China employs more than 6 million people in the coal business. The massive state mines are like small cities. They have shops, clinics and dormitories. Much of their operations are mechanized. Better mines take measures to protect against accidents, require miners to take safety courses, and have closed circuit video cameras in the shafts. In run down mines miners live dormitories in which they are sometimes forced to sleep in the same bed and do much of the work by hand in very unsafe conditions.

The state mines provide pension and health care for workers. In many cases providing these benefits have made them unprofitable, Many are struggling to make ends meet. Many have gone bankrupt; hundreds of thousands of miners have lost their jobs. In the mining town of Yangjiazhangzi (250 miles northeast of Beijing) more than 20,000 miners and their families, angered by the loss of their jobs and corruption, battled with police and soldiers.

Coal mining also brings in a lot of money for those involved with running the mines. China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based nongovernment group that advocates workers’ rights, estimates that even a small Chinese coal mine producing just 30,000 tons a year of coal can make up to $900,000 a year in profit. In 2005, the central government ordered officials to divest themselves of their holdings in mines that they supervised. But Professor Hu said, Many officials still own shares.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 10, 2009]

Dangerous Coal Mines in China

Many miners work at small, unsafe and unlicensed private mines that are notorious for ignoring safety regulations and producing fatalities and serious injuries. These mines are usually run by private entrepreneurs, who sometimes subcontract facilities developed by the government. One agency counted 65,313 illegal mines in 2006.

Small unlicenced coal nines produce about a third of China’s coal but are responsible for three quarters of all mine-related deaths. Many of these mines lack ventilators and basic safety equipment. Gas explosions and flooding are common. The government blames mine owners and mining companies that turn a “a deaf ear to safety regulations and management processes.” Labor leaders blame market reforms which put an emphasis on profits over safety.

One official told the Washington Post, “Local governments, because of their own interest and profit motives, secretly tolerate these dangerous coal mines. Now, its more severe because of the shortages. There is even more incentive to tolerate danger because th price has gone up.” Some think if anything the situation might get worse as dwindle supples driver miners deeper into the earth.

Dirty Coal Mines in Shanxi

Shanxi Province has traditionally been the home of China’s coal industry. The mines there tend to be old, dangerous, dirty and inefficient. Describing a mine on the side of the Huojitu river is the traditional mining region of northern Shaanxi province, Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “At the small Bandingliang colliery, the pit has been dug so far into the hillside that truck drivers take 30 minutes to reach the coalface, fill up and return with their load...The tunnels are filled with exhaust emissions, coal dust and the roar of blasting.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

“We drill holes,” Zhao Zhaoguo, a migrant from Henan province told The Guardian on his way down the shaft. “We stuff explosive inside, then a detonator. We set it off, and then, 'voom' — there's a big bang.” Such techniques have made China's mines the deadliest and most inefficient in the world.

Scientific Coal Mining in China

Prompted by President Hu Jintao's drive for “scientific development,” the Chinese government worked hard to reduce waste, improve safety and boost productivity in the coal industry in the late 2000s. Many small private collieries have been shut down. Managers at these mines say they have been given a choice of modernization or closure. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

“The technology is becoming more and more advanced,” oe miner told The Guardian. “In the future it will be fully electrified and mechanized. all we will have to do is press a button, and the coal will just come up by itself.”

New technology has boosted the nation's annual coal production to 2.2 billion tons and doubled the output of some mines.

Much of the new technology is being put to work around Ordos, a city in the deserts of southern Inner Mongolia and near coal-mining area of Shaanxi province. is home to the world's biggest coal company and the planet's most efficient mine. The extensive coal and gas deposits below Ordos has turned this arid, northern outpost into a boom town. The local economy grew eightfold between 2004 and 2009 while the population has swollen almost 20 per cent.

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Sinking land in Shanxi

Modern, Scientific Chinese Coal Mine

In southern Inner Mongolia the coal industry is much more modern, efficient and “clean” than it is China's old rustbelt cities. Shenhua, the world's biggest coal company, runs several mega-mines in the region, the most advanced of which is the fully automated Shangwan pit, which produces more than 1 million tons of coal a month with just 300 workers. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

The Communist party mine secretary, Wang Tianliang, is proud of its efficiency and safety. He told The Guardian, “In this mechanized working face, this single shaft and single face ranks No 1 in China in the world we are No. 1. In more than 3,000 days of operation, we have not had a deadly accident.”

