China: Shanxi coalmine ‘miracle’ rescue

Massive media focus attempts to hide cause of calamity: greedy managers and a total absence of workers’ rights

An incredible true-life ‘miracle’ has gripped China since the first survivors from a coalmine disaster in north China’s Shanxi province were lifted to ground level on Monday morning (5 April). After a horrendous 8-day ordeal, trapped below ground as water gushed into the Wangjialing coalmine from an adjacent disused mine tunnel, 115 of 153 trapped mine workers were lifted to safety. Rescue workers interviewed by state media paid tribute to the mine workers’ perseverance, wits, and optimism.

But behind the media circus and a none-to-subtle attempt by the Chinese dictatorship to claim the credit, there remains the shocking reality of an economy and a political system that denies workers their basic rights and sacrifices lives and welfare for profit. Six Wangjialing workers are confirmed dead and 32 remain trapped in the flooded mine, with hopes of survival fading fast.

The Wangjialing drama has become the biggest TV event in China since the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. CCTV and other networks have broadcast round-the-clock coverage. Millions are naturally moved by the heroism of the rescue workers and the trapped men themselves, and also relieved that a far worse disaster has been averted.

The media has been full of stories of how the trapped workers ate the bark from pine support beams and paper wrappings from explosives in order to survive, and how they drank their own urine. Some reportedly built rafts and makeshift platforms to try to keep above the flooding. The workers banded together as a team to fight for their survival. Older seasoned underground workers gave crucial life-saving advice to their younger workmates and boosted morale with stories of successful rescue operations and previous survival ordeals. One young worker relayed how the old hands had spoken of a group of mine workers in Guizhou who had survived 25 days underground. He said he realised now this tale had been made up to spur the group to keep fighting against a host of deadly perils – the floodwater, the cold and insufficient oxygen.

The last days of the ordeal also saw a dangerous build-up of toxic gases in the mine and therefore the risk of an explosion. For this reason, the trapped men could not knock on the pipes sent down by rescue teams to signal that they were still alive. Because no further knocking was heard from underground after Friday 2 April, rescue teams began to fear it was too late. The trapped workers strapped themselves to beams to prevent the floodwater sweeping them away. They pooled their helmets and rotated the use of the lamps so as to conserve power supplies. “Support and mutual encouragement were the keys to their miraculous survival,” commented the South China Morning Post.

State media reported how the workers hugged each other to stay warm. The Guangzhou Daily quoted a 23-year old survivor: “All the seniors squeezed me and put me in the centre to prevent me from getting chilly because it was very cold underground.” This heroism, selflessness and compassion for their fellow workers stands in stark contrast to the callous money-grabbing ruthlessness of the mine managers who reportedly fled into hiding after the disaster struck on 28 March.

The Wangjialing mine belongs to a joint venture between China National Coal Group and Shanxi Coking Coal Group, two of China’s larger state-owned firms. The sequence of events that led to the disaster is an indictment of government policy and shows safety routines in the state-owned sector are not fundamentally better than in the private sector. As has explained, without workers’ democratic control and management of the industry and strong, independent trade unions to supervise workplace safety, then state managers and bureaucrats also cut corners and sacrifice safety to make profit.

The trapped workers at the Wangjialing mine were migrant construction workers employed by private contractors, they were not state employees. Workers in the much-reduced state-owned sector enjoy greater job protection and better terms than in most private companies, especially in mining. Therefore it is likely the Wangjialing workers do not have permanent job contracts or enjoy basic benefits such as retirement or medical insurance.

In rushing to show its concern, the misnamed ‘communist’ regime has sent the survivors to top hospitals in Shanxi such as those in the provincial capital Taiyuan. This VIP treatment, staged for propaganda reasons, is in sharp contrast to the shabby way migrant workers are treated every day. While the provision of good quality medical attention is to be welcomed, why stop there? The government and – at least on paper – the “Chinese people” own the Wangjialing mine, so why is it not possible to give these workers permanent full-time jobs on a decent wage with medical cover and free schooling for their children? And not just these workers, but all the heroic mine workers who toil under incredible hardship and danger. And why shouldn’t these workers be empowered to form their own trade unions, run democratically, and with control over training and workplace safety, including a trade union veto over management decisions if safety issues warrant this?

Based on media reports, the management of the Wangjialing mine are guilty of the following:

• They were rushing to complete the mine project five months ahead of schedule and therefore took big risks that led to the disaster.

• They violated safety regulations by exceeding the maximum allowable numbers sent underground at one time.

• They ignored reports that water was leaking into the mine from nearby disused tunnels – reports they received some days before the disaster.

• The private contractors doing the construction work had not provided adequate safety training especially for the inexperienced workers in their employ.

The common root of all these safety lapses is profit – the bosses’ quest to make even more money.

While people are inspired and gladdened by the successful rescue of most of the Wangjialing workers, this cannot erase the grief and anger over the deaths from this and other coalmine tragedies, or the fears for the remaining trapped men at the Wangjialing mine. Many people in China are also sickened by the ruling party’s blatant attempts to cash in on the ‘miracle’ at Wangjialing. Not surprisingly, state media is booming out its praise for the party and government in ‘organising’ the successful rescue, although omitting to mention their ‘organisation’ of the company that caused the disaster in the first place. The People’s Daily attributed the rescue of 115 survivors to “wider coordination by the party and the government”. But the party and the government were not trapped in the dark flooded tunnels below ground. From their hotel suites and limousines, top officials were unfortunately unable to ‘direct’ and ‘coordinate’ the magnificent struggle for survival at Wangjialing. No, rather than the ‘geniuses’ of the party officialdom, this ‘miracle’ was the work of ordinary workers.

Perhaps the most nauseating spectacle from these events was that of Zhang Baoshun and Wang Jun, respectively party secretary and governor of Shanxi, ordering the convoy of ambulances to be stopped so they could be filmed checking on injured workers. Many of the survivors are in quite serious condition suffering from skin ulcerations from long exposure to water, malnutrition, dehydration and shock. To insure their message is the only one heard, the authorities in Shanxi have actually sent police to guesthouses to arrest relatives of the survivors to prevent them speaking to the media. The head of the nearby Heijin People’s Hospital said he had received orders banning any media interviews with mine workers in the hospital’s care. Even a ‘miracle’ it seems cannot give Chinese workers freedom of speech!

Among the large number of people who are not taken in by government attempts to hi-jack the Wangjialing rescue effort for its own propaganda ends, one blogger wrote: “The rescue operations are nothing but the result of man-made disaster. If we call them ‘miracles’, then such ‘miracles’ could continue to occur.” shares this sentiment. Serious outstanding issues must be faced in order to prevent new calamities without so favourable an outcome. As long as workers are denied the right to organise democratically, such tragedies are unavoidable. As long as a brutal one-party regime suppresses all democratic rights then dangerous work practises and unscrupulous bosses will go unopposed.

State-owned industries must be brought under the democratic control of the working masses. Some sceptics say ordinary working people are not capable of running complex enterprises and organising the economy to meet society’s needs. But the inspiring story of Wangjialing shows that ordinary workers and former farmers, by organising themselves and pooling their collective abilities, can triumph over almost unimaginable odds. The story of Wangjialing is one of hope and confidence – not in the dictatorial party and money-grabbing officials – but in the will and collective strength of the working class to run industry and society. This gives further arguments for the cause of true socialism!

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April 2010