China's mine inspectors bite the dust
By Stephen Wong
SHANGHAI - Government jobs in China are among the most coveted in the world,
with 56 people on average competing for one vacancy in the latest public
servants examination, up 20% from a year before.
But recently, 48 mine work safety inspectors collectively tendered their
resignations over fears that they "cannot meet the tough rules on safety" laid
out for the coal-mining industry of Lianyuan City in Hunan province, the China
Youth Daily reported on May 25.
The group resignations were triggered by a mine blast that killed 18 miners in
Lianyuan last December 17. One inspector has
since been fired and another faces criminal charges over the accident.
Inspectors are the first government employees to take responsibility for a mine
accident in Lianyuan, where a major accident could cost the job of a chief mine
inspector. By comparison, the penalties on the relevant government officials
are more lenient - a major accident only brings administrative punishment to a
Despite the heavy responsibilities, mine inspectors have little power in
stopping unsafe mines from running. The inspectors can ask mine owners to
correct irregularities and report safety hazards to the authorities. But if the
unruly mine owners - who are often rich and have connections with senior
government officials - choose to ignore the order, the inspectors can do
nothing, the China Youth Daily quoted an unnamed inspector as saying.
With severe penalties, low income levels - the inspectors say they earn only
1,200 yuan (US$175) a month - and an insecure work environment, the inspector
jobs are hardly appealing.
The Chinese media are divided in their attitude towards the mass resignations.
Many believe the inspectors are mere scapegoats to take the blame for senior
officials. The China Business News said the inspectors' "responsibilities and
power are totally unmatched".
Others are less sympathetic. Bai Yansong, a commentator with CCTV, said the
inspectors were unhappy because tough regulations blocked their sources of
"grey incomes". A 2003 government inspection in Lianyuan exposed widespread
corruption among mine inspectors; with a bribe of 1,000 yuan, the mine
inspectors would let an accident-prone mine continue to operate. With the tough
penalties, nobody dares to take bribes.
Local officials fear that the resignation of the inspectors would worsen the
shortage of expertise required to improve mine safety standards. In fact, the
government is already losing employees to mine owners. A mine inspector was
offered a job as head of a privately-run coal mine in Guizhou province for a
yearly salary of 500,000 yuan after resigning from his job in Lianyuan, said
Zhang Jiasheng, head of the safety inspection team of the coal mine industry
bureau of Lianyuan.
Lianyuan, a city of about 1 million people, relies heavily on coal mining,
which is one of the 100 coal mine bases in China. Coal mines make about 400
million yuan a year for the city. But coal production comes at a high cost in
terms of human lives. Last year alone, 53 miners were killed. Of the 97 coal
mines in the city, 65 have safety hazards, the China Youth Daily cited an
unnamed mine official as saying. But the government does not have the incentive
to close down all the unsafe mines, as to do so would undermine the city's
Zhou Wei, vice head of the local coal mining industry bureau, compared the work
of mine inspectors to a teacher leading a group of mentally-retarded children
across a highway. "Danger is always there. Somebody has to be held accountable
when an accident happens," said Zhou. Another local official who asked not be
named said mine inspectors, caught between the local economic needs and the
central government's stringent safety standards, were on a "mission
The heavy penalties for mine accidents are scaring away not only the
inspectors, but also candidates for top government jobs.
In North China's Shanxi province, the top two seats in the coal-producing city
of Linfen remained vacant for over six months after the previous mayor was
sacked in September over a mine accident that killed more than 270 people. Few
potential candidates were willing to take the positions. It was not until April
that the Shanxi provincial Communist Party committee appointed Xie Hai, one of
its members, to be party secretary of Linfen. Then last week, in the delayed
annual session of Linfen municipal people's congress (which normally should
have been held at the beginning of the year), Luo Qingyu, then secretary
general of the Shanxi provincial government, was endorsed as Linfen mayor.
Shanxi, known as China's "coal capital", is notorious for its fatal coal mine
accidents. Officials as senior as the province's governors have fallen victim
to mine accidents, too. Former Shanxi governor Meng Xuenong stepped down for
the same accident that ended the career of the Linfen mayor, after taking the
job for just eight months.
Following Beijing's practice of sacking officials after major accidents, Linfen
changed four mayors while Shanxi changed four governors from 2005 to 2008.
Beijing showed its determination to reign in Shanxi's chaotic mine industry by
appointing Wang Jun, former director of the State Administration of Work
Safety, as Shanxi governor in September. But six months after Wang took the
job, a gas explosion at a large state-owned coal mine killed 74 people. The
mine, Tunlan, had prided itself on having zero mining fatalities since 2004.
Chinese mines are among the most dangerous in the world. Last year alone, 3,210
miners were killed. The figure was a 54% drop from 2002, but still China's 2008
fatality rate of 1.182 deaths per million tons of coal mined means that the
world's largest coal producer's safety standard still lags far behind most
Beijing is trying everything to reduce colliery deaths, from closing down
smaller mines to firing officials. The Communist Party recently passed a
regulation on the accountability of government officials and sacked dozens of
officials over three mine accidents in Shanxi.
But its efforts to improve mine safety standards have been counteracted by an
energy intensive and energy wasteful path of industrial growth. Beijing has
been endeavoring to shift to a less energy demanding growth mode, but regional
governments that rely heavily on coal production taxes have every incentive to
turn a blind eye to costly safety issues.
Despite the financial crisis, China's coal output rose 6.8% year-on-year to 827
million tonnes in the first four months of 2009, official figures show. What
accompanies the expanded production is mine deaths. In the latest accident, a
blast at a mine in west China's Chongqing municipality killed at least 30
miners on May 30.
While punitive measurements for safety violations are an indispensable
component to solve China's safety challenges, analysts are not optimistic they
Kevin Jianjun Tu, a research associate of the Energy and Materials Research
Group at Simon Fraser University in Canada, pointed out that "the 'top-down'
punitive measurements used toward government officials alone are insufficient
to solve China's mounting safety challenges".
Professor Ding Xueliang with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
sees Beijing's move to enhance officials' accountability as a positive step,
but he also points out that China's accountability framework has insurmountable
difficulties. "On the one hand, officials are held accountable for mine
accidents in their administration; on the other hand, they are unable to tackle
mine owners with high connections," he said.
In a country that is still largely governed by officials rather than laws, the
lives of miners seem to be at the mercy of government officials. But the
complicated relationships in the bureaucracy and the officials' emphasis on
economic growth mean that they are not fit to protect the miners. If mine
inspectors and government officials can choose to resign, China's millions of
miners have no choice but to work in a dire environment. Their voices are
rarely heard in the media.
China ratified the Mine Safety Convention of the International Labor
Organization, but so far few Chinese miners have access to the basic rights
specified in the convention. Without an effective work union that can speak for
the workers - China's work unions are controlled by the government or the
enterprises - miners cannot fight for their own rights.
Chang Ping, a commentator with the Southern Metropolis News, points out that
"What the Shanxi officials should do is to help the miners fight for their own
Due to the recent economic slowdown, China is experiencing a potential coal
surplus for the first time since the late 1990s, which should offer a
long-awaited window of opportunity to address its safety challenges.
But if Beijing does not change its energy intensive growth focus or give
workers better protection, the high number of colliery deaths will continue.
Stephen Wong is a freelance journalist based in Shanghai.