On his visit to the automated Shangwan mine, Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “On the outside at least, the state-owned company's pit resembles a garden more than a mine...The pit face is 355 meters below the surface. The tunnel is wider and cleaner than the London Underground. There are just a handful of miners at our destination. They work with remote control devices that change the direction, position and speed of a German-made cutting machine that slices back and forth along a 300-meter-wide coal face. Giant Hydraulic supports keep the tunnel stable until the cutters have moved on. This hydraulic system is 100 per cent made in China,” says Wang proudly.”

“In the control room, Wang shows me a bank of computers that run the operation displayed on a wall of CCTV images. One screen tracks the position of every worker in the mine. Another shows the rail depot, where a long line of carriages is filled automatically from conveyors at the rate of a ton a second.”

“Before being loaded the coal is broken, filtered and scrubbed. The station is one of 17 washing and loading centers owned by the company. Here too, the story is one of expansion. According to the depot's deputy manager, Yuan Jun, the capacity has increased sixfold since 2002.The Carriages from Shangwan — each containing 60 to 80 tons of coal — are hauled off by powerful engines towards other mines, where more cargo is added.”

Coal Miners in China

Miners generally make around $172 a month but sometimes earn as little as $70 a month. They have little labor representation, health benefits or legal protection. If they get injured they have to pay for their treatment out of their own pockets. If they die their families receive little compensation.

Miners in state-owned mines typically leave for work at 3:00am and return home at 5:00pm covered in a layer of black grit. Days off are few and far between, sometimes only twice a month, even at legal mines. “I really feel like were are slaves,” one miner told is the Washington Post.

Many miners work six or seven days a week in eight-hour shifts, with no break for meals. Each is paid according to how many carts he fills. After room and board and other expenses are subtracted the miners can save or send home the equivalent of a few dollars a month.

Coal miners often earn so little they scavenge hill-size slap heaps for usable chunks of coal to heat their own homes, eat meat only twice a year and subsist on a diet of cabbage, corn gruel and potatoes. They often work in mines owned by owners who live in villas and drive in new black Audis.

Despite the poor working conditions and low pay, many Chinese are anxious to do the work because they have few other ways of making money. Many miners plan to work for several years and save enough to buy some more land or animals. Most miners are migrants. Many are impoverished farmers or laid off workers from distant provinces who are desperate for work. Often several family members work in the same mine.

Mine owners in Shanxi are notorious for their greed and flashiness. Newspapers keep track of how many Hummers, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces they drive and how many luxury condominiums in Beijing and Shanghai they possess. Their wealth is especially obvious because they operate in some of China’s poorest provinces. Many mines are operated by relatives of government officials.

Coal Miners at Work in China

Miners typically wear a yellow safety helmet and a miners lamp and have coal dust imbedded in their forehead lines and dust in their ears. Some work in tunnels that are so low they have to crouch when working and crawl or duck walk when moving through the tunnels. Some wear what amounts to loincloths because the mines are so hot and drag buckets of coal that weigh as much as the miners through the shafts by hand. The only light comes from lamps on the miner’s head. In some cases the lamps are nothing more than candles, whose flames are extremely dangerous when gas fumes are present.

Describing work done at an unlicenced mine near Datong, Erik Eckholm wrote in the New York Times, "Men wearing head lamps climb down crude shafts, where they use picks and crowbars to pry loose chunks of coal...With shovels and by hand, they heap the coal onto metal carts that are jerked through long corridors to open air. Finally is loaded onto trucks for eventual sale throughout China and abroad."

Describing a coal miner at worker in a mine around Pingdingshan on Henan Province, Jane MacArtney wrote in the Times of London, “Mr. Zang...climbs into a metal pulley lift and starts a 100m journey down ...Water drips down the walls. The only light is from a lamp on his plastic helmet. Mr. Zang, wearing rubber boots and a blue cotton jumpsuit, makes his way under the logs and branches that support the tunnel. He follows the narrow rail track for the coal cars, ducking his head to avoid a broken support or dip in the ceiling.”

“The wine of drills at the coal-face grows louder. But first Mr. Zang has to stop to help two other miners as they use brute force and a log to a lever a derailed coal truck back on the track....On the surface, a miner heaves a truck off the pulley lift, pushes it by hand along the rails and empties its load down the side of a coal heap. A bulldozer and two men with shovels then fill a lorry that will take the coal for processing.”

The documentary Yuam Shan (“Distant Mountain”) by film maker Hu Jie in the 1990s showed the horrid conditions that miners worker under.

Coal and Subsiding Villages in China

Coal mining produces all kinds of problems. In Da Antou, a village that sits on the slopes of a coal-filled mountain In Shanxi Province, houses are breaking apart and falling into the ground because the mountain it sits on has been hollowed out by coal mining.

