- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2005

FUXIN, China — They work in one of the world’s most hazardous industries, tunneling far beneath the Earth’s surface for coal to power China’s booming economy.

But after a gas explosion on Monday killed at least 211 persons at the Sunjiawan mine in the country’s most deadly mining accident in decades, miners in this northeastern city said their biggest worry is making a living.

China’s mines are the world’s deadliest: Last year, more than 6,000 Chinese miners died in fires, floods and explosions. That is an average of about 16 per day, despite government pledges to improve worker safety.

Rescuers were still searching for six miners missing since the blast, the government said, but by early Wednesday the area outside the mine was quiet. The entrance was cordoned off, and there was no sign of activity outside.

In a chilly building inside the mine complex, a group of miners in grimy overalls and hard hats sat huddled around a coal burner, smoking and taking a tea break.

“I’m not too worried,” said Zhang Jun, 40. “Everybody has to make a living, and this is a good way to make a living.”

Asked whether he would want his son to work in a mine, he said, “Oh sure, it’s a good job.”

Despite the hazards of his job, Mr. Zhang belongs to China’s industrial elite, earning about $3,600 per year ” 10 times the annual rural average. The national average is about $1,000.

Most miners live four miles away in Fuxin, traveling to work by company bus from industrial apartment blocks in the city.

Fuxin is in China’s northeastern rust belt, a region of antiquated state-owned heavy industries. Coal is used to fuel those factories, heat homes and keep power plants running. In winter, women wear white surgical masks for protection against the acrid coal smoke that saturates the air.

Miners have been tunneling through the region’s forested hills since the late 1800s. In the 1950s to 1970s, the coal industry employed hundreds of thousands of workers and was Fuxin’s mainstay. But by the early 1990s, many of the mines were depleted.

To reach coal seams, miners tunnel far underground, where the risk of explosions of methane gas is high.

The Sunjiawan colliery is part of the Fuxin Mine Group Co., a state-owned industrial group that once employed several hundred thousand miners. The company’s Web site says it now employs 82,000.

“I’m not from a mining family, and we used to always envy them when I was growing up,” said Zhu Guodong, a driver whose family scraped along by trading and running small shops.

“They always had food to eat. Always had a place to live,” Mr. Zhu said.

Little of the wealth from the state-owned mines appears to have reached the surrounding countryside, where brick village huts lack toilets, indoor plumbing or heating, despite subfreezing winter temperatures.

The new generation of Chinese leaders who took power in 2003 has sought to portray itself as attuned to the concerns of common people, especially farmers and miners.

Accidents like the one at Sunjiawan, China’s worst reported mining disaster since communist rule began in 1949, have been an embarrassment for the leadership.

Last month, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited some of the families of 166 miners killed last fall in north China’s Shaanxi province. He shed tears, saying the accident was a “lesson paid for with blood.”

Mr. Wen promised better mine safety measures and better training. In 2003, just before being named prime minister, he made a highly publicized visit to another Fuxin mine, donning a miner’s helmet and eating pork dumplings with workers deep below the surface.

The government adopted the country’s first national safety laws in 2002, starting a nationwide effort to improve job safety with a network of workplace inspectors.

But those laws have not been matched with adequate education or enforcement, and deadly accidents continue to plague China’s coal mines.

Many observers blame the country’s booming economy for tempting mine owners and workers to cut corners when it comes to safety as they rush to meet the nationwide demand for energy.

Despite the large death toll at the Sunjiawan mine, conditions are said to be even worse at privately owned, smaller mines outside the state sector.

“In some places, there’s an overemphasis on production and there’s corruption. There are bosses who don’t take care of their people,” said Ping Xiao’en, 56, who retired after 30 years of coal mining.

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