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Date Posted: 14:29 15/02/2005

Dying for coal

Yet another tragedy strikes in China's coal industry

YET ANOTHER massive coal mine explosion, this time in the city of Fuxin in Liaoning Province, has killed 203 workers so far, a modern record, putting China's chaotic and stricken coal industry under the spotlight once again.

Apparently, a minor earthquake in one of the coal wells caused a malfunction in the gas sensor equipment and triggered the explosion. While the earthquake might allow local officials to blame the forces of nature for the calamity, it seems obvious that many of the seismic disturbances in the area are man-made, with mining enterprises digging deeper and deeper, further and further, in order to take advantage of the high demand and high prices in the industry.

The profound human tragedy in China's coal industry goes beyond the violent immediacy of the gas explosions, floods and landslides that have dominated the news for the last few years. The city of Fuxin first hit the headlines over the Spring Festival of 2003, when Premier Wen Jiabao celebrated the new year with local miners and pledged his support for the regeneration of the stricken industrial wasteland in the region. China's coal cities have been slowly and inexorably sacrificed in the name of economic growth, with their water supplies contaminated, their skies blackened and their local population reduced to bare subsistence as the depleted mines close down.

Fuxin is one of the primary targets of the 'Rejuvenate the Northeast' campaign, which provides tax breaks to enterprises should they choose to invest in the area. But the prospects are not great. After years of overmining, the city is suffering from massive unemployment and also land subsidence, with a large proportion of local buildings on the verge of collapse and much of the local population forced to relocate.

While a good deal of attention is paid to the neglected millions in the countryside, heavy industrial regions have also been sacrificed in the name of coastal economic growth. As more 'coal bases' are being built deep in the interior, that pattern needs to be changed. But despite growing awareness of the manifold risks of overdevelopment, local authorities and local businessmen still seek profit above everything else, and there is no shortage of desperate young men forced to descend into the pit whatever the potential consequences.

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