At the mouth of the Tashan mine, one of the largest coal mines in China, men in hard hats waited to begin another shift 400m underground. Lunch break was over. Their faces were smeared with coal dust as a dingy white truck carried them down an underground road to the floor of the mine.
"We're working pretty much all the time," said a man with a small lamp hooked around his neck, before he climbed onto the truck and disappeared into the dark tunnel.
Last Thursday marked the Lunar New Year and ushered in the Year of the Rat. For Chinese families, especially those of migrant workers, the holiday offers an annual opportunity to reunite. Yet for miners here in coal country, New Year was just another workday. Vacations have been canceled. China is too desperate for coal to allow them a day off.
This Lunar New Year will always be remembered in China as the Year of the Storm. Freak snow and ice storms left millions of people without power in southern China, stranded millions of migrant workers trying to get home and exposed the fragility of the country's transportation system and power grid.
The crisis is now abating, but the storm also underscored China's heavy dependence on coal and laid bare the inadequacy of the country's system of producing, pricing and distributing coal to power plants. China is fueled by coal, which accounts for 80 percent of its electricity. But China has shown itself to be just one unexpectedly large storm away from major problems.
"What this storm has exposed is that coal is the backbone of China's energy supply, and the market is currently tightly balanced," said Zhang Chi (
Faced with electricity shortages in more than half the country, the Chinese Communist Party responded with an old-style mobilization campaign. Roughly 2 million military personnel were mobilized to provide relief aid, help restore power and get trains moving again so that many, if hardly all, the stranded migrant workers could get home by Thursday.
Last week, President Hu Jintao (
But the short-term emphasis on production glossed over the complexity of the coal situation and raised questions about whether the government was signaling that unsafe mines could be reopened. China has the world's most dangerous mines, and the government has closed thousands of small mines since 2006 in an effort to reduce fatalities by consolidating the industry into larger, more efficient operations.
Last year, the number of mining fatalities dropped by one-fifth to 3,786 deaths, still the highest figure in the world. This week, officials in Beijing insisted that the government's new announcements were not a retreat from its safety priorities. But the Chinese media quickly found operators of closed mines who were recruiting workers and trying to reopen. Meanwhile, 21 miners died in two separate accidents last week, an ominous development for an industry suddenly operating at full throttle.
For decades, Datong has been one of China's busiest coal capitals and is known for producing the higher quality coal used in power plants. The region is dominated by the Datong Coal Mining Group, one of the country's largest state-owned mining corporations, with more than 200,000 employees.
In his visit, Hu descended to the floor of the Tashan mine in a spotless mining jacket and exhorted black-faced miners to dig more because it was their patriotic duty.
Practically speaking, Hu's directive has meant that the state-owned mines are working overtime. At one of Datong Coal Group's other main mines, the regular quota is 150,000 tonnes of coal a month, according to one worker. But officials are now asking workers to quadruple that figure to 600,000 tonnes for this month.
"We'll do it," said Wang Kuikui, 53, who has worked in the mine for 27 years. "We'll get 600,000 tonnes."
Wang usually gets three days off for the Lunar New Year, but his leave is now canceled. He earns about US$200 a month and lives near the mine in a mud-and-brick, two-room home with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandson. And Wang is considered fortunate because he has a job at a larger and safer state-owned operation. His son cannot get a job at the same mine and makes money doing odd jobs.
At the Hudong rail yard, the tracks are jammed with trains transporting 200 or more coal cars eastward to the port city of Qinhuangdao. From there, the coal is loaded onto ships and taken to power stations in the south.
"My holiday is canceled," said one railroad repairman named Cheng, who is living at the freight yard instead of returning home to his family. "We're working here straight through for the next two weeks. However much coal they can produce, we'll find a way to move it."
Hu's directive focused exclusively on the large state-owned mines that dominate the landscape around Datong and elsewhere in surrounding Shanxi Province. Yet from one hilltop outside Datong, the view of the bleak, pockmarked landscape also revealed smaller operations tucked into ravines and gullies. Some of these mines lack required approvals but are protected by local officials in exchange for a financial stake.
This year, Shanxi Province is trying to carry out central government policies and close all mines that produce fewer than 90,000 tonnes of coal a year. But it is unclear if more stringent plans to close mines that produce fewer than 300,000 tonnes will go forward in light of the shortages.
A Chinese journalist who focuses on mining estimated that there were thousands of illegal mines operating in Shanxi Province despite central government edicts. Often, these mines enable the country to meet rising demand for coal as the economy continues to grow at double-digit rates. But while the largest mines use sophisticated mechanized diggers, some small mines use mules to haul coal.
On the same day that Hu visited the Tashan mine, Li Shuangwei was discharged from a small hospital that treats injured miners. Li, 26, had worked in four small mines since October 2006, earning about US$10 a day. With both his parents deceased, he chose mining because it paid more than construction work. He said he needed money to help his brother pay for medical treatment for seizures.
On Jan. 17, Li was knocked unconscious when a poorly supported ceiling in the mine collapsed on him. He awoke to find himself being dragged out of the mine atop a rickshaw and then to the hospital.
"My stomach hurt," he recalled. "I couldn't breathe. I was bleeding inside my chest."
Li now has a 25cm scar on his stomach from surgery at the hospital. He still does not know what procedures were performed or what specific injuries he sustained. His foreman arrived at the hospital on Jan. 31, paid the bill for the two-week stay and told Li that he must cover any further medical costs.
"I just want to get better," said Li, who is now living on a construction site where his uncle is the foreman as he tries to get more medical compensation from the local government. "I can't do any work now."
Li's accident would be considered minor. Another man in Li's mine lost an arm a few weeks earlier. Major accidents claiming lives often prompt officials to close surrounding small mines and conduct inspections. This also creates opportunities for corruption; the state media occasionally publish articles about mine owners bribing local officials to avoid closing down.
Experts say production is only one of the uncertainties facing China. Electricity rationing was already under way in several provinces because of shortages of coal reserves at power stations.
Economists have partly blamed pricing flaws; fearing inflation, the government has capped electricity prices even though power companies must buy coal at rising market prices. Coal reserves at power stations were already at historic lows before the storm knocked out rail and truck deliveries.
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