Tag Archives: Obama

Coal Mining Accidents, Corruption, and Complacency

If you’re not aware of the massive flaws inherent in China’s coal mining industry, it’s probably because coal mining accidents are so ubiquitous here that many people (including the media) just tune them out. I had been intending to write something about this for some time when I stumbled across this post by Zhao Shilong addressing the issue with more statistical depth and background information than I ever could have brought to bear.

Translation

“There’s been a coal mining accident in XX, several dozen people are dead. Do you want to send someone to investigate it?”

“Only a several dozen dead? It’s not big enough news, don’t bother.”

The above sentence is something I heard someone who holds a high position in the actually say once.

But we can’t just look at that sentence and condemn the cold-heartedness of the news media. There really are too many mining disasters, so many that if the number of people killed doesn’t reach a hundred, the story doesn’t interest anyone anymore. It’s been over a hundred years since the United States had a coal mining disaster in which more than a hundred people died, but for us, at most we go a year between accidents where at least one hundred die, and sometimes there are several such accidents in a single year.

A famous weekly publication in Beijing once had a debate about whether to continue reporting on coal mining disasters at all, because from their perspective, aside from the time, place, casualty numbers, and a few other details, the causes and the general story of each accident could just be copied and pasted from one story to the next.

Last week, a coal mining accident occurred in the United States, in West Virginia, and 29 people died. The US President Obama made an announcement to the country, reading a list of the names of each person who died and conveying the entire nation’s grief. This accident was their first in several decades; the last coal mining accident in West Virginia, which was in 1984, left 13 people dead.

Obama said ((I am translating his words from the Chinese, as I was unable to quickly track down a transcript of his speech at the miners’ memorial service.)), “these miners represented the best of America. Our nation cannot tolerate people losing their lives just for doing their jobs. We cannot bring back the 29 lives that were lost, so our duty here is to make sure that this kind of tragedy doesn’t happen again.”

Obama said, “I cannot accept that the lives of coal miners is just one of the prices of the mining industry.”

These words shows why America is why America is great and powerful, and why people want to go there.

America is second only to China in the world in coal mining. Because of this respect for life, in recent years, the mortality rate for every billion tons of coal produced in the US is consistently under 0.03%. Conversely, China is a “double champion”, boasting the highest overall number of coal mining deaths in the world and the highest coal mining death rate proportionally. Of the major coal mining accidents in the world (accidents where more than ten people die), 90% occur in China.

Since 2000, China has lost at least a thousand coal miners every year. In between 2002 and 2004, the number of deaths per year climbed above 6000, 200 times the number in the US for the same time period. In 2009, China lost 2630 coal miners, 77 times more than the US. In the long term, China’s output only amounts for 35% of the world’s coal, but China has 80% of the world’s coal mining deaths. Every year four times the number of coal miners die in China as die in the entire rest of the word combined. It’s clear there is a huge problem in management, stemming largely from the collaboration of government and commercial interests [that leads to] corruption and incompetence.

Pushed into a corner, the government came out with the “tied-together” system ((a State Council regulation passed on July 7th of this year.)), which requires officials and management level employers to go down into the mines with workers on a regular basis. But in the past month an accident occurred and the people have discovered that the “tied-together” system isn’t strong enough to hold down these slippery officials, who, without exception, are still completely safe.

Comments

Zhao is right, in that it’s difficult to blame the media for not constantly reporting stories that, in essence, are the same thing. And I admit that when I see a headline about coal mining, my eyes often drift away before I even get to the lede — it is a story that we all have read before.

Of course, boredom doesn’t excuse complacency in the face of what might be described as institutionalized disaster. The accident statistics Zhao lays out in his article are evidence enough that the lives of these miners are considered part of the cost of industry, and it seems clear that no one — not the government, not the media, and not us, either — cares all that much about it.

