I rarely if ever do posts like this, but if you haven’t come across this news already, you should read this post from Offbeat China. For the lazy, here’s the short version: dumpsters painted with this message are now appearing around Bijie:
Humans and animals are strictly prohibited to enter. Violators are at their own risk.
Normally, I would write a long, angry post about this, but this time I am literally dumbstruck. Even in the deepest depths of my cynicism, I couldn’t have imagined this would even occur to anyone as a serious idea, let alone that it could get approved and would actually be carried out.
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Mr. Hao is going back to work. The mines have opened again, and his family needs the money. He tells us this, but he also asks us not to tell his son that after what proved to be a very short retirement, he’s headed back down into a coal mine.
Hao, who asked that he be identified only by his surname, is a coal miner in Hegang, a mining town in northeastern Heilongjiang province. Like many of the miners in Hegang, Hao is employed at small bituminous coal mine by one of the dozens of private mining companies that operate the area’s hundred or so mines. His mine employs a few hundred people, most of whom — like Mr. Hao — work below the surface.
As an older man, Hao makes 2,000 RMB (about $320) a month doing lighter, logistical tasks like drilling and lighting explosives, but he tells us that young workers capable of withstanding long hours of heavy labor can make more than double that. What nearly all workers at his mine have in common is that they spend their days — or in some cases, nights — in pitch-dark coal mines far below the earth’s surface. Even meals are eaten down there, together, in the black.
Coal mining is a dangerous profession, and China’s coal mines are notoriously perilous. In the ten year span between 2001 and 2011, more than 47,670 Chinese coal miners were killed in mining accidents (for reference, that death toll is approximately equivalent to 11 Chernobyl accidents, or 32 Hurricane Katrinas). Over that same time period, the Chinese government took significant steps to make coal mining safer, and by 2010, China was clocking just under 2,433 coal mining deaths per year, down from nearly 6,000 deaths in 2003.
Even so, Chinese mines are still incredibly dangerous; China accounts for 40 percent of the world’s coal production but nearly 80 percent of its coal mining deaths. When we asked Mr. Hao about his own mine, he told us that it was “relatively safe.” Collapses have happened, but there weren’t many in the mines that he had worked in. “At our mine, there haven’t been many,” he told us, “but other mines have collapsed.”
Hao may have been slightly underselling the point. In fact, Hegang — the town Mr. Hao has lived and mined in for more than thirty years — was the site of one of the worst mining accidents in recent memory. In November of 2009, a Hegang mine exploded, killing 108 miners and injuring 133 more. A subsequent investigation found that the executives in charge of the mine, which was administered by a subsidiary of the Heilongjiang Mining Group, had repeatedly refused orders to cease production in order to implement safety procedures. In early 2012, after a lengthy court process, the mine’s two chief executives were both sentenced to seven years in prison.
Privately-owned coal mines must technically be certified for safety by government inspectors before being legally allowed to operate, but the process is vulnerable to corruption, or even outright circumvention. Mr. Hao tells us that the mine he works in is properly certified. “But there are also mines without these certifications,” he admits. Often, those uncertified mines are the most dangerous.
Even with the recent advances made in safety procedures, it’s clear that China’s government is still concerned about the issue. Coal mines nationwide were shut down for this November’s leadership transition, in part because a major mining disaster during the festivities would have been disruptive and embarassing. In Hegang, Hao says, all the mines were shut down, and when we spoke with his family the first time, the mines hadn’t reopened and he was considering not going back.
His son, who works in Beijing, was overjoyed at the news of his father’s retirement from the coal mining profession, which he knows can be extremely dangerous. When we spoke to Mr. Hao again in a subsequent interview and he told us he planned to begin mining again, he also asked that we not tell his son, who — if he ever finds out — is likely to be equal parts worried and livid.
Both father and son are intimately aware of the immediate dangers presented by coal mining; Hao himself was once seriously injured on the job when a cart fell onto his leg at the end of a shift. But when we ask about other health risks, both men talk about the food (which apparently is quite disgusting, and often covered in soot). Neither of them mention cancer.
