China Moves Against Unsafe Coal Mines
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
China's government is closing thousands of coal mines in a bid to clean up the world's most dangerous mining industry. China punished hundreds of people last year for coal mining accidents that killed nearly 6,000 miners. But thousands of unsafe mines remain in business, often protected by corrupt officials. NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited one mining town in south China and sent this report.
(Soundbite of voices)
ANTHONY KUHN reporting:
In an unheated farmhouse in Chiang Shuay(ph) village, residents sit on small wooden stools warming their hands over an open coal fire. They speak as if their village has been taken over by the local Long Fu Coal Mine(ph). A middle-aged woman named Tan Fu Long(ph) says she shovels coal nearly every day.
Ms. TAN FU LONG (Coal Worker): (Through Translator) We've been loading coal on the trains for six years. If the train comes in at midnight, we go to work at midnight. If the train comes at 3 AM, we go at 3 AM. We can't leave until all the coal is loaded and they've never paid us a cent.
KUHN: Tan says the villagers keep records of how much they're owed in hopes that someday they'll get paid. Chiang Shuay village sits on a hillside in the lush mountains of southern Hunan province. Hunan is one of China's biggest producers of coal, which accounts for three-quarters of China's energy. According to the official People's Daily newspaper, on a nationwide average one miner dies for every million tons of coal produced in China. In Hunan province the average is 11 deaths. According to official statistics, authorities have shut down 30 percent of China's coal mines for being unsafe but only 6 percent of Hunan's.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: The farmers are desperate to tell people about their plight. They recently trailed a visiting reporter through the fields, unwilling to let him leave even though they risked attracting official attention. One of the farmers, Wong Yuen Shun(ph), looks out over a bleak landscape of barren fields, dry wells and collapsed irrigation ditches.
Mr. WONG YUEN SHUN (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken) (Through translator) The miners ruined these fields by digging under them. It caused the land to cave in. The farmers here now have no way to make a living. They have no fields to plant.
KUHN: According to the People's Daily, the Long Fu mine has operated illegally since being privatized five years ago. It was under orders to either to upgrade its safety equipment or shut down. Locals say its bosses have concealed the accidental deaths of several miners. On November 11th of last year, Lee Jong(ph), the nation's top industrial safety inspector, came to inspect the mine. An elderly man named Wong Doning(ph) said he tried to meet Lee.
Mr. WONG DONING (Local Resident): (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: `I wanted to explain our situation to the official,' he said, `but our local leaders wouldn't let me. They dragged me off and put me in a room with several other people.'
The People's Daily reported that the Long Fu mine's boss lied to Lee's face about the mine's safety procedures. `Who do you think you're fooling?' Lee reportedly barked at the boss. `You're acting with complete disregard for the miners' lives.'
The mine has escaped closure, locals say, thanks to a man named Zung Chin Shuen(ph), a powerful local Communist Party official. Calls by NPR to Zung's office went unanswered. One local businessman spoke on condition that we not use his name and disguise his voice.
Unidentified Man #1: (Through Translator) There is no legal or illegal here. Whatever Zung says is legal is legal. The illegal businesses operate with impunity while the legal ones can't stay in business.
KUHN: The businessman claims he tried to report on Zung and was kidnapped and nearly killed by Zung's thugs. Locals say Zung has control over the police, courts, party and government officials in the area. They say he uses his henchmen to extort bribes from the mine bosses. It's generally cheaper for the bosses to pay the bribes than to install safety equipment in their mines.
Businessmen bribe Zung in exchange for other favors as well. One local mine boss spoke on condition of anonymity and asked that we alter his recorded voice. He said that he gave Zung three bribes totalling $10,000 to help him resolve a business dispute with a former partner.
Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) We went to Secretary Zung. We gave him money and he then helped us. We gave him money through a third party and he spoke up for us.
KUHN: But the mine boss said his rival gave Zung a bigger bribe and Zung then sided with the other man. The boss reported Zung to anti-corruption officials but they took no action. Then Zung turned on the mine boss.
Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) On December 25th, 2005, these criminals came with guns, knives and iron rods. They burned down my mine buildings and equipment and injured two of my employees.
KUHN: The businessman adds that Zung himself bribes higher officials in exchange for protection. Analysts say corruption in China's mining industry is too pervasive and too profitable to be easily cleaned up.
But not all of Hunan's leaders are untouchable. An official newspaper put out by China's Ministry of Civil Affairs recently reported that Hunan's vice governor, Jung Mao Chin(ph), was under investigation for corruption involving the coal mining industry. The paper said he slit his wrists in a failed suicide attempt on December 28th, 2005.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.