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Can Tougher Rules Put An End to Mine Disasters?

Li Yizhong, minister of the State Administration of Work Safety, has vowed that "determined moves will be taken to shut down illegal collieries and those which, though legally registered, still fail to qualify for safe production even after rectification" and that "at least 4,000 coal mines will be closed by the end of the year."

The top work safety official's pledge on Sunday represents the central authorities' latest effort to put an end to colliery accidents that have haunted the country for many years and worsened lately.

Nobody doubts the sincerity in the government's determination but there is still skepticism about whether the problem can really be solved. The skepticism stems from the fact that fatal accidents still occurred one after another even though the central government decreed repeatedly that harsh measures be taken to curb unsafe mining.

China has enacted nearly 200 laws and administrative decrees concerning industrial production safety, which, in Work Safety Minister Li's words, "come in three one-inch-thick volumes." Everybody could see the irony in the contrast between the large number of safety laws and regulations and the large number of industrial accidents.

Even an amateur analyst would see that the problem lies in the execution of laws.

But the problem has been talked about so much that it has become cliché to blame the lax execution of laws.

What is needed now is a serious study of the final reason why the execution of laws has become a "chronic ailment."

In fact, critics have pointed out some factors that account for the lax execution of laws. Corruption of government officials who have vested interests in coal mines is the most cited culprit. And the public's fury seems to have been directed mostly at the "collusion between officials and colliery owners."

Such malfeasance by government officials is certainly outrageous. These officials have turned themselves into criminals. They should be brought to justice. But this should not blind us to other forms of official malfeasance. Anyhow, officials-colliery owners collusion was found in only a small part of the whole coal mining industry.

Another, probably the main, reason for the coal mine accidents was dereliction of duty on the part of officials from local governments and those in charge of State-owned coal mines.

These officials were supposed to implement the State laws on production safety and supervise all safety precautions in coal mines. Reports of the colliery accidents all indicated failure on the part of these officials to implement the stipulated safety precautions. Industry administrative authorities licensed mines without adequate safety facilities; safety monitoring authorities let mines failing the check carry on; and local leaders turned a blind eye to illegal coal mining by private owners.

A more profound reason behind such dereliction of duty is local governments' pursuit of performance credit in "promoting economic growth."

The shortage of energy supply China has suffered in recent years has jacked up coal prices, which in turn prompted local governments and State-owned mines' managers to put coal excavation above any other consideration. Under this obsession for economic success, these officials undoubtedly forgot their duty to coal mine safety.

Such dereliction of duty must not be pardoned with the excuse of "negligence." When human life is involved, negligence is nothing but crime, which is no lighter than profit-oriented collusion with private coal pit owners.

After the occurrences of coal mine accidents in recent years, some owners and managers were brought to justice and a few officials directly in charge of safety work were penalized. However, officials on higher levels who were responsible for allowing the continued existence of the ineligible mines were not punished. They are responsible for the lax execution of the laws on coal mine safety.

The State Council on Monday decided to dispatch several overhaul panels to major coal-producing provinces. One of their missions is to "pursue people who misuse their rights or violate work safety regulations."

I hope this move by the central government will solve the problem of lax execution of laws in terms of work safety.

(China Daily December 14, 2005)

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