by Yanping Ni, first-year graduate student in the East Asian Studies program.

In the past months, a documentary titled “Miners, the Horsekeeper, and Pneumoconiosis 矿民, 马夫, 尘肺病” has been very well received on the Chinese website Douban, remaining the number one most discussed film for multiple weeks. Beside the discussion on the Chinese documentary industry, the topic of Pneumoconiosis (also known as “black lung”) has also luckily started being noticed by the public – a neglected occupational disease that has sickened millions of migrant workers in the past decades. To my project, Jiang’s case has been illuminating in at least two aspects. First, Jiang’s filming has crossed a long time-span of nearly ten years, echoing the facts that black lung, medically, takes years to develop, and, historically, should trace back to as early as the 1970s in mainland China. Second, while my original fieldwork plan has been suspended due to COVID-19, Jiang’s work has shown me the allure of secondary sources. Starting from one single piece, I have explored various forms of materials, ranging from official archive, news reports, to audio-visual materials. At the first stage of my research – and also the focus of this short piece – I studied the state record of mining industry in Shanxi Province (Shanxi Coal Mining Chorography 山西煤炭工业志) and related news articles, and remotely interviewed miners who previously worked in the areas. By comparatively studying the grand industry history and personal experience, the goal is to decipher the historical and political implications embedded in black lung patients’ individual sufferings. Above all, the occupational disease of black lung is a historical problem rather than a contemporary one, a systemic one rather than one individual one.

Based on my reading of the Chorography, I would share two main findings. First, abrupt on-site accident and chronic occupational disease such as black lung are two distinctive yet equally harmful types of violence that damage miner’s safety and health, but attention to the former usually overshadows the latter. On-site explosion is violent but incidental, meaning that it does not happen to all the miners. Each of these accidents is easy to distinguish and then be well recorded in historical accounts. By comparison, harm caused to human bodies by the dust at the mine sites usually takes years to show and then probably many hospital visits to be correctly diagnosed. In addition, although there is no exact number telling what percentage of previous miners have caught this disease, its current large number of confirmed cases (870,000) arguably illustrates that a majority of previous workers in the mining industry has been suffering from it. The black lung is much more frequent than explosion but scarcely recorded. Second, there could exist a gap between the regulations and its implementation. Both the safety bureau and the regulations were well established, but to what extent these were in effect in the real situations remains a question – one can hardly be answered by this type of official document. What in reality happened to those coal miners? Were those regulations really so well obeyed as suggested by the state documents? What personal experiences can be told alongside the industry history and economic triumph? Seeking a different perspective to unfold those untold stories has facilitated my initial motivation to further consult news reportage and oral accounts.

On June 22, 2002, a mine explosion accident in the Fanzhi County of Shanxi Province shocked the whole country. It took place at one mine located at the north side of Wutai Mountain, one of the 33 mines in the same mountain. At the time of explosion, there were 40 workers under the ground. The accident consequently killed 37 of them. According to the Xinhua News Agency, the immediate cause for the accident was that the mine operator illegally placed explosives in the pit, which was already dangerous enough.[1] Even worse, the operator did not allow the workers to stop the underground work once he saw the dense smoke coming from the mines, thus delaying the rescue and sacrificing more lives. Right after the accident, all the mines at that mountain were “cleaned up.” Most surprisingly, this horrifying accident did not happen at a TVE (township- and village-owned enterprise) that used to be thought of irresponsible and unregulated; rather, it took place at a so-called well-regulated SOE (state-owned enterprise). In fact, all the 33 mines at that mountain were possessed by the Yizhai Mine Corporation, one of the largest SOEs in Shanxi Province. This fact quickly raised doubts about the dual system of SOEs and TVEs that has developed since the 80s. Since then the chaotic management of operation system in the mining industry got revealed.

Other than the owner and the miner, contractor is an essential role throughout the whole system. Contractors are media between the state and the workers. They obtained the right of extraction from the SOEs – a process that usually involves corruption. At most cases, these contractors did not really have official certificates that legitimated their execution rights. Their power over the mines was largely based on oral consent from the SOEs as well as their ability to gain “prestige” among the workers. Once they tagged themselves as the “boss,” those contractors were then endowed with supreme power to decide almost everything about the extraction. To finish the tasks assigned by the state, they hired the miners, arranged working schedule and living conditions, and decided salaries, among other matters relevant to extractive activities. However, although these contractors got paid by the enterprise, their arrangements at the mine did not have to follow the company regulations at all, including how much they should pay the workers. As a consequence of these contractors’ absolute power, workers’ payment shrunk to a minimum; workers took up extremely long shifts and suffered from very poor conditions; workers did not have labor contract nor legal rights to protect themselves. Among the 33 mines at the mountain that was cleaned up after the June 22 explosion, 32 were in operation of private contractors, although all of them were the state property.[2] Moreover, in most cases, there was more than one contractor involved in the relationship between the state and the workers. The riches would obtain the extraction right at a large mine or several mines from the state, and then hire more contractors to break down their production goals. Thus, there was a hierarchy of contractors, governed by which most SOE miners fell into a complex “SOEs-contractors-workers” relationship and had no better conditions than those at the TVEs.  

