In a very literal sense, they run the world. Still, we’d rather not know unless a headline happens to them, “Mine Blast Kills Twelve,” “153 Still Trapped.” In America, China, anywhere coal runs in rich seams, the daily headline should read, “Man Risks Life Crouching and Scrabbling in Darkness, Deep Below the Earth, for Peanuts.” And that’s why coal mining is only newsworthy in its too-frequent disasters, because it’s for poor people, and why white and yellow coal miners are in a sense black, closer kin to each other than to their respective countrymen, whom soot has never colored.
It’s high-risk work to begin with, is colliery; no one denies it, least of all the men who do the digging and hauling. The US counted 2006 a bad year, with the Sago disaster claiming most of the 47 lives lost, and the twelve killed in the recent West Virginia blast was tragic enough to wrest front-page space from Tiger’s ongoing skinning.
China, on the other hand, can with grim braggadocio point to 2004, when over six thousand perished in coal mine cave-ins, fires, and explosions. The drama and media attention over the 153 trapped miners in Xiangning derives solely from the fact that they may still be alive, not scandal over yet another mining disaster.
Apologists grumble that the miners’ pay is among the highest for unskilled workers, who would otherwise turn to migrant construction, or drift through the grey and black economies of the devastated Shanxi heartland from which they hail. Those grumblers would need a flooded-cave’s worth of gall to tell one of the six thousand bereaved families that, and would most likely lose the power of speech were they locked into a miner’s cage, then slowly lowered half a mile into the bowels of the earth for a twelve-hour shift – light, air, and space a quickly dimming memory.
So even granting the high chance that a miner won’t last twenty years without at least getting a dose of black lung, why is the casualty rate so high in China? The aforesaid apologists jump in to cite the huge volume of coal mining operations in China to supply the Dragon with fire. But Germany, which nearly doubled China’s output of brown coal in 2006, had no recorded deaths. The defense against such an indefensible statistic runs along the lines of “China’s still developing, too big to regulate, has too many small illegal mines.” Yet the 153 are trapped in a mine owned by two of China’s largest state-owned mining concerns. Even so, Wang Wen, waiting for news of her buried husband, faces a bleak future as a widow. “We do not even know where to go to beg for food. I have two parents, and they are in their 80s,” she said.
To be sure, the exploitation of the miner is hardly unique to China. But at least in America’s Appalachia, Wales, and Northern England, their plight is framed as a clear-cut example of a woefully free market in which industrial bosses muscle the peasantry, mostly in a historical context, at that. Meanwhile, in the socialist frescoes gracing Chinese parks, the miner is the fourth horseman of the proletarian revolution, hoisting his spade cheerfully among the farmer, factory worker, and soldier.
So hopefully we may be forgiven the naivety of asking, in light of the fact that China’s largest coal mining companies cleared 70 billion RMB in profits for 2006, why a healthy slice of those earnings were not sunk into improving safety and setting up pensions. If we may not, the only recourse is to turn cynical and assume that miners’ lives are held as cheap as they were pre-Republic.
In America’s bad old days of mining, 1905 through the 1930s, when Loretta Lynn’s father was busy providing material for her opus, the mines took five lives for every million tons of output. India from 1917-37 doubled that. In contrast, one big Chinese operation, the Benxihu mine, from 1913-1923 took 212 lives for every million.
Death rates tracked at other Chinese mines did not fare much better, ranging from 25 to 100 per million tons during similar periods. Perhaps some of those miners prayed for death, with a twelve-hour shift considered progressive at the time, even indulgent. In Shaanxi’s Xinconggou mine, workers stayed underground for eighteen days at a time, while another operation excited comment only after keeping its miners from sunlight for fifty-five straight days.
China differed from the west in that hardly any women or children were involved in coal mining. A combination of bound feet and plenty of men desperate for work saw to that. But a miner’s toil has changed as little as the danger faced, even if the hours are shorter. As you read this, there are thousands of men at the end of an all-but-airless shaft, scuttling to safety as the charge is lit, then crawling back to scrape at the exposed surface, hauling the pickings away. It’s grunt work but it’s also honorable, digging up the fuel that powers China, and until that honor is redeemed through reform, its industrial titans have feet of brittle slag.