Almost every house in the village has some cracks. Some residents have been woken up in the middle of the might as their windows shattered apart and cracks — some several inches wide —spread across the walls and ceilings. Other have had holes opened in their roofs, tiles drop on their floors and bricks topple from vaulted ceilings. Occasionally entire rooms collapse. The shifting earth has also disrupted water supplies and made many sources of water unusable.

Many residents have had to abandon their homes out of fear their houses will collapse on them and their children. The government and the state-owned coal company mining the mountain have given the village about $350,000 in compensation to help build new homes. By some estimated 7,700 square miles of Shanxi has been hollowed out by mines and other areas may have similar problems

In October 2007, 12 people died when five houses crashed into a collapsed mine tunnel in northern Shanxi Province. Workers had been extending a tunnel under a residential area in the city of Yangquan. In the initial reports it was unclear whether the dead were in the tunnel or the houses.

Ups and Downs of a Chinese Coal Mining Town

In 2016, Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times: Here in Jincheng, a smoggy city in China’s coal country, the revival of coal has “led to a steady hum of activity. On a recent afternoon, other trains stopped to make way for two electric locomotives, their horns blowing, pulling more than 50 empty coal hopper cars ready to be filled. Large coal-carrying trucks now form half-mile lines. Allan Zhang, an electrician who works at a mine here, said his employer had raised monthly pay by nearly 50 percent since the summer. “Two years ago brought “the autumn of coal, and 2015 and earlier this year were the winter of coal,” Zhang said. “Now is the springtime of coal.”[Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, Seattle Times, December 3, 2016]

In the 2000s, China began closing smaller, privately owned mines, cutting production while clamping down on some of the places that have made Chinese coal mining so dangerous. In 2015. summer, economic planners told mines they were not allowed to operate more than 276 days a year. But” at that time “developments were coming together to push prices up. Chinese investors piled into Chinese commodities markets, betting prices would rise. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more speculators rushed in and bought more coal when prices rose. An unusually hot summer and early autumn added to power demand. China’s banking regulators decided to let banks release a flood of mortgages to homebuyers to bolster economic growth. That produced strong demand for electricity from the steel and cement industries. Along the way, China had a run of bad luck. Flooding disrupted mines and rail routes last spring. A government decision to withdraw many trains from service this year for a new safety improvement campaign made it difficult to deliver supplies quickly. As a result, Chinese coal prices almost doubled from the start of this year until early November.

In late 2016, China changed course. It halted most coal trading on commodities markets and encouraged state-owned mines to sign long-term contracts at low prices with power stations. Residents in mining towns are delighted. An avenue here in Jincheng is lined with huge billboards, each carrying the same cheery message: “Coal prices are going up, and miners are smiling.” Zhang, the mine electrician, said that his mine’s workforce had shrunk from 300 two years ago to a maintenance crew of eight early this year, but that it had now expanded to 60 and the mine was still hiring. The mine’s stockpile of coal has nearly vanished. As more coal is hauled up from far underground, it is trucked away within two hours. “Last spring, there were no lines of trucks,” he said. “Now there are so many.”

Closing Coal Mines in China and Questionable Numbers

Michael Lelyveld of Radio Free Asia wrote: In January 2016, the China National Coal Association (CNCA) estimated production capacity at 5.7 billion metric tons, compared with the 3.75 billion tons produced in 2015. The CNCA claims to have shed 560 million tons of capacity and closed 7,250 mines between 2010 and 2015, although China's coal figures have been widely questioned. In 2016, the government set a goal of shutting 4,300 more mines and eliminating 700 million tons of capacity in two to three years. A guideline from the cabinet-level State Council has called for trimming 500 million tons of capacity and consolidating another 500 million among mine operators within three to five years.[Source: Michael Lelyveld, Radio Free Asia, August 15, 2016]

In an unusual report from July 2016, China's top planning agency reminded local governments and state-owned enterprises that they had made only 29 percent of their targeted 2016 capacity cuts by midyear. While several provinces and regions have been on track with mine shutdowns, nine others had made no progress at all, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said. "Chinese authorities are alarmed by the slow progress in reducing overcapacity in the in the coal and steel industries as a temporary market recovery impeded efforts to shut down production," a Xinhua report on Aug. 5 said.

“On Aug. 11, the NDRC ordered local governments and companies to speed up coal mine closures. After seven months, the shutdowns had reached 38 percent of this year's goal of 250 million tons, the agency said. "Local governments should strive to fulfill their targets by the end of November, while central and state-owned coal producers should complete in the early part of that month," said Deputy Director Lian Weiliang. The official statements are a sign that the central government is watching closely as coal producers delay closures to take advantage of rising prices after two years of declining demand.

Image Sources: Westport Schools; BBC; Environmental News; Tropical Island

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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