Of course, the State Council did just pass the “tied-together” regulation in early July, but as Zhao says, it hasn’t really had any effect. No officials or high-level management have died in a coal mining accident. Why not? The answer is probably pretty simple: they’re not actually following the regulation and going into the mines at all. Our ChinaGeeks Chinese editor explained it quite nicely with a Chinese idiom: 天高皇帝远. “Heaven is high up, and the emperor is far away.” In other words, the State Council can’t physically be there to force anyone into the mines. And without being forced, how many corrupt officials and wealthy businessmen do you think are going to voluntarily put themselves deep underground in a place that’s dirty, dangerous, and full of poor people?

Stan Abrams wrote a piece on china/divide some time ago called “Why Doesn’t China Respect Life” in which he concluded that these disasters ((He was talking about the melamine scandal, etc., but the logic also applies to coal mining.)) are the products of capitalism excess. He’s almost certainly right. The Yanzhou Coal Mining Co., for example, is one of the top 50 Chinese companies listed in US stock exchanges in terms of highest profit margins. There is money to be made in the coal business. Cutting corners is dangerous, but it saves money, which increases profit. And what’s the worst that can happen. When a disaster happens, as long as you only lose a few dozen miners, it’s “no harm no foul” as far as most people in China are concerned.

The government is never going to be able to force corrupt officials and businessmen into the mines, but it does have tight enough control of business that strict regulations might be able to reset the scales such that cutting corners when it comes to mining safety was no longer profitable. And going at these mining companies via business regulations allows the government to circumvent the legal system which, let’s face it, often isn’t up to the challenge of taking on corrupt local officials and businessmen.

My feeling — and keep in mind that I know almost nothing about business, so this is really just idle thought — is that these regulations should be completely ruthless, and coupled with a small but expert team of government scientists dispatched to investigate major coal mining accidents. If this team finds the accident to have been the result of negligence or incompetence on the part of management, the company should be fined. The fine should be something absolutely crippling regardless of the company’s size or strength. Perhaps for each miner killed, the company should have to pay the equivalent of 1.5% of their yearly total income (not profit). This money can go towards compensation for the families of the miners who were killed, and to pay the scientists on the government inspection teams huge salaries so that they’re difficult for local officials and businessmen to bribe. It’s not perfect, but without a real court system or a way of actually enforcing the new State Council regulations, I doubt there is a perfect way to approach this crisis.

If nothing else, it would certainly shake up the mining industry a bit, as an accident with 30 miners lost would cost a company 45% of their yearly income. Many of these companies have been making large profits for years, and could probably continue to operate through a few disasters; one hopes that by the time their mountains of profits began to run dry, they might have begun to implement some of the safety standards that make American coal mines so (comparatively) safe.

But, like I said, I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination on coal mining or government business regulation. So how can China actually fix this coal mining problem? I leave that to you, and I hope people will pick up the question in the comments section below.

Of course, what the government does is well beyond out control. As people, we can only fight our complacency when it comes to these disasters, and try to see each one for what it really is, not just another headline but a tragedy leaves families shattered and young lives extinguished. And, more often than not, a tragedy that could have been prevented if the companies involved cared a little more about life and a little less about profit.

“Obama and Chinese Netizens”

The following is a translation of this post from Chang Ping’s blog.

Translation

A few days ago I received an invitation from the US Embassy saying that an advance briefing for would be held simultaneously via video in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, mainly discussing Sino-US relations and President Obama’s visit to China. Because I was busy, I didn’t attend, but I read the Twitter updates of attendees. From these updates, it seems “tearing down walls” on the internet was a focal point of discussion. To use the language of the government, it’s a problem of freedom of information and freedom of speech. Many of the attendees hope that this visit of Obama’s can help push forward the opening up of the internet in China.

There were also those in attendance who feel that the “problem of tearing down walls [on the internet, i.e., internet censorship] really doesn’t represent the mainstream [opinion], most Chinese people don’t worry about freedom of speech, they only worry about freedom of business and the freedom to travel to America” [to do business]. The embassy replied: listen to the voices of those outside the mainstream media, that is exactly the purpose of the advance briefing. This response, while wonderful, also quietly changes the conception of “mainstream”. The former was talking about the majority of the Chinese people, the latter was talking about the media that’s controlled by the Chinese government.

