China: The Daping mining disaster and “maximising profits”

The final death toll may rise to over a hundred at the Daping coal mine in what is China’s worst mining disaster so far this year.

This means in total more than 200 miners died last week after a spate of disasters in China’s ‘mines of death’. Mining in China is the world’s most dangerous industry.

Following the explosion on Wednesday, 20 October at the Daping mine in Henan province and after days of frantic rescue efforts, 82 miners were confirmed dead. The chances of saving the remaining 66 miners trapped underground were ‘slim’, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Less than an hour before the Daping explosion, another gas blast had killed at least six miners at a coal mine in Chongqing. Earlier the same day, underground flooding trapped 29 miners at the Desheng mine near Wu’an in Hebei province with no reported survivors. Two days later yet another gas explosion killed 15 miners in Guizhou province.

7,000 killed in 2003

These grisly statistics bring the death toll in the coal industry so far this year to over 4,250. Last year, 7,000 miners were killed. The Chinese press have been filled with photographs of the desperate rescue effort, involving 1,000 rescuers, at the Daping mine as weeping wives and children waited at the pithead. Reflecting the new spirit of ‘openness’ under China’s fourth-generation leadership, criticism of money-grabbing coal bosses has even been aired in the official media. Sun Huashan, deputy director of the State Administration of Work Safety, told Xinhua, "There are still a lot of loopholes in the safety management of coal mines throughout the country". Sun admitted that the surge in demand for coal as a result of rapid economic growth meant that mines were, "Overloaded, which brings them closer to accidents".

In reality, the carnage in Chinese mines can hardly be put down to ‘accidents’. The deaths are the result of a calculated policy by mine-owners or state managers to save on safety equipment and keep costs low. Li Dun of Qinghua University commented, "Many companies just want to maximise profits and minimise costs and are reluctant to invest more in measures to ensure work safety".

The main cause of mining deaths is the build-up of flammable gases because of poor ventilation. Mines which have been officially closed on safety grounds, often reopen illegally with the collusion of local officials to cash in on the coal boom. In 2002 there were 23,000 ‘illegal’ coal mines in operation according to official statistics. Many miners have recently lost their jobs as a result of down-sizing of the state sector. As Li pointed out, "No matter how dangerous the work is and how low the pay is, miners dare not say anything about it because mine owners have a long list of job-seekers in hand" .

"Putting the people first"

The new leadership under President Hu Jintao, who recently consolidated his position vis-a-vis his successor, Jiang Zemin, has attempted to adopt a more compassionate profile, with the slogan: "Putting the people first". They stand for continued "Reform" – i.e. capitalism – but with economic growth balanced by social and environmental checks.

They fear a looming backlash against the inhuman conditions for workers which is the flipside of China’s rapid economic expansion. But given that economic development is skewed towards delivering fat profits for the new class of capitalist entrepreneurs and bureaucrat-capitalists in control of state-owned industries, the slogan "People first" is meaningless.

Police measures can of course be taken against some of the worst cases of abuse. This happened last week at the Wu’an mine where nine managers were arrested for attempting to conceal the full extent of the disaster. This and greater press freedom to report on abuses are all the regime can lean on in its attempts to curb the criminal antics of the coal bosses, given that the market rather than state planning now governs economic relations.

"Deeper reform"

Already, the debate after last week’s disasters has shifted to the need for "Deeper reform". The Daping coal mine, which employed 4,100 workers, is part of the state-owned Zhengzhou Coal Industry Group. Miners have complained of poor safety standards at the Daping mine in the past; last Wednesday’s explosion was the fourth fatal accident at the mine.

Li Dun, whose views are featured prominently in the state-run press, argues that the appalling safety record is the result of poor management of state-owned industries. His conclusion, undoubtedly shared by many in government, is that more rapid privatisation and a sharper redefinition of property rights will help improve safety standards. This is contrary to all international experience. In Britain and other West European countries, state control of coal mining in the past led to massive improvements in safety standards.

In other "transition economies" (i.e. former Stalinist states), as in China itself, privatisation has in most cases meant no change of management; the same corrupt bosses have remained in charge. Only the working class has lost out in terms of fewer jobs, a worsening of pension rights and other social entitlements and even fewer trade union rights.

What is needed is workers’ control and management of the coal industry, an end to privatisation and profiteering, elected health and safety representatives with the power to stop production on safety grounds and a massively increased budget for investment in safer work methods, proper ventilation systems, more regular inspections etc.. The first step towards achieving all of this is the establishment of genuine – independent – trade unions under the democratic control of the members.

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October 2004