The coal that fuels China’s boom is becoming less deadly to extract
FOR decades China’s coal mines served as tragic showcases of greed, corruption and contempt for life: thousands died in accidents every year and many more after prolonged agony from dust-clogged lungs. In 2003 Wen Jiabao, who was then about to become prime minister, went down a shaft to have dumplings with miners.
He told local officials that safety was the Communist Party’s priority. Over the next three years, however, just as many coalworkers died in mines—more than 18,000, by official counts—as in the preceding three years. Mr Wen’s words rang hollow.
Then a striking turnaround began. Chinese coal mines became far safer even as they more than doubled output to fuel the country’s economic boom—they produced 3.9 billion tonnes in 2014, about half the world total. Last year 931 miners were killed in coal-mine accidents.
It was the 12th year in a row in which the death toll reportedly fell. By one measure of mining safety—deaths per million tonnes of coal produced—China’s record had improved twenty-fold since 2002, to 0.24 (see chart).
That is still about ten times worse than in the developed world. Officials say safety conditions remain “grim”. But the coal industry is also labour-intensive. China has 5.8m miners; America, the world’s second-largest producer, has only 80,000. Measured by deaths per 100,000 coalminers, China’s annual rate of 16 compares favourably with a total of 20 deaths in America in 2013.
There are reasons to be sceptical about China’s apparent safety improvements, however. Official statistics can be as dodgy as a $20 Rolex watch. Deaths from pneumoconiosis, a disease known as black lung which is caused by inhaling dust particles, still far exceed the numbers killed in accidents.
In 2013 nearly 14,000 new cases were recorded—probably only a fraction of the true number (doctors are often reluctant to make a diagnosis without proof of mining employment, which many workers lack). That year the government called for greater efforts to prevent and treat black lung. The number of hospitals dedicated to it is due to double to 80 in the next five years. It will take time for any changes resulting from this to show up in statistics.
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