaluing the yuan, but I would suggest that China and the world would be a lot better off if we placed a higher value on the lives of Chinese workers. What, after all, is the point of economic growth if it destroys the very people who create it?
Li Qiang is executive director of China Labour Watch in New York City.
This article appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .