Monday, 9 July 2012


Another week and another lethal mining accident in China. This time, a gas explosion in a coal mine in central Hunan province claimed the lives of seven workers even as rescue workers were trying to rescue eight miners trapped in a flooded mine elsewhere in the same province.

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."

Seen from this angle, the ability of local governments to flout central regulations - and the public support they receive from local workers and peasants - is not just a blind rejection of any restraints designed to reduce the social costs of economic activity; it is also a rejection of an economic model that distributes the fruits of that activity in a necessarily highly unequal way. The flipside of the marginalised and exploited miners who are usually the victims we read about in the news (and those that go unreported) are a priveleged class of workers in the large mining state-owned enterprises (SOEs).  

The heaviest price for the central-local war of attrition is ultimately borne by those miners who do not have better options than working in unsafe, dilapidated and often unregistered coal mines. But sometimes, they fight back.

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.

A 1917 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.


Shortly before the PRC was founded in 1949 Li returned to China and was appointed Minister of Labour and chair of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. In his mind, there need not be any contradiction involved in occupying both posts: a socialist state was a workers' state, so workers' welfare would be the government's priority.

But although Li pushed through many laws to improve worker safety at the mines, in the absence of an independent judiciary their enforcement depended on the "stop-start" vicissitudes of high politics. The 'Great Leap Forward' in the late 1950s saw Mao's priorities shift towards achieving a rapid and dramatic increase in production, at the expense of harsher conditions and longer working hours. As D. J. Dwyer describes it:

"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."

In this sense, the period of the 'leap' is a milestone in the story of how China's coal industry got to where it is today - vastly unequal life chances and occupational hazards between a comparatively well-off class of urban miners employed by large state-owned mining companies, and the predominantly peasant-based shadowy, marginalised and semi-legal workers at small, mostly privately-owned rural mines. I have described what I see as the logic at the heart of the 'leap' in a previous post, but what matters for our purposes here is the "policy of developing the industry 'on two legs' - that is, through small, local mines using indigenous methods as well as large mechanised units". In other words, a policy of squeezing the countryside to feed and incentivise industrial workers, and encouraging makeshift rural industry.

What resulted was a predictable deterioration of miners' safety, with a series of explosions in the small mines that had sprung up across the countryside. In 1958 Li was purged from the ACFTU for opposing these policies (having a Russian wife didn't help after the Sino-Soviet split). But besides these excesses of the 'leap', there were fierce debates at the top of the Party on the general subject of the importance of miners' safety. The government was promoting a broader geographical spread of coal mines, both for defensive purposes and to sidestep the difficulties of transportation, but they could only go so fast without facing significant risks.

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.

First, Mao used propaganda to emphasise his indispensable role in the liberation of Anyuan. Whereas earlier propaganda had eulogised other Party leaders, like Liu Shaoqi...

...after Mao's cult of personality went into overdrive in the Cultural Revolution, he was depicted with near-religious reverence. The famous painting below by Liu Chunhua, entitled Chairman Mao Goes To Anyuan, became a central icon of the period, and one of the most reproduced paintings in history (with 900m copies in circulation at one time). Below it are images of it being used in Red Guard propaganda.

Now Li, who had been brought back to the PRC to help run the cities and the industrial workers, was deemed to be a "counterrevolutionary" for repeatedly questioning Party policies that adversely impacted on the workers' health and safety. In 1967 he died after being tortured in detention.


For the purposes of discussing China's coal industry in the post-Mao period, Elspeth Thomson has provided a useful three-part categorisation of the mines: the large, state-owned Central Mining Administrations (CMAs); the local state (LS) mines, operated by local governments; and the local non-state (LNS) mines, the small, predominantly rural mines either run privately or as collectives or as joint ventures with local governments and/or the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Coal mining factory in Huainan, Anhui province

In the late 1970s crippling power shortages convinced a rather more sober CPC leadership that they would continue to need LNS mines to provide enough coal to meet targets for high but steady economic growth. So instead of trying to subsume all such mines under the LS sector, the government chose to focus its limited resources on upgrading the CMAs. Once more, it evaded the need to improve the railway infrastructure and it thereby further entrenched a pattern of unevenly paced development.

