We do not doubt the central government's determination to protect the safety of more than 7 million miners in China's coal industry. After all, there's a lot of pressure on any responsible leadership when the country's death toll of 6,027 coal miners accounted for 80 percent of the world's total last year.
But it is worrisome that local governments' preoccupation with economic development may hinder an on-going safety bid by the central government.
The State Council, or China's cabinet, has taken concrete steps to improve the work safety record in the coal sector since the start of this year. It formed the new ministry-level General Administration of Work Safety (GAWS) in February as part of efforts to curb rampant coal mine accidents.
It then issued new safety rules for coal mines in September, ordering the closure of illegal mines and the suspension of those that failed to meet safety requirements. So far, more than 9,056 illegal coal mines have been closed down and 12,990 have been suspended.
The State Council has also ordered the withdrawal of government officials' investment in the coal industry to eliminate the corrupt practices of putting unsafe and illegal mining under local government protection.
To ensure all these rules are complied with around the nation, the minister of GAWS, Li Yizhong, and his deputies have toured major coal-producing provinces over the past two months to urge on provincial officials.
However, it remains doubtful whether these efforts will finally pay off, given some worrying signs of lax supervision at provincial and county levels.
On Wednesday, some coal-producing provinces reported that 100 percent of suspended coal mines had passed safety checks between November 1 and 18, in stark contrast to a national average of 72.4 percent for the first 10 months of this year.
Indicating his own suspicions about the figures, Li said "it is not a good thing" to see such a high proportion of suspended coal mines "passing" safety checks.
He criticized certain local supervisors for their reluctance to strictly implement the central government's policies out of fear that shutting down coal mines would slow down local economic growth.
The minister warned that conducting safety checks in a perfunctory way greatly threatens the central government's aim of shutting down operations with outdated equipment and poor production conditions.
At the end of 2004, nearly 90 percent, or 23,388, of the country's coal mines produced only one third of China's total coal output, but killed two thirds of the coal miners who died.
That shows why the central government was determined to launch a campaign to close down illegal and unsafe mines as the first, but most crucial, step to ensure work safety.
If provincial and county governments cheat there will be little chance of the central government succeeding.
With such a life and death issue, there is no reason for the State Council to give provincial and county governments the benefit of the doubt.
We suggest that an accountability mechanism be established immediately for provincial and county inspectors who conduct safety checks at suspended coal mines. Inspectors should be held directly responsible for any accidents that take place due to poor safety in coal mines he or she has approved.
Meanwhile, GAWS should carry out spot checks at suspended coal mines that have passed safety checks to find out if they really are up to scratch.
(China Daily November 28, 2005)