According to data released by the Chinese Ministry of Health in 2011, cancer is China’s leading cause of death. Among cancers, lung cancer is now the most common, and lung cancer rates have been growing with alarming speed. The five-fold growth in rates since the 1970s might be partially attributable to smoking, but lung cancer rates in Beijing have climbed by 60 percent over the past decade despite a lack of change in smoking rates.
Coal-burning power plants and coal stoves are among the contributors to the thick clouds of smog that cloak many of China’s cities, and are almost certainly affecting cancer rates there. But as grim as the pollution situation is in cities, miners in towns like Hegang are actually much worse off, even if they don’t smoke or cook with coal at home.
There are three kinds of coal that are commonly mined; bituminous coal (also known as “black coal”), lignite (“brown coal”), and anthracite (sometimes called “clean coal”). China’s production of anthracite and lignite has increased in recent years, but both still account for a relatively minor percentage of the country’s coal production (18.5 and 13.5 percent, respectively). The vast majority (69.2 percent) of China’s coal mining operations, including those in Hegang, are mining bituminous coal.
Unfortunately, studies have shown bituminous coal dust to be remarkably carcinogenic. A 2012 study of homes in Xuanwei, China, found that people whose households cooked with bituminous coal are far more likely to develop lung cancer (18-20% likely) than those who did not (0.5% likely). Men are 36 times more likely to die of lung cancer if they lived in homes that cooked with bituminous coal; women are 99 times more likely. Unsurprisingly, these results are also apparent in miners; a 2011 study of coal miners in Xuanwei found that coal miners also are at increased risk of lung cancer, and that the younger a miner starts and the longer he stays in the mines, the more likely he is to develop cancer. Specific rates varied based on subjects’ family histories and exposure to carcinogens outside of work, but in general, coal miners were found to be at least twice as likely to develop lung cancer as regular citizens, and in some instances the increase in risk for miners was even higher.
All of the miners we spoke to, including Mr. Hao, were aware that breathing in coal dust wasn’t great for your lungs, but none of them were aware that their work seriously elevated their risk of developing lung cancer. Some told us that they had noticed a lot of coworkers came down with respiratory illnesses sooner or later, but some said they hadn’t noticed any particular patterns of illness.
Small coal mines in China are often poorly-ventilated, and there’s only so much you can ventilate a deep coal mine, anyway. Mr. Hao’s son told us that his father and other miners do sometimes wear masks, but that isn’t much consolation:
[The masks] are completely useless. Coal dust is everywhere, you can’t prevent yourself from breathing it […] When my father comes home at the end of the day he is completely covered in black dust. Coal soot gets on his face, in his nostrils, in his ears, in his eyes…sometimes you can’t even wash all of it off.
The soot also gets in his lungs, of course, and with thirty years of mining already under his belt, Mr. Hao — who has not been screened — has a high risk of developing lung cancer even if he never sets foot in a coal mine again. He knows coal mining is a deadly profession, and is grateful to have made it this far without any major accidents. But though the number of deadly accidents is dropping, cancer risk rates climb with each successive year a miner works. Many miners who escape being buried alive or killed in explosions will ultimately still fall victim to coal mining’s slowest and quietest danger: lung cancer.
When a miner gets cancer, or even gets injured on the job, results can vary. Mr. Hao tells us smaller mining companies don’t provide mine workers with insurance, or even regular contracts, so if you get sick, whether or not you’ll get financial help with your medical bills from the company is very much up for grabs. In his experience, Hao tells us, the people who get larger compensation settlements tend to be the people capable of making a fuss and causing trouble for the company if their demands aren’t met. If you and your family members can’t raise a stink, he says, you’ll get less money.
In his own case, Hao was able to get some compensation for his leg injury, but not enough to cover his bills. The company said that by riding a cart out of the mine at the end of the day when another cart crushed his leg, he was violating company policy. Hao contends that requiring miners to walk out of the mine at the end of a shift is unsafe, as the climb is dark and perilous and the workers are generally exhausted, but he still wound up paying some of the cost for his treatment out of pocket. If Hao does develop lung cancer or another mining-related illness, he will likely face the same problem all over again.
