In a bid to curb rampant industrial accidents, China upgraded its State Administration of Work Safety to General Administration of Work Safety (GAWS) in February 2005. Since becoming head of the newly-formed ministry-level body, 61-year-old Li Yizhong has been leading the life of a "firefighter." No matter where a coal mine accident has occurred, he must personally visit the site. Otherwise, in his own words, "we cannot get to the bottom of the case." Therefore, he has been jokingly called by some media "China's busiest minister in 2005."
The year 2006 did not present an easier task for Li: the work safety situation remained severe, with frequent accidents continuing to claim lives.
On July 15, a blast took place at the Linjiazhuang colliery in Lingshi County, Jinzhong City, Shanxi Province, killing a total of 53 miners. The following day, Li was seen on the spot, directing rescue operations and making an investigation into the cause of the accident.
However, the effect of the senior work safety official's labor proved to be confined. CCTV's "Half-hour Business" program reported on August 9 that when Li was staying in Linjiazhuang, a couple of illegal coal pits no more than 10 kilometers away stealthily continued their illegal production.
Day One of Li's Inspection
At 4 PM on July 16, just hours after Li arrived at Linjiazhuang, a motor tricycle drove into the inclined shaft of Zhangjiayu colliery, which is said to be over 100 meters deep. With burning fire, highly concentrated gas in the shaft easily explodes. Yet, despite this risk, miners here still use diesel-engine vehicles for their daily work.
Around the same time, at the Suanzaogou colliery, workers were hurriedly loading coal into a truck bearing the emblem "Qianfeng Coal Sales Corporation of Lingshi County," while an elevator brought coal to the ground from the nearby vertical shaft every five to six minutes.
Astonishingly, both Zhangjiayu and Suanzaogou are less than 10 kilometers from Linjiazhuang where the fatal blast occurred the previous day.
"Following the Linjiazhuang blast, all small coal pits in Shanxi have been shut down," a person on duty at Zhangjiayu colliery told reporters. "It has become a habit. Whenever an accident took place, production will stop to help improve working conditions."
The pithead through which motor tricycles passed yesterday was closed off, but a folding door was found behind the office building. According to an insider, "Behind the door is another pithead. When someone from above came to inspect, the door was pulled down, but coal mining underground never ceased."
Reporters at the Suanzaogou site received the same answer: "In keeping with the instruction issued by the county government, we suspended production." However, it was discovered the owners of both the Zhangjiayu and Suanzougou collieries were in fact one and the same, a man named Wu Ziqing.
Day Three and Four
After three days of investigation, Li Yizhong said on July 18: "The boss of the Linjiazhuang colliery, who dug coal excessively without permission, must be held responsible for what happened here."
According to some villagers, Zhangjiayu and Suanzaogou didn't stop production as they had previously claimed. Instead, they continued operations in the pit during the day and carried the mined coal to the ground at night in order to avoid being caught red-handed.
What they said was soon confirmed. At 3 AM on July 19, a fully-loaded hoist arrived at the Suanzaogou colliery pithead. Several loaders then got going, moving coal from the pithead at full speed to a truck waiting nearby. When the hoist appeared again, an exhausted miner stepped down out of it, obviously against safety operating regulations.
In May 2001, nine miners took a hoist to enter the pit at Suanzaogou. At a depth of 135 meters, the hoist suddenly careened out of control, and fell to the bottom of the shaft, which is nearly 200 meters deep. Five miners were killed immediately, and the other four died on the way to hospital. Following this accident the Suanzaogou colliery was closed down.
Amazingly, a coal mine closed five years ago succeeded in surviving until today. In the past, Wu Ziqing had been conducting illegal evening mining at Suanzaogou, exposing the miners to even greater hidden dangers.
On July 20, reporters learned that two miners were killed at Suanzaogou that very day and the day before, but both deaths were then categorically denied by the colliery. Villagers said Wu and his staff lied to maintain secrecy about the accidents.
One victim was 49-year-old Zeng Wenguo from Taibai Village, Zhongjiang County of Sichuan Province. Wu Yuanjiang, Zeng's fellow worker, witnessed Zeng's death.
"At about 3 PM on July 19, seeing the ceiling of the tunnel shaking, I shouted out to Zeng to dodge, but it was already too late," Wu recalled. "A huge stone fell down and killed him on the spot."
"After the accident happened, the pit was in great confusion," Wu continued. "Everybody tried desperately to escape, but the only exit was blocked from outside. They were afraid we might tell the truth once getting out."
Huddling in the pitch-dark shaft and constantly fearing any new potential cave-ins, the miners were not set free until evening fell.
According to Zeng's relatives, his family got a compensation of 200,000 yuan (US$25,091) from the Suanzaogou colliery.
Interestingly, although all interviewees pointed out that Wu Ziqing was the real boss of Zhangjiayu and Suanzaogou, the names of Chen Zinian and Chen Ziyu were printed respectively on the two collieries' business licenses.
The mystery was unveiled in no time. Wu Ziqing has a total of four brothers, including the two Chens who were adopted by Wu's uncle when they were children and thus changing their family name. All of them have been involved in coal mining for years.
Wu Ziqing is concurrently director of the Economic Cooperation Council in the town of Liangdu and secretary of the Party branch in Xinzhuang Village.
"As an administrative official, he naturally doesn't want his reputation to be tarnished," some villagers said. "So it's more appropriate for him to pull strings from behind the scenes."
According to Lingshi County's work safety bureau, both the mining and work safety permits of Zhangjiayu colliery are already overdue; as for the illegal Suanzaogou colliery, it has never reported the two deaths that occurred on July 19 and 20.
On many occasions, Li Yizhong has demanded: "What is hidden behind the recurrent coal mine accidents?" According to a conclusion made by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), nine out of 10 colliery disasters result from corruption.
To relieve the current grave situation, China Youth Daily once commented: "Some people have pinned their hopes on Li Yizhong's determination and hard work, others on input increase and restructuring; nonetheless, excessive industrial production continues to punish the country relentlessly."
Industrial production supervision and management is not merely an administrative matter; it delves into legal, economic and social issues too. Capable as he is, Li won't be able to resolve all these problems unless he is endowed with superhuman abilities.
(China.org.cn by Shao Da, August 26, 2006)