Actually, regardless of whether it’s “mainstream”, regardless of the specifics, it’s impossible to avoid talking about the problem of freedom of speech on the internet. This small-scale meeting was broadcast live by the American side, and the Chinese officials had no choice but to temporarily allow access to twitter, so this [meeting] itself was a nominal challenge to the usual way of doing things. Moreover, [look at] who was invited: “famous bloggers”. Immediately following that, the American embassy in Guangzhou announced the details of Obama’s town hall meeting with young people in Shanghai; this was seen as one of the results of the advance briefing with bloggers. There’s even information that during Obama’s meeting he’ll have a secret meeting with a [famous] internet personage. At the same time, netizens discovered that some once-banned foreign websites like Picasa and Blogspot have recently been unblocked.

The importance Obama places on the internet is undeniable, as he himself was a beneficiary of the internet during the 2008 presidential election. Moreover, freedom of speech has always been a principle American presidents must stress. But whether or not he can really help Chinese netizens to break down the “Great Firewall of China” is still in doubt. I feel some Chinese netizens have set their hopes too high, and fear that they may end up disappointed. First of all, the internet isn’t the purpose of Obama’s current trip. From the topics already announced, climate change, economic equilibrium, hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, the revaluation of the RMB, etc., will be the focal points of his discussions with Chinese leaders. Secondly, while being interviewed by a Reuters reporter a few days ago, Obama suggested that China and America are cooperative partners and also competing opponents in a friendly way. Because of this, he can’t really take an unyielding position on freedom of speech or human rights.

However, I don’t deny the effectiveness of international pressure, nor do I look down on netizens (even if they aren’t the mainstream) for expressing their passions so strongly on this issue. At the same time, the underlying structure of Chinese society is slowly changing. These factors could come together at any time to greatly expand the scope and power of [free] discourse. After attending the China Blogger’s Conference last week, this feeling is even stronger.

Lianzhou [site of the blogger conference] is in the northwestern part of Guangdong province, with underground rivers, gorges and other excellent natural sights. It also has the literary tradition left by men like Han Yu and Liu Yuxi, but still, such a group of people [as were at the blogger conference] is rarely seen. The internet lovers, scholars, and reporters came from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, as well as the USA, France, England, etc. The local tourism and government boards were notified that this group of people has great publishing power on the internet, and their coming was not only the arrival of tourists but also a good advertising opportunity. Because of this, local officials welcomed the meeting, and they were assisted by China Telecom. The meeting was set up by the entrance to a cave/underground river; sponsoring companies provided a support car and set up internet in the area, and the meeting’s coverage of twitter, blogs, etc., was broadcast live.

What was interesting was that, from another angle, the meeting was still as “sensitive” as ever. The night we got there, the hotels were strictly required to provide information on their guests; the local PSB chief came and took a list of everyone staying in the hotel, then sat in the lobby guarding until deep into the night. On the second day of the conference, people were saying over forty police officers came, someone was videotaping it. The meeting not only had invited some “sensitive” [i.e. controversial] netizens to participate, but also spent a lot of time discussing how to use internet technology to pursue freedom of speech.

But this really wasn’t a political meeting; the attendees also discussed how to best use technology for commerce, for the public good, and for spreading science. To put it precisely, everyone is using the internet to search for better ways of living.

Actually, the meeting itself is a way of living. It is loose and spontaneous, but the attendees paid their expenses themselves, and the workers were all volunteers. It made me think of a music festival, most people come here to feel happy and to seek like-minded folks.

Because of all this, I saw a new power developing upwards from the bottom layer of society. Those who hold this power both hope that politicians will reform and open up the internet and use the internet to build their own lives. Political slogans are gray, but the tree of life is green.