More people die in the sunless depths of China's coal pits than in any other country's mines. Last year, 5,300 people perished, according to government statistics, and independent analysts say that figure represents only a fraction of all deaths. Embarrassed by its appalling safety record, China's Cabinet finally took action in mid-June, ordering all small state-owned mines to halt production for safety checks and calling for intensified raids against illegal mines, such as the one in Guizhou province that claimed Zhang's husband. Last week, Premier Zhu Rongji visited that desperately poor province to tout the program's success and report that 5,117 small coal mines have been forced to close this year.
But in reality, the government's efforts are little more than black smoke and trick mirrors. Although local cadres have dutifully reported illegal-mine closures, many are secretly being kept open. In desolate places like Guizhou, there is no other way to make money. (Many provincial officials are shareholders in illicit, privately owned mines.) In other areas the ban has been unevenly enforced, creating a deadly problem: as some mine shafts are blocked by government inspectors, those still in operation receive less ventilation, increasing the chances of a gas explosion. Despite Beijing's highly publicized campaign, 3,200 miners have died so far this year—more than during the same period last year. "Nothing has really changed," says Han Dongfang, a self-exiled activist who monitors Chinese labor problems from Hong Kong. "Some mines have been closed, but more are always starting up. The deadly cycle hasn't stopped at all."
Guizhou's sunbaked earth yields little above ground. But just a few meters down, the earth turns black and hard. The coal is tantalizingly easy to reach; so are the lethal pockets of gas that cause explosions or asphyxiate workers. Zhang's husband, Li Zhenhua, had worked for a decade in a cluster of small, illegal mines near his Duck Pond village. Whenever an accident claimed lives, the pit would be ordered to close—but another would invariably open not far away. Much of the illegal mining is done at night to avoid government monitors. In any case, the inspectors don't have to look very hard. The earth around Duck Pond is pockmarked like a lunar landscