China is undoubtedly one of the world’s most dangerous environments for miners, and news seems to crop up constantly about serious safety accidents in China’s mines. But unlike the vast majority of mining tragedies in China’s recent past, the flooding incident at Shanxi’s Wangjialing Mine took a positive turn this week, as 153 miners were successfully rescued. With this stroke of good fortune, China’s state media, which have been habituated to bad news in the mining sector, changed their tune entirely.
We had a wave of pro-government hurrahs and jubilation in China’s media this week, hearkening back to an earlier era of “red propaganda.”
“Thanks to our great Mother Nation, and to the great CCP!” “Ah, great Mother Nation! Ah, great Party!” “A song of victory for the CCP!”
On the heels of the good tidings from Shanxi, the Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) issued a news release instructing PLA and armed police divisions nationwide to appropriate the Wangjialing Mine story as an official teaching manual — not for relief and rescue, mind you, but for the pro-party spirit and the superiority of socialism.
The PLA notice read:
After flooding occurred at Shanxi’s Wangjialing Mine, the central party and the State Council gave top priority to rescue work. General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao rapidly issued important instructions for action, demanding effective measures be taken and all available resources be mobilized for the rescue of miners trapped underground. Under the scientific decision-making and determined leadership of the central party and Chairman Hu, relevant agencies of the State Council and local party and government organizations carried out the rescue work scientifically.
Rescue workers did their upmost to rescue the trapped miners, who held on bravely, and the leaders of relevant departments advanced to the front lines. As of present, 115 workers have been successfully saved.
The Wangjialing case, said the PLA news release, “demonstrates the great superiority and cohesiveness of the socialist system.” It must, therefore, be used to instruct soldiers, “enhancing the awareness and determination of officers and soldiers in holding high the banner [of the CCP], heeding the Party’s commands, and fulfilling their missions.”
I urge everyone to please not forget that even as these “red slogans” were being plastered across state media, rescue workers were hauling up the dead from the mine, and many miners remained missing. Meanwhile, the family members of missing miners waited bitterly for any news of their loved ones.
Nor can we forget the traumatic nature of the ordeal surviving miners have been through, and the fact that they have not been freed from long-term dangers. Before long, they must return to work. And under what conditions?
During my career as a news reporter in China, I interviewed surviving miners on two different occasions. The first was after the earthquake at Tangshan in 1976, the second at Yixian (义县) twenty years later.
After the Tangshan Earthquake struck, five miners were trapped in a collapsed mine. They managed to use trowels to dig their way 800 meters toward the surface, inch by inch, by means of a transport tunnel. Suffering from thirst, they were forced to the extreme measure of drinking their own urine, and later filthy water seeping into the tunnel. They were finally rescued 15 days after the quake.
After a mine in Yixian, Liaoning Province, collapsed on December 15, 1996, four miners were trapped underground. They spent the first few days eating bark they managed to strip off of the wooden supports for the mineshaft. Before long, they considered taking their own lives put an end to their suffering. The local government organized a massive rescue effort, and even transferred an oil drilling crew to the scene hoping to open up a passageway to the survivors.
Once the drilling had reached the miners and communication had been established, there was some hope of survival. But progress in freeing them was gruelingly slow, and freezing water leaking into the tunnel presented a grave danger. I watched with my own eyes as the miners passed notes up to the waiting rescue team members, twelve in total. They were on the verge of psychological collapse, their spirits near breaking point. Just as in Tangshan, the Yixian miners were saved after 15 days.
Together these reporting assignments had a profound impact on me. And I realized only too clearly that the chief — indeed, the only — motivation and desire to go on living came from the miners’ concern over the welfare of their wives and parents.
When I first made contact with the miners from Yixian, they had no wish to speak with me. They were even less willing to re-live their experiences underground. As I sat in their sickroom, the door swung open and in marched a television reporter decked out in his armed police uniform. He wanted to talk to the miners about the armed police units who had pulled them to safety. In fact, given the chaos of the scene and the fact they had been wearing protective headgear, the miners had no way of knowing the identities of their rescuers. But the men relented and accepted the interview. They faced the camera and offered words of thanks to their official liberators, which they had no doubt done many times already.
In mainland China, red propaganda of this kind — about the glories of the CCP and the gracious concern of government leaders — has become an ingrained habit for journalists and the public alike. Having served for many years in the party media, I remember those red days only too well. Many leaders still turn to this tried-and-true tactic, transforming sorrow into joy, bad things into good, and using the miracle of rescue to gloss over the fact of human error and responsibility.
The rescue of more than a hundred miners at the Wangjialing Mine is certainly a stroke of good fortune in the midst of tragedy. The government spared no effort to free the miners, and this fact should be recognized. But they are under no obligation to utter words of thanks. Rescue, and all the resources it requires, is not a gift — it is a responsibility hundreds of millions of Chinese taxpayers expect of the government, and no more. And this is a capacity that can be naturally expected of the government given a highly nationalized system like China’s.
It goes without saying — but has not been said in China’s media — that the fact of the government’s negligence in properly monitoring safety in China’s mines precedes the “miracle” of this rescue.
The rescue effort itself is a cost incurred by our nation. Nor can we overlook the human cost — at least 17 miners have died at the latest count, and 21 are missing.
The blood of these miners, and the tears of joy shed by the survivors, both speak of a tragedy that must serve as a lesson for us, not about the glories of socialism but about our failings in protecting the lives of our workers, about the value of life and the need to protect it.
The miners themselves are the focus of this story. Naturally, their perseverance in the face of mortal danger is an inspiration. But once the curtain goes down on this grand drama of red propaganda, they will return quietly to lives of dangerous and grueling labor in the mines. And the trauma they have suffered will add to their burdens.
All of this should be cause for self-reflection by the government. How can you dare use the blood of our miners to paint your red graffiti, boasting about your greatness and achievements?
According to media reports, ChinaCoal CEO Wang An (王安) has apologized to the miners at Wangjialing. He has admitted that the blind expansion of output led to oversights in safety. But what about the State Administration of Work Safety? And the governor of Shanxi province? Higher-level state leaders?
Who will step up?
I am confident that the most effective means for the party and government to earn the trust and confidence of the people is to apologize publicly, and to thoroughly look into the question of responsibility for this tragedy. The singing of red praises will have precisely the opposite effect.