Someone has snitched. The security men are coming. Shut the door, close the curtains
and stay quiet."
Moments later, footsteps outside. A rap on the door. A mother squeezes her child
tightly to her breast to muffle his cries. An older woman holds back sobs, her
eyes red with tears. Two others sit on a bed, exchanging anxious glances. It is
my fault the security are here, bringing trouble to people who have already suffered
too much. But why is a meeting between four middle-aged women and a foreign journalist
considered such a threat?
The women are not subversives, they are widows and bereaved daughters. Their
husbands and fathers were among the 166 men killed in an explosion at the Chenjiashan
colliery in Miaowan, a mining community in north-west China's Sha'anxi province,
last November. Such accidents are so common in China that their plight and that
of tens of thousands of other mining widows has become one of the most sensitive
issues facing the communist government.
More than 5,000 Chinese miners are killed each year, 75% of the global total,
even though the country produces only a third of the world's coal. Working under
appalling safety conditions, they are sacrificed to fuel the factories that
make the cheap goods snapped up by consumers in Britain and other wealthy nations.
Faced with energy shortages this winter, the government has stepped up the
pressure on mine operators to raise output. This has contributed to a spate
of the worst disasters in the country's history. Last month, 216 miners were
killed at Sunjiawan mine in north-east China in the most deadly accident in
50 years. Last October, another gas explosion killed 148. Last Thursday, a cave-in
at a mine in Sha'anxi province killed 16 miners and left another 11 trapped
Countless other accidents at small unregistered mines go unreported because
the owners - often in collusion with local officials - buy off or threaten the
victims' families. There is widespread anger that miners' lives are being sacrificed
for economic growth. "It's said there is blood on every piece of coal in
China," says one of the widows, Mrs Wang. "My husband used to talk
about the danger all the time. But we are very poor. We have children. What
else could we do?"
The five-mile deep pit at Chenjiashan had a particularly bad reputation. Four
years ago, 38 men died in a gas explosion. Five days before the latest accident
a fire broke out underground. "We came up, but the bosses told us to go
back. We didn't want to, but we had to," says one miner, Li, who lost his
brother in the explosion. "We all needed the money and there is a penalty
of 100 yuan (around £6) for refusing to go down."
The managers, who had reportedly been promised a hefty bonus to increase production,
ordered the men to keep working even though it had become hard to breathe underground.
On the morning of the accident, Li was preparing to start his shift, when workers
came running out of the shaft, saying they had seen thick fog and smoke. "Every
miner knows that means there's been an explosion," he said.
Last week the bereaved were supposed to hold ceremonies to mark the end of
the 100-day mourning period, but many widows say they are still unable to grieve
properly because their husbands' bodies have yet to be recovered. "Our
husbands' bodies are still underground," said Mrs Zhang. "But when
we went to ask the mine supervisor for action, the security men beat us. One
woman was hurt so badly she is still in hospital."
Economics are a major factor in the death rate. Life is cheap, while coal is
In calculating compensation for the victims of the Chenjiashan blast, the state
estimated the value of a miner's life at 51,000 yuan (£3,200). An extra
20,000 yuan was paid as a widow's allowance and another 20,000 yuan for an unrecovered
body. By contrast, mine operators were reportedly promised a 400,000 yuan bonus
if they could raise output by 400,000 tonnes in the last two months of the year.
They could afford at least three deaths and still come out with a profit. Providing
75% of the country's energy needs, coal output must more than match the near
10% annual growth of the economy. There have been no reports of punishments
for any of the mine operators who forced their men into the burning pit.
"The government won't make real inroads into the mining death toll until
it increases compensation and signals that managers will go to jail for putting
people's lives at risk," said Robin Munro of Labour Action Bulletin. "Why
haven't they arrested any of the men who perpetrated crimes that led to more
than 100 deaths?"
The government has closed many of the most dangerous illegal pits, but the
death rate remains alarmingly high at big state-owned collieries.
China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has gone further than any previous Chinese
leader to tackle the problem and in a rare show of solidarity, he visited Miaowan
at new year and attended a memorial service for the dead. But the widows of
Chenjiashan say Wen's visit earlier this year was a clumsily staged propaganda
"We weren't allowed anywhere near him," said Mrs Zhang. "We
heard he personally donated money to the victims' relatives, but none of it
came to us or anyone we know."
There was no way to check the allegations. After leaving the widow's house,
I was spotted by mine security personnel, and taken to the police station for
a four-hour interrogation. "You shouldn't be here without permission,"
a local police officer said. "Something very unfortunate happened here.
You should not make more trouble for the local people."
· All names in this report have been changed to protect their identities.