China Tackling Corruption, Safety Concerns in Coal Production

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Recognizing that rampant collusion between local officials and private mine owners is the main reason for poor safety conditions in China's coal mines, the central government has stepped-up efforts to root out this corruption. Among other moves, it has begun shutting down illegal coalmines, ordering local officials to withdraw their investments in mines, and strictly punishing officials who attempt to circumvent government investigations. As of late October, some 3,200 of the estimated 4,578 officials who had shares in coal mines (totaling some 653 million yuan, or US $80.5 million) had retracted these stakes. By early November, 473 million yuan ($56 million) in shares had been withdrawn, according to Chen Changzhi, Vice-Minister of Supervision.

Collusion between officials and mine owners is a key obstacle to implementing mine safety regulations in China. Local officials, lured by huge profits in the coal industry, have abused their power to protect the owners of illegal collieries. Lacking basic safety equipment, these illicit operations witness thousands of accidents every year. In the first half of 2005, China reported 1,399 colliery accidents, resulting in the deaths of 2,672 miners, according to the China Work Safety Administration. The toll has since risen with recent explosions in the northern province of Shanxi and in central China's Hunan Province, which claimed an additional 15 lives.

To date, the Work Safety Administration has ordered more than 7,000 small coal mines to suspend operation until safety approvals are given, though some local governments are still seeking to circumvent the order. Given the huge rewards from under-the-table transactions, officials in regions such as Inner Mongolia have been reluctant to retract their stakes in collieries. In an October 17 survey by China Youth Daily, more than half of respondents considered it unrealistic for the central government to be able to crack down on the rampant coal industry corruption in just one move.