Liu’s Diary

Liu is a witness of the June 22 accident. He worked at many mines in Shanxi Province from 1992 to 2002. At the time of the explosion, he was a miner in the Yizhai Mine Corporation. His workplace was one next to the accident mine. Probably the best out of the worst, he was hospitalized because of an early injury (irrelevant to the explosion). He was not directly affected by the accident but lost his job after the Wutai Mountain was cleaned up. The accident turned out the end to his life as a miner. Recalling his years of working experience in Shanxi, he said, “it was a world governed by scoundrels. It was not part of a legal society.” At the time he left Shanxi, unsurprisingly, Liu did not get the salary earlier promised by the contractor; years after returning to his hometown and working as a farmer, he was diagnosed with black lung yet not able to receive any compensation due to lack of proof of previous employment relationship. The disease has deprived Liu of his labor capacity, and thus ability as a breadwinner in the family. Once most responsibilities have fallen on his wife, Liu has to suffer from a loss of dignity in addition to the weakening physical health (With his consent, I share his personal written account here. Please see Figure 1-3).

Drawing from this consequence – his current life with the incurable disease and low self-esteem – I “revisited” that “world governed by scoundrels” through his accounts. High salary, compared to other labor-intensive industry, is acknowledged as the main reason for people’s choice of working at mines. However, according to Liu, he never got paid as much as promised. The salary was mostly measured by extraction meters. It ranged from 300 to 500 CNY (Chinese Yuan) per meter. The contractor indeed cast accounts with workers based on their workload every month, but never accordingly paid them. Workers could be given a few hundred yuan sometimes as “pocket money.” At the Spring Festival, they might receive one or two thousand yuan for expenses in the holiday celebration. However, the actual salary was always merely numbers on the contractor’s notebook. They were “promised” and continued accumulating, thus trapping the workers into keeping on their positions in the hope of finally getting all the owed salary. Sometimes workers did firmly ask to get their payment, but they were always responded with small amount of “pocket money” and excuses like “the contractor did not receive the money from the enterprise yet.” After the June 22 explosion, Liu was told by his contractor that their mine went bankrupt so the contractor simply could not afford the salary. Liu recalled, “I was in deep despair, once I realized that I ended up working there for nothing for ten years.”

What made these contractors so “audacious”? Two reasons can be summarized from Liu’s narrative. First, these contractors had strong connections in the local, whether with the government or the gangsters, while workers usually came from other parts of the country and had no one to resort to for – legal or illegal ­– assistance. Liu mentioned that some workers who resolutely requested to get their deserved salary were “punished” by the contractor. Second, except for a small proportion that were directly employed by the enterprise, most miners in Shanxi back then were uncontracted labor, meaning that they were not protected by the law. The salary was only orally negotiated between the contractor and the workers. Back then China was at the beginning stage of building a so-call legal society, and it was almost impossible for these workers, most of whom had little education background, to realize the significance of labor contract (even today, unfortunately). Their work was based on trust in the contractor since the job was introduced by acquaintances. Even if a worker requested to sign a contract, he would simply be fired. Pressured by a series of illegal arrangements, workers had to follow the rules if they wanted to keep their jobs.

By comparison, Cao’s life as a miner was a bit “luckier” than Liu’s. Longer and later than Liu, Cao worked at mine sites for 13 years, from 1997 to 2010. Cao recalled that in the 1990s his salary could be as high as 3,000 yuan, and this increased to around 7,000 yuan in the 2000s. Cao had work experiences at both SOEs and TVEs. Better than Liu’s situation, Cao got most of his salaries. A loose comparison between these two cases has shown that there is simply no standard in the payment, whether in the SOEs or TVEs. However, Cao’s and Liu’s working and living conditions were similar, which I believe describes the average cases back to the 1990s and early 2000s. Mines had to be in operation 24 hours every day, with ceaseless rotations between workers in charge of different tasks. Cao was responsible for the drilling. Most of his shifts lasted more than 10 hours and obviously he had no vacation. He had to go for sleep right after each shift, as he might be called back to work at any minute if other work such as shipping and loading was done. Most mines were in the middle of nowhere, so work and sleep became the only activities in miners’ daily life. They simply slept in the “shelters” next to the mines temporarily built by wood and plastics. Located in the north of China, it is extremely cold and windy in winter in Shanxi. Workers could only warm themselves by burning coals. For the meals, each site hired a cook who prepared the typical mess-hall food (daguofan 大锅饭). In addition, meals were not free. The contractor counted the costs of meals on the workers’ salaries, which was either already meager or no more than numbers.

Most relevant to our topic of black lung, there was barely any protection against the intensive dust at the mine sites in the beginning. Liu recalled that every time he came up from the underground mine, the dust on his face could accumulate up to 4- or 5- millimeter thick. Approximately into the 2000s, the workers started to consciously protect themselves. Cao and his co-workers began wearing facemasks since 2005, but the costs were subtracted by the contractor from their salaries. Liu started wearing facemasks since the late 1990s. Yet, rather than a requirement, workers purchased masks by themselves. Nevertheless, the actual functions of the facemasks were questionable. Most miners could only afford cheap, low-quality, and dispensable ones, and they kept wearing the same ones until they were worn-out. Ultimately, the miners’ basic needs could not be fulfilled, let alone protection and safety education. By contrast to the regulations stated in the Chorography, the real situation was that, whether the SOEs or TVEs, the management at the mine sites was totally chaotic and random.

[1] “‘Economic Half Hour’ Reporter Went to Shanxi Fanzhi Mine Disaster Investigation” (《经济半小时》记者亲历山西繁峙矿难调查).CCTV.

[2] “Deadly Accusation: Shanxi Fanzhi 6.22 Mine Disaster Tracking” (死不瞑目的控诉——山西繁峙6·22矿难追踪). The Xinhua News Agency.