Utah’s coal mine tragedy killed six miners and three rescuers. West Virginia’s 2006 Sago tragedy killed 12. America was shaken, and vowed still more mine safety rigors.
Yet during the same period, thousands upon thousands of coal diggers perished inside China’s treacherous underground mines. Their deaths cause only a tiny fraction of the public notice triggered by U.S. disasters.
“Mine safety in China is about where we were in the United States in the 1800s,” Phil Smith, a United Mine Workers spokesman, said after the Sago tragedy. “There is little or no regard by the companies for their workers. Their only goal is for production.”
The latest underground tragedy in China came when a rain-swollen river flooded two coal mines Aug. 23, trapping 181 miners. Chinese officials accepted no responsibility, calling it a “natural disaster.”
In 2005, the Beijing government reported that 5,986 Chinese coal miners died in accidents — a death rate more than 100 times higher than America’s. But far more fatalities probably go unreported.
Labor rights publications such as the China Labor Bulletin, published in Hong Kong, estimate the real number of mining deaths in China may be 20,000 a year.
Timothy Weston of AsiaMedia at the University of California-Los Angeles, observed: “The drama in Utah received wall-to-wall saturation coverage in the American media. But the far more horrendous Chinese coal mine disaster received merely sidebar-style coverage from most news outlets.”
Chinese reporters face danger. Beijing reporter Lan Chengzhang was beaten to death Jan. 9 after he arrived at an illegal coal mine near the northern Chinese city of Datong. The operator of that small mine was convicted of organizing the attack and sentenced to life in prison in June.
Cheap but unsafe Chinese imports attract wide attention in U.S. news these days. Yet few Americans think about repressive working conditions that let Chinese companies produce such cheap products by paying their workers pennies an hour to work in unsafe conditions.
The exploding Chinese economy depends on coal-fueled power plants for the vast majority of its electricity. Since 2000, coal production has more than doubled. More miners probably died in China in the past five years than died in the United States since 1900.
American mine deaths are horrible, as West Virginia sadly knows. But it’s strange that America merely shrugs about gruesome fatalities elsewhere that are hundreds of times worse.