The constraints on the Deng administration were not only material, but also resulted from its half-way attempt to separate Party organs from those of the government. This resulted in a cross-cutting lattice of two parallel hierarchies with much potential for vested interests to obstruct reforms issued from above. As Jonathan D. Spence has written:

"In Shanxi province, where Deng Xiaoping had personally expressed an interest in using foreign technology to develop huge open-pit mines, the central government could not simply enforce its will over coal production as a whole. Coal mines in the province fell into three quite different administrative categories, each subdivided into further classifications, and all with their own sub-bureaucracies, specialised staffs, supervisors, and workers. [...] Cutting across all these divisions were the various national, provincial, and municipal bureaus that supervised transportation of the coal and determined its allocation. [...] A central decision to reallocate coal or open a major new mine was thus not a simple act."

Through the 1980s-90s the dominant trend was towards modernisation and mechanisation of the CMAs. A
decision was taken to fully mechanise some mines (the big CMAs) rather than partly mechanising most or all of the mines, because of the need for increasing returns to attract much-needed private and foreign investment into the heavily-indebted CMAs.

Rescue team at a flooded mine in Guangdong, 2005
 Yet the problem of antiquated equipment still hounds both the LS and LNS mines, and this has generated a vicious cycle: without machinery the mines are overreliant on labour, which makes for more dangerous and overcrowded mines, which drives out the most qualified workers who can find work elsewhere, and the mine-owners are thus ever more dependent on substituting quantity of workers for quality. As early as the mid-1960s the LS mines responded to this "brain drain" by recruiting peasants on short-term contracts, usually with piece-rate remuneration.

Thomson writes:

"Employees in these mines are mostly from farms, and have been lured by the potentially high earnings obtained by selling the coal on the open market. The fact that the majority have little or no training in the use of explosives, the prevention of flooding and gas seepage, and the building of roof supports has led to appalling accident rates."

She goes on to describe life at the coalface:

"One official graphically described the perils of working underground in the small mines, where lighting was by the occasional incandescent lamp, fans for ventilation were only switched on briefly every 20 minutes or half-an-hour, and coal faces as high as churches had no timber supports."

Power shortage
Hence it is hardly surprising that the small LS and LNS mines - and newer mineworkers across all sectors -  make up a greatly disproportionate share of all mining injuries and fatalities, with a fatality rate 7-8 times higher than that of the CMAs. According to Tu Jianjun, "small coal mines account for about one-third of national coal output while their mining related fatalities make up 74% of the national total." Through the era of 'reform and opening-up', the proliferation of these small mines went hand in hand with the spread of rural industry - the well-known township and village enterprises (TVEs).

 However, the government's strategy of easing the financial burden of insolvent CMAs by allowing LNS mines to take up the slack backfired. The government underestimated the rate of economic growth, and thus the demand for energy from coal, and thus the number of LNS mines that would start operating to meet the demand in the absence of adequate North-South transport infrastructure (today, half of China's rail capacity is used for transporting coal). At the peak of coal shortages in 1988-89, the market price of coal was 7 times higher in Shanghai than in Shanxi.

The rapid proliferation of LNS mines also put them further and further beyond government control, and by the 1990s they had become serious commercial competitors to the CMAs, eroding their profit margins ever further. According to Tim Wright, it was this artificial cut-throat competition between different coal mine sectors that led to the small progress in improving the safety record of China's coal mines in the 1980s to grind to a halt a decade later. And, sectoral disparities aside, in an article entitled "Your Rice Bowl or Your Life" Wright has explained that even the large CMAs are unusually dangerous places to work by international standards. Faced with harder budget constraints, state mines started delaying payment of wages, which only fuelled the problem of brain drain in the industry.

Showing the strain: coal train facility

The government's response to these further developments was two-fold. First it closed the least profitable CMAs. Here is how Jonathan Fenby describes the cuts:

"China's uneconomic coal mines were a prime target for rationalisation; the Five-Year Plan for 1991-5 provided for 400,000 of the 7 million workers in the heavily loss-making industry to be laid off. Visiting a huge coal mine in Shanxi in 1992, Zhu Rongji was filmed upbraiding the managers to their faces about how they should cut the labour force...the Vice-Premier wondered why people would not do their jobs properly until he lost his temper with them."

