When an underground fire killed 35 men at the bottom of a coal shaft last year, the telltale signs of another Chinese mining disaster were everywhere: Black smoke billowed into the sky, dozens of rescuers searched nine hours for survivors and sobbing relatives besieged the mine’s iron gate.
But though the owner and local government officials took few steps to prevent the tragedy, they succeeded, almost completely, in concealing it.
For nearly three months, not a word leaked from the heart of China’s coal belt about the July 14 explosion that racked the illegal mine, a 300m wormhole in Hebei province, about 160km west of Beijing.
The mine owner paid off grieving families and cremated the miners’ bodies, even when relatives wanted to bury them. Local officials pretended to investigate, then issued a false report. Journalists were bribed to stay silent. The mine shaft was sealed with truckloads of earth.
“It was so dark and evil in that place,” said the wife of one miner who missed his shift that day and so was spared. “No one dared report the accident because the owner was so powerful.”
The Lijiawa mine tragedy might still be an official non-event, but one brave soul reported the cover-up in September on an Internet chat site. The central government in Beijing stepped in, firing 25 local officials and putting 22 of them under criminal investigation. The results of the inquiry are expected this month.
Such a wide-ranging cover-up might seem unusual in the Internet age, but it remains disturbingly common here. From mine disasters to chemical spills, the 2003 SARS epidemic to the past year’s scandal over tainted milk powder, Chinese bureaucrats habitually hide safety lapses for fear of being held accountable by the ruling Communist Party or exposing their own illicit ties to companies involved.
Under China’s authoritarian system, superiors reward subordinates for strict compliance with targets set from above, like reducing mine disasters. Should one occur, the incentive to hide it is often stronger than the reward for handling it well. A disaster on a bureaucrat’s watch is almost surely a blot on his career. A scandal buried quietly may never be discovered.
China’s lack of a free press, independent trade unions, citizen watchdog groups and other checks on official power makes cover-ups possible, even though the Internet makes it harder to suppress information completely.
Work-safety officials in Beijing complain that even more than in other industries, death tolls from accidents at coal mines are often ratcheted down or not reported at all. That is because of the risky profits to be made — by businessmen and corrupt local officials — exploiting dangerous coal seams with temporary, unskilled workers.
Just two weeks after the Lijiawa disaster, for example, officials in neighboring Shanxi province announced that 11 people had been killed in natural landslide. After another Internet-lodged complaint, investigators discovered that 41 villagers had been buried under a torrent of rocks and waste from an iron mine.
Even if underreported, the official death rate for China’s coal mines is astronomically high. On average, nine coal miners a day died in China last year — a rate 40 times that of the US, according to the State Administration of Work Safety. Small mines, legal and illegal, accounted for three-fourths of the deaths but only a third of production.