New openness in China disaster

A mine explosion left more than 160 miners trapped underground Sunday.

When a gas explosion at 7:10 a.m. Sunday left more than 160 Chinese miners trapped thousands of feet underground, the story hit world news shortly after 10. For disaster reporting here, three hours is pure lightening speed.

Horrific mining disasters on Oct 20 and Nov. 20 in central China, likewise, were given a quicker and more complete airing than is normal in a country where tragedies, strikes, accidents, and "negative" news are rarely told.

Coal-mining disasters are an embarrassment for Chinese leaders, and they happen with frightening regularity. The state-run Xinhua agency reports some 4,153 deaths in China's coal mines during the first nine months of this year, though China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong estimates 20,000 annual deaths.

The frank reporting on mine disasters is relatively new. Mining reform in China has proven not only politically difficult but expensive and complex. Absent an easy fix for the problem, China's leadership is trying to show concern and deflect criticism via official veracity.

Most if not all of the details Sunday came exclusively from Xinhua news agency reports - some 300 workers were in the Chenjiashan state-run coal mine shaft as a gas blast five miles from the mine's entrance trapped half the miners. At press time, more than 160 miners remained trapped below ground with no ability to communicate with the outside world. Rescuers managed to save scores of miners, but were rebuffed from reaching others by thick smoke.

Only a few years ago, current Premier Wen Jiabao, then vice-premier, was dealing with mining crises first hand, as head of the state industrial safety bureau. In that role, he narrowly escaped censure himself, and the current openness policy is thought to be based on his experience. It has also allowed for greater venting of anger by Chinese on Internet message boards.

Tackling private mines

Mine accidents are a regular embarrassment for the world's seventh largest economy, and a sore spot for the Chinese people.

Private-run mines are the most notorious, with owners known to skip expensive safety measures in order to make a profit. In fact, Chinese safety officials point out that to make a profit, most private mines cannot afford normal safety procedures.

For years, as tragedies mounted, sometimes weekly and daily, reporting was tied up by a hide-and-seek game between local officials, and Beijing. Owners sought to hide serious explosions, and their frequency, and admonished employees not to report the truth about mishaps. Last year a former county Party Secretary in the Guangxi region was executed for the cover up of a 2001 mining accident.

Possible causes

Two possible linked reasons for Sunday's tragedy are circling Beijing's talk shops: First, several recent accidents took place on weekends, a time when mine operations may be more lax, and possibly when safety systems are partly shut down.

Secondly, the deadly blast comes as China is switching from oil to coal, due to high costs. Heating in northern Chinese cities, and many power plants, is coal-fueled; new reports describe coal shortages in cities as winter sets in. Such realities may be causing stress in the system, and shortcuts in mining. One mining safety official claims that miners, who normally work six hour shifts, have been invited to work 12 hour shifts.

Though it is a gruesome statistic, international mining safety groups point out that Western nations with modern safeguards record about 0.3 persons killed per million tons of coal extracted. At the worst period in China, as some 80,000 private mines were operating unsafely and unregulated in the late 90s, the figure was 9.6 deaths per million - a period of neglect so great that, as a Xinhua report put it, even donkeys would balk at entering a mine.

In recent years, after more than 65,000 private Chinese mines were shut, the official figure is closer to 2.7.

Some reports point out that miners strikes were a harbinger of deeper social malaise and unrest in Eastern-bloc countries, -Romania and Russia, for example. Yet China, unlike those former communist states, has not allowed its miners to unionize.

Most of the hundreds of thousands of coal miners in China are local peasants. They reportedly make between 1,000 and 3,000 rmb ($125 to $370) a month, which is very high by rural standards. Sources say there are rarely labor shortages for this reason, despite needing a work force of some 3 million coal miners. Sources say it is assumed that when peasants take a mining job, they know the risks.

Swift Internet reaction

The speedy Xinhua mine reporting Sunday brought a deluge of comments on China's latest form of public referendum - the Internet.

More than 2,000 comments made it past the bank of message board censors at Sina.com, China's largest news portal. As netizens read about the third major mining disaster this fall, many expressed outrage over accidents that "make the lives of the Chinese people seem cheap," as one put it.

Another wrote that fewer mining accidents took place in the 1950s to '70s, and that modern China "is able to prevent this from happening, but we just don't do it."

Others leveled criticism at state officials who allow lax inspections, and at journalists who report on the number of Chinese leaders who rush to the scene of the tragedy, but are not doing enough to prevent them.

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