Second, the government launched a campaign in 1997 to close as many LNS mines as it could, under the pretext of worker safety but strongly motivated by the need to raise producer prices for the CMAs (which found themselves squeezed by increased competition and static demand as "two-tier" price controls were removed after 1993). Whilst many have closed since then - and this has contributed to the decline in mining fatalities since 2000 - they frequently re-open a year or two later and operate unlicensed, so that campaigns against LNS mines have become a routine occurrence.
In 2006, for instance, the government declared its intention to halve the number of small mines - the kind of crude target-setting that Tu Jianjun has criticised for unfairly penalising those LS and LNS mines that have invested in modern safety equipment and management (and thus are likely to be smaller when measured by output or profit). Nevertheless, the CMAs were on a more secure financial footing by the 2000s.

Here is a documentary by Journeymanpictures of a visit to the mining hub of Linfen, which has been described by the World Bank as "the most polluted city on earth" due to smog and waste from coal washing. It is very one-sided and doesn't really go into much depth, but it has some moments of interest, such as the traffic jam of back-to-back coal trucks that prevent the cameraman from leaving (23 mins in) and some footage of an illegal black market, and the operator of an illegal mine that restarted after being shut down by government officials.

It also features signs residents have put up to try to limit the encroachment of waste on their space. My favourite is: "IF YOU DUMP TRASH HERE, YOUR ENTIRE FAMILY WILL DIE."


There is one final feature of Chinese coal mining today that I think is historically notable: the tendency amongst observers inside and outside of China to utilise miners as metaphors for the condition of China's society and its politics.

As was shown earlier in the passage from The Scientific Monthly, this habit of thinking has a long heritage. More recently, Li Yang's 2003 film Blind Shaft, which  won numerous awards at international film festivals, was loosely based on a true story about con artists working in an illegal mine in North-Eastern China.

In the film, they use the mine as a place to murder their victims and then allege they were killed in mining accidents; in this way, they easily secure the assistance of the mineowner in disposing of the body, because he is used to covering-up accidental deaths to avoid paying fines (many such mineowners buy-off bereaved relatives to avoid being levied fines by local governments, which have become more dependent on fines and charges for revenue since fiscal reforms in the 1980s).

Here is the trailer:

In this shadow economy, hidden from view, it seems as if only the worst kind of people can rise to the surface. Only vulnerable victims and/or callous crooks would choose to work there, no?

And yet in Wright's article, he quotes Peter Dorman as saying that: "most rural cultivators would prefer Dickensian industrial working conditions to a life of agricultural toil." This is because there is surplus labour in the countryside, and an array of other government policies have been designed to limit the mobility of this workforce.

As such, they cling adamantly to any prospects they have for improving their lives - which helps to account for the local protests against centrally-mandated closures of small mines:
"It was often possible to mobilise miners and local peasants to oppose government attempts to close down mines for safety reasons: even as late as 2002, when the campaign had been in operation five years, one report from Shanxi listed a whole series of sit-ins and disturbances organised by local mine-owners to resist closures."
Balancing the grimmer, seedier face of the business is the notion that the miners represent the wretched of the earth. I think it is a lesson of history that this line should not be taken too far - the more wretched, the more in need of a saviour or messiah, and the more opportunity for someone to fill those shoes.
The mines are extremely dirty, dangerous and unpleasant places to work, but I think that if we want to respect the dignity of the mineworkers we have to start from a point that acknowledges their agency. Most miners choose to do this work, because the mines represent droplets of industry on otherwise parched landscapes. It is horrible work because they are effectively replacing machines - but in doing precisely this, they are not acting as machines. They are standing opposed to the central government's vision of carefully managed growth with the benefits skewed towards serving its own interests.

I just hope that the Anyuan miners' slogan still has the potency to inspire: "once beasts of burden, now we will be human."

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