***China has made great progress in reducing the number of accidents in coal mines, but it will also need to address the environmental and health risks the mining of coal, especially bituminous coal, produces. In addition to higher risks of lung diseases and cancer both among miners and anyone who breathes in coal soot on a regular basis, and in addition to the clouds of soot shrouding most of China’s major cities, coal mining can have a devastating affect on the environment in other ways.
For example, coal mining is extremely water-intensive, and coal mining operations can exacerbate droughts and disrupt local ecosystems. This can lead to desertification, especially in China’s far West, where coal is easy to find but water is in short supply. Already, wetlands and grasslands in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere have been dried up and destroyed to support coal mining.
Deadly and destructive though it may be, China will not — cannot — kick its reliance on coal anytime soon. Coal still generates 80 percent of China’s electricity, and though the country has invested heavily in green technologies like wind and solar power, its rapidly-growing energy needs have offset the gains from those fields, meaning that green energy development has not really affected the power industry’s demand for coal.
If China must rely on coal, it should continue to address the plague of deadly explosions and collapses that remains prevalent, especially in illegal mines, but it must also push to improve health standards for coal miners. There are ways to do this, like mandating better ventilation, high-quality respirators, and even dust monitors that warn miners when they’re breathing too much coal dust.
The government could also move beyond prevention and attempt to do something for the miners who have already contracted lung diseases related to their contact with coal. Mandating that all companies — even the small private mines — provide real medical insurance that shields workers from heavy financial burdens in the event of work-related accidents and illnesses would be a good start. Lower medical bills will likely be little consolation to the thousands and thousands of miners who will be killed by lung cancer, black lung, and other respiratory illnesses over the coming decades, but it would, Mr. Hao agrees, be better than nothing.
By C. Custer and L. Li, with additional reporting by Jonathan Silin.
Caixin’s recent package of stories (which I came across via the indispensable Sinocism) includes this opinion piece by professor Yu Jianrong. He’s a bit light on actual solutions aside from the usual (totally reform everything), but if nothing else, the piece is an excellent exposition of exactly why the petition system “works” the way it does.
How to Break the Vicious Cycle of ‘Intercepting Petitioners’
“Intercepting petitioners” refers to local officials using various measures to intercept people attempting to petition at the [provincial] or central offices and forcibly taking them back to their hometowns. In China’s current political climate, the intercepting of petitioners has long been an open secret, an “unwritten rule” of petition office stability management work, an uncivilized but tacitly accepted rule for government work, and an important part of the job of those who “greet petitioners.” Whenever the two congresses or National Day or some other “sensitive” time rolls around, many additional ‘petitioner interception’ workers come to Beijing to intercept petitioners from their local area to prevent petitioners from staying in Beijing and increasing the number of complaints about their locale on the record.
Reality shows us that there are three main downsides to these petitioner-intercepting activities: first, there is a high economic cost, and this has already become a heavy burden on some local governments, especially lower-level governments. Sometimes, the money it takes to intercept a petitioner would be enough money to actually solve the petitioner’s problem.
The second is that intercepting petitioners has serious political consequences; it violates the petitioners’ basic rights, directly cuts out the petitioning system, and has a definite draining effect on national legitimacy. What’s even more serious is that some local governments have made the ‘petitioner intercepting’ system even more effective by giving “perks” to provincial and central petition office authorities in return for information about local petitioners that makes it easier to intercept them. So, even if a petitioner has entered the petition office and registered their complaint, it’s possible to change what’s on the register by spending money. This is not only brazenly preventing information from reaching the highest-level authorities and deceiving the central [government], it is also creating a new source of corruption within the system itself.
The third is that because of petitioner-intercepting activities, the rulers’ attempts to eliminate social conflicts via the petitioning system are ineffective, and [petitioner-intercepting] can even become a source of new social conflicts. Petitioners are the ones who most directly bear the consequences of petitioner-intercepting; in their attempts to evade the pursuit of local government interceptors, some are ruined in the process, and when they finally reach Beijing or the provincial capital and then [still] get intercepted, they have no one left to turn to. And more horribly, some petitioners are beaten, detained, or even sent to reeducation through labor (劳教). For this reason, although intercepting petitioners temporarily reduces the number of petitioners in Beijing or at provincial petition offices, protecting the “social stability” of the capital or provincial cities, but it cannot address the roots of the problem, and instead it just creates more conflict.
