These numbers still pale in comparison with the string of major mining accidents in China's recent history, which include four of the eight worst such accidents in the world. Indeed, 80% of coal-mining fatalities globally occur as a result of accidents in China, with methane explosions the most common cause, followed by collapsing roofs. Officially, over 250,000 mineworkers have died in mining accidents since 1949. (The US-China Institute has put together a handy set of graphs that compare coal mining in China with the rest of the world.)
Below is a table of year-on-year statistics that describe the dangers of Chinese mines. Since these are official figures, they probably underestimate the scale of the problem. And even if they were true, the fatality rate in China's mining industry is still higher - and declining more slowly - than in other major economies at a comparable stage of development.
In trying to make sense of these numbers, commentators often fit them into two basic narratives: proof that the central government values economic growth over human life, or that their paternalistic efforts are undermined by recalcitrant local governments.
You get a flavour of both opinions in this BBC News report on a gas explosion at the Xialuichong coal mine last year:
In this post, I want to try to present a picture that is a little more complicated than either of these. The central government has passed laws and regulations and established monitoring agencies in order to enforce minimum safety standards in China's coal mines, not so much out of altruism but because their priority is central control over the allocation of coal, rather than the absolute quantity produced (above a certain amount). The central government needs this control if it is to sustain an economy built on various dimensions of social and geographic segregation and segmentation - because the power of the Communist Party is served by a policy of "divide-and-rule."
As they did in the 1920s, when coal miners were the backbone of the newly-formed CPC.
Just as today, coal was critically important in China at the turn of the twentieth-century, because it was seen as the key to industrialisation and catching-up with the West. Although China had scant known reserves of oil or natural gas at that time, coal was plentiful (China has 11% of the world's coal reserves, the third largest of any country). The main problem was how the largest coal seams were located in the North and the West of the country, far away from the most economically advanced areas on the Eastern seaboard - as the map below illustrates.
The challenge of redistribution was not made any easier by the political divisions and regional warlordism in the period following the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Against this backdrop, the CPC helped create China's first modern labour movement in the mining town of Anyuan in Jianxi province, which was known as "Little Moscow." In 1921 the young Mao went to Anyuan to support the mineworkers prepare for a successful strike the following year, which won them improved wages and working conditions.
article in The Scientific Monthly by a foreign observer describes the appalling working conditions in China's mining industry at the time. In the absence of modern equipment, mineowners relied to an extreme degree on the specialisation of their workforce, who were overworked and unproductive:
"The "beehive", or native ovens, differ radically from the foreign and no machinery is used in filling or emptying them. The human beast of burden does everything by simple force of numbers and persistence."
In a curious twist, the author then accuses the lowly "coolies" of exhibiting the same deficiencies of character as their national leaders - of short-termism and muddling through, rather than thinking of the future, or of the wider interests of society:
"The coolie class is intractable, unreliable, and has no outlook either as to their own or their country's future. They reflect in a petty way the same qualities which now and always have been too much in evidence among their countrymen in higher circles. "Face", "squeeze", and dishonesty are the crying vices of the Chinese people."
To build on their victory at Anyuan, in 1922 the preparatory committee of the Anyuan Miners' Club was established, which included the future Vice-Chairman Liu Shaoqi (in the middle row, third from right). Their slogan was "once beasts of burden, now we will be human."
In Anyuan: Mining China's Revolutionary Tradition Elizabeth J. Perry has explored the significance of the CPC's organising efforts amongst this still relatively small industrial working class. Central to these efforts was the role of education: besides guiding labour unions the Party set up night schools for mineworkers that offered a high quality education and issued its own diplomas. The Party cadres who oversaw the schools believed that by teaching the workers to read, write and count they would win their sincere trust and support - in a sense they were correct, as regiments from Anyuan played important roles in the Autumn Harvest Rising and the Long March, and continue to venerate the Party's radical education programme to this day.
|Li Lisan and Lisa Kishkin|
For some cadres, it went further than that. One of the Party leaders who played a prominent role in Anyuan was an idealist named Li Lisan. Li was the son of a teacher and had studied in France in 1920, where he ran afoul of the authorities for supporting strike action. By 1924 mineworkers in Anyuan comprised a third of the Party's 900 members across the country. The lesson that Li drew from this was that the Party should concentrate on winning over the urban working class as the route to taking power; by contrast, Mao argued that the numerically dominant but dispersed and uneducated peasantry should take priority.
In the end, Mao won the argument, but not before his then superior Li (who served briefly as General Secretary in 1930-1) persuaded the Party to launch a series of military campaigns to seize the cities. These were mostly dismal failures and led to Li's exile in the Soviet Union, where he spent 15 years under scrutiny and married a Russian typesetter named Lisa Kishkin.
In Mining in China's Economy and Society, 1895-1937 Tim Wright summarises the pre-1949 state of China's coal mining industry as being highly uneven across the country due to a number of intercorrelated political and technological factors, chief amongst them being: the varying quality of transport infrastructure (esp. railways); localised civil wars that had uneven temporal effects; the limited and isolated growth of the modern sector of the economy, and corresponding demand.
"A call to "overtake Britain in fifteen years" in the production of coal, steel, machinery, cement, and electric power went out to the nation in 1957. [...] In coal it partook of one of the principal characteristics of the 'leap', namely the prominence given to local production by indigenous methods."
The 1960s were overshadowed by a power-struggle within the Party as Mao attempted to restore his authority after the 'leap' debacle, and to eliminate his rivals in the "moderate" camp, who included the Vice-Chairman Liu Shaoqi. One interesting dimension to the 'Cultural Revolution' that Mao launched as a means to this end is the way he sought to displace the part played by his rivals in the "Great Strike" of 1922. As Elizabeth J. Perry has argued, this was his way of re-claiming leadership of the urban working-class after his long association with the peasantry.