News Coverage of Mining Accidents in China

In a previous post (Coal Mine Deaths and The Price of Development), Chinese scientist He Zuoxin (何祚庥) was famously quoted by Southern People Weekly as saying about the dead miners: "(If you want to complain, then you should complain that) you should not be born in China and you should not be a Chinese. Who told you to be unfortunately born in China?"

That was enough to generate calls of outrage.  Strangely enough, though, the public seems to be siding with He Zuoxin now once his side of the story came out.  For one thing, He Zuoxin began posting on the Internet in a series of long essays about the interview itself and also about the substantive issue of mine accidents.  The following is a post by He Zuoxin at and it is the seventh of the series.

[in translation]

Here, I want to discuss mainly about the problem of mining disasters in China.

Why did I wait for more than a month before I concentrated on the mining problem?  This is because I needed to gather certain data in order to compare Chinese mining disasters with American mining disasters.  I intend to make a serious study, as opposed to a superficial or shallow discussion.

There is a type of comparison that is not to be advocated, and that is what Southern People Weekly reporter Liu Tianshi reported in "A Self-Defense By A Critic -- Converation with He Zuoxin."

Photographer: Do you know how many people die in Chinese coal mines every day?

He Zuoxin: The newspapers said more than 100 people ...

Photographer: Do you trust that number?

He Zuoxin: It is basically true ...

But we must add that the Tianya forum published another version in which the photographer added the following:

Photographer: That is absolutely dog's fart.  It is more than 10 times that!

I must solemnly state this: He Zuoxin never said that the newspapers reported that more than 100 people die every day in Chinese coal mines.  This is because I have never seen such a figure in the newspapers.  My original speech was meant to say that I read about some large mining accidents in which more than 100 people died each time.

If more than 100 people die each day in mining disasters in China, then that is a truly astounding number.  There are 365 days in a year.  If you multiply it out, more than 40,000 people die each year!  But the thing that gets even more attention is this: the photographer Lin Wei thought that the number was too small!  He scolded He Zuoxin: "That is absolutely dog's fart.  It is more than 10 times that!"  What is 10 times?  40,000 x 10 = 400,000.  Each year, an average of more than 400,000 people die in coal mine disasters!?

Anyway, how many people actually die each year in Chinese coal mine disasters?

According to the numbers that we found: 6,434 died in mining accidents in 2003 for a daily average of 17.6; 6,027 died in mining accidents in 2004 for a daily average of 16.5; between January 1, 2005 and December 11, 2005, 5,491 died for a daily average of 15.9.  But according to reporter Liu Tianshi, it was exaggerated to more than 100 people.  Furthermore, it was exaggerated to more than 100 people through He Zuoxin's mouth!  This is so disgusting!  This is so lacking in journalistic ethics!

How many people die coal mine disasters in America?  According to the data that we found, 46 died in 1995; 41 died in 2001; 28 died in 2002; 22 died in 2005.

Comparing the number of deaths in China to the number of deaths in America, the Chinese number is approxiately 200 times than that of the American number.  At the moment, America produces 1.087 billion tons of coal while China produces 2.11 billion tons.  That is, the Chinese coal output is about twice that of America.  In other words, the number of deaths per 100 tons of produced coal is about 100 times than the number for America!

This is a question that is worth investigating in detail: why is there a disparity of 100 or 200 times in terms of the number of deaths in China versus America?  The reporter Liu Tianshi used the words of photographer Lin Wei to say that it was corruption.  He Zuoxin clearly replied: "It is mainly poverty and backwardness.  It is not mainly about corruption!"  Then this developed into a sharp debate about whether the Chinese social system or the American social system is better.  In the end, He Zuoxin sharply criticized the photographer Lin Wei: "You should not be born in China.  You should not a Chinese.  Who told you to be unfortunately born in China?"  But the reporter Liu Tianshi's report completely omitted the actual circumstances of the debate.  Instead, he moved the "Who told you (note: this was referring to the photographer) to be unfortunately born in China?" right after the photographer's question: "Then they should just accept their fate?"  And then he used to a set of quotes to add "If you want to blame" which He Zuoxin never used!

Yet, the number-of-deaths-per-million-ton does not objectively reflect the accurate numbers of mine safety in China and America.  A more scientific comparative indicator would be the number of deaths per million hours of labor.  This is because the number of mine workers is very different in China and America, and the average working hours per miner is very different too.

According to our research, there are more than 7 million miners in China compared to 81,000 in America (another report gave 88,000).  The Chinese miner works about 3,000 hours per year, while the American miner worked about 2,000 hours per year.  Therefore, the Chinese number-of-deaths-per-million-working-hours is:

6,000 / (7,500,000 x 3,000 / 1,000,000) = 0.266 persons.

For America, it is:

30 x (80,000 x 2,000 / 1,000,000) = 0.188 persons

That is to say, the number-of-deaths-per-million-working-hours of China is only 41% higher than America!  To be more direct, each Chinese coal miner bears a risk that is 41% higher than an American when working in the coal mine.

Clearly, this 41% difference still reflects that there is a non-trivial difference in coal mine safety between China and America.  But this 41% also indicates that the principal reason for the vast difference in the absolute number of mining deaths is poverty and backwardness, because the difference in productivity rates between China and America is more than 70 times and the total amount of coal produced is different by a factor of two.

Why is there still an 41% difference in the coal mine safety situations in China and America?  An important reason is corruption, or the collusion between government officials and coal mine operators.  In November 2005, the latest Chinese death rate per million tons of coal is 2.912 persons.  But it is 6.556 for town-level coal mines, 2.054 for local-level coal mines and 0.840 for national-level key coal mines.  Therefore, if China can "earnestly increase leadership in working on safety in production work, especially with respect to strict implementation," the death rate per million ton can drop down to between 1.5 and 2.0 or even 1.0.  But they will not be able to reach the American level in 10 to 20 years of having only 0.03 deaths per million ton.  This is because the American productivity is 70 times higher and this cannot change that quickly in the short term!  This is the basic situation that we cannot ignore on the matter of mining accidents.

Actually, if the death rate per million ton is reduced to 2.0, then the death rate per million working hours would fall approximately to 0.19.  If we can really succeed "earnestly increasing leadership in working on safety in production work," then this may go down further to 1.5, which is equivalent to a death rate per million working hours of 0.14!  This would be a leadership figure in the world!  But if we make the further demand that the death rate per million ton to be 1.0 (note: this figure meant that 2,000 people will pie per year in order to produce 2 billion tons of coal), then it is necessary to improve the production facilities in the existing coal mines, to reduce the number of coal mine workers and to significantly increase the productivity of Cinese mine workers.  Yet, these cannot be achieved in the short term!  Reducing the number of coal mine workers is in conflict with the policy of solving the employment problem for the 2.5 million persons entering the labor force each year!

In the January 2006 edition of Reference News, there was an article from a German reporter on Chinese coal mine workers: "Very few coal miners have attended school.  Most of the them cannot read or write.  They were peasants before, but they could no longer continue living off the meagre harvest from the land.  'We know that going down into the mine every day is dangerous, but we need money.'  Liu said, 'How are we going to feed the family? How do we pay for the children's tuition fees?'"  That is the reality of China!

Concerning the problem of solving the production safety in coal mines, it is facile to express cheap sympathy and it is rash to make certain promises blindly.  But to hype up false death rate statistics, to make inflammatory reports and set someone up during interviews is very shameful journalistic behavior!  Is this because the real problem is about how to 'make into practice'?