‘Meeting petitioners’ and ‘intercepting petitioners’ ((“Meeting” and “Intercepting” are both pronounced “jie” so this is sort of a play on words)) are both important reflections of the variation in today’s national petitioning system. Petition officers and officials, local governments, and the central government all participate, using the system as a platform for a kind of game in which they attempt to maximize their own interests. But because of this they have fallen into problems [like the three Yu just listed and those below], this can be called the ‘petitioning paradox.’
First of all, there are the many predicaments the central government level [authorities] have already run into. When the CCP first established its regime, the highest-level policymakers created the petition system, with many political goals including deepening the regime’s legal legitimacy, resolving severe social problems, implementing policy and social mobilization, and also controlling lower-level officials in an unconventional way. However, after its establishment, a serious consequence was that problems began to pile up at the central level. In 1963, the Central Committee and the State Council admitted this problem in “Announcement regarding strengthening petitioning work,” and called on provincial level political and Party organs to strengthen their guidance, saying that local level organizations should do their best to resolve problems locally. From then on, methods for investigating responsibility for petition complaints became more and more complex, and more and more severe. The central government was trying to use pressure on local political and party organizations to stem the flow of petitioners coming to Beijing and increase the effectiveness and realize the goals of the petition system.
However, for the sake of their own political interests, local governments used all kinds of methods to alleviate the pressure coming from the central government, which created a shift away from the actual goals of the petitioning system and which has ultimately resulted in a shift of the pressure back to central authorities. The central government wants problems resolved at the grassroots level, meaning that it hopes the local government will actually solve the petitioner’s complaint, but after levels and levels of pressure, the biggest result is that the local government wants to use whatever methods it can to prevent petitioners from registering in Beijing.
Strict pursuit of the responsibility for petition complaints has forced local governments at all levels to make the number of petitioners into an important indicator of performance, so the blame is passed downwards, so local authorities intercept petitioners and bribe officials to reduce the number of petitions on file, and even detain petitioners and sentence them or their associates to forced labor or even jail time to suppress the number of petitioners. It’s not that the local government doesn’t want to resolve the actual problem; some problems are caused by the local government’s poor conduct or lack of action, and others are caused by central government policies that really can’t be controlled by the local government. Illogical power structures and twisted mechanisms of reward encourage local officials to choose the simple and crude methods of enforcement, often creating greater resentment [in the process] and even giving some irrational petitioners a real reason to complain after they have been beaten up.
Petition officials can completely recognize the conflicts and pressures between local and central authorities described above; they use these pressures and conflicts to protect their own interests, even gaining benefits outside of the system, that becomes a rational choice. Because of this, the more oppressive local governments are towards petitioners, the greater the power of the petitioners is. Many people believe the logic of this industry is whatever the opponent (the local government) fears is what you should do. They not only persist in going to Beijing to petition, they endeavor to use all sorts of unusual methods to petition, for example going to embassies and consulates, visiting the housing of government leaders, and even extreme methods like jumping into rivers or self-immolating, creating more political pressure.
The result is that as local governments use even more severe methods to deal with petitioners, the complaints of petitioners become more extreme, creating a vicious cycle.Because of this, the petitioning system has gone from useless to harmful; from reducing pressure to actively increasing it.
If you want to completely resolve the mess of petitioner-intercepting and break the vicious cycle described above, the short-term solution is to give party and government departments at every level less pressure and to untie the petition system. After that, legal reforms would need to strengthen the emergency powers granted to judicial authorities and use the judicial system to clear up old cases. In the long-term, there will need to be radical political changes that completely reform the petition system.
Specifically, it would be possible to collect the currently scattered resources of the petition system under the auspices of all levels of the People’s Congress and use that to oversee things. This would not only give the petition office a new body of authority, it would also give it the necessary accountability, and at the same time help move People’s Congress delegates towards full-time duties and create a new substantial condition [for being an NPC delegate].
Fundamentally, only with political reform and establishing a government with powers that are weighed and controlled, with an independent and fair judiciary, with mechanisms for the democratic election of representatives, and with organizations and channels for all levels of society to voice their interests can there arise an equal and harmonious modern society.
