LETTER FROM CHINA

By Howard W. French
Published: December 14, 2007
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SHANGHAI: The blast occurred at 11:15 at night in the village-run mine in Shanxi Province, the heart of China’s coal mining country.
At least 128 men were believed to be in the shaft, more than double the number allowed. But rather than notify the authorities to organize a proper emergency response, the mine operators’ first reflex was to hush things up. “As long as we can protect our boss, we’re protected,” one of them said, according to Southern Metropolis newspaper in China.
Determined to save their co-workers, miners started a rescue operation of their own. Some news reports speak of the mine operators trying to stop them. As many as 50 men proceeded into the earth, most of them never to be seen again.
Much remains unknown about the Xinyao Coal Mine disaster, the latest in a slow drum roll of tragedies linked to China’s coal economy. And having seen the way stories like these break every few weeks here, generating ritualized indignation, official apologies, government vows to punish the guilty and to regulate the mines more stringently, only to have things go quiet until the next deadly explosion, it is a sure bet that much will remain unknown, too.
Officially, 105 miners died in the Shanxi Province accident last week, but few in the know accept figures like these on the basis of trust. Up until October of this year, officially 3,069 miners had perished in coal mining accidents throughout China, an astounding rate of about 300 a month, and yet even an accident as large as the Xinyao blast, in which miners had to capture and beat a company executive before he would inform the police of the fatal blast, was not a sure ringer for front-page coverage for many Chinese newspapers.
For me the contrast with my vacation experience of last summer, which coincided with the Crandall Canyon mine accident in Utah, was instructive. For weeks, every time I turned on the radio there was coverage of that disaster, an accident that claimed nine victims.
Wherever one turned last August, one heard the angry voices of the victims’ families, claims of safety violations and potential fraud, the voices of miners telling what their lives were like in an uncommonly dangerous job, the findings of investigators, and the voice of the operator himself, backed into a corner and forced to answer questions.
Most striking is the invisibility of real human beings in China’s calamities, or to put it another way, the way that real lives are rendered into abstract news elements, data as it were, by the mostly perfunctory coverage.
The Utah hills crawled with reporters struggling and competing to humanize the victims, to uncover malfeasance, to explore regulatory weaknesses and to give a voice to the victims’ families as they simultaneously prayed for miraculous news and vented their anger.
The corruption in government and the shoddy application of regulations that surrounds the Chinese coal industry are incomparably greater than anything one can find in its American cousin, just as surely as the Chinese death toll dwarfs the American one. The reasons for righteous indignation, for tireless muckraking reporting and for concerned citizens to finally raise their voices abound here, and yet the Chinese press and the public mostly shrug. People literally turn the page.
How to explain, then, that China’s miners have become the equivalent of unknown soldiers, only more anonymous, because so little is made of their sacrifice?
As deplorable as this is, the reasons are not entirely negative, one of them perhaps having to do with the pervasive unfussiness that one encounters in so many areas of life here. A good motto for the China of today might be “Get Over It,” and this stands in stark contrast to the United States, where self-dramatization often reigns.
For all of the vaunted American work ethic, one searches to find a parallel to the common Chinese concept of “eating bitterness,” an expression which enjoins people to suffer if they wish to get ahead.
This is easier to accept, of course, when it is other people who are eating the bitterness, or suffering, as is the case with the mauled ranks of China’s coal miners. The anonymity of the coal miners relates to a far bigger injustice that is basic to Chinese life.
It is the existence of a deeply entrenched two-track society of eastern urban dwellers enjoying first world aspirations and a hinterland consisting of hundreds of millions of others – peasants who, for the wealthy, are little more than a statistical abstraction.
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