A 15-year-old girl has made waves in the Chinese press recently for her fight against Shanghai authorities after she was banned from taking the high-school entrance examination because she does not hold a Shanghai hukou (household registration). She and her family have experienced harassment from locals and authorities as a result of their advocacy.
I’d been preparing for the high school entrance exam on June 16 and, although we didn’t have much hope, my parents and I never gave up talking to Shanghai’s education commission. I wanted to take that exam, same as my classmates at junior high and thousands of other Shanghai students.
I wasn’t doing badly at junior high, and I believed I could get into a good high school in Shanghai if I was able to take the exam.
All hope disappeared on June 7, coincidently the first day of this year’s gaokao (national college entrance exam). We were told I was not able to take the exam this year by the education commission.
I was desperate and I wanted to seek help from the public, so the week before the exam I set up an account on Sina Weibo using my real name.
The Internet is an efficient platform to speak out and gain support. My mother was against it, as she was worried I might be attacked by malicious netizens. But our family is open-minded and she respected my decision.
I started telling my story on Sina Weibo and received many words of support that encouraged me in my fight to defend my rights.
It was inspiring when celebrities such as Yuan Weishi and Shi Shusi forwarded my posts. They backed me up. I was not alone.
There were many disagreements, and I’ve received many comments from Beijing and Shanghai residents against the children of migrant workers taking the exam with their children. Some talked in a disrespectful way, which I was not happy about, but I tried to talk to them and persuade them to think about equality.
15-year-old Zhan Haite has already been out of school for half a year, but in addition to studying English and Math on her own, she has been keeping busy helping her parents deal with all kinds of harassment. Recently, on November 28, an official from the local family planning commission came to the family’s home; “Someone called and complained that [the Zhan family] was preparing to have another child, so [the official] came to investigate whether we really were planning another birth,” Zhan Haite recalled.
Zhan says that this kind of baseless complaint is common harassment from locals who dislike that the family is ‘stirring up trouble’ by advocating that migrants be allowed to attend Shanghai schools. And the harassment directed at her isn’t just coming from locals. The official response to Zhan’s case hasn’t been much warmer.
After ‘dropping out’ of school, in addition to studying high school content on her own, Zhan Haite has sometimes gone along with her father to petition [the government]. The more they went, the more hopeless she became. Every time the answer was the same, and later after writing several letters to Shanghai authorities and having [the case] transferred to the education committee, the official response was just as cold.
To [Zhan Haite], being blocked on Weibo is a common occurrence. “Either they say I have touched on sensitive topics of they say I have been reported, and there are too many complaints about me,” she said. As she sees it, all of this is done by the “skinheads,” a name she has used to refer to [anti-migrant Shanghainese] since a group of Shanghinese youngsters posing as maintenance staff came to Zhan’s apartment and threatened [the family].
Zhan’s weibo has also attracted some harsh comments from locals, some of whom present arguments about her family’s legal status and others of whom just sling violent slurs like “stupid cunt” at her.
Still, it may be telling that this incident has gotten so much attention in the Chinese press. Experts seem to agree that the hukou system has outstayed its welcome, and the media’s fixation on Zhan may help to push for reforms. Of course, it also helps that Zhan Haite seems to be quite an articulate girl; her case is not at all unique but it isn’t too difficult to understand why the media has fixated on her for the moment.
Additionally, though, Zhan may be an interesting example of what I might term the “dissidentification” of Chinese protesters. I have noticed and mentioned before how people frustrated with a specific issue in China seem to eventually become protesters and advocates in a more broad sense. Six months ago, Zhan was just a student, and shortly after that, she was just an opponent of Shanghai’s hukou policy. Now, though, her self-description on Sina Weibo beginss thusly:
A young citizen, a warrior for freedom, on the vanguard for democracy.
True, Zhan’s focus of discussion has remained mostly on hukou-related issues. But that language — and the fact that she chose to put all of that before mentioning hukous specifically when describing herself — is definitely interesting. I’m now following her on Weibo and will be interested to see if she becomes an advocate in other arenas as well as time goes on (that is, if she can keep her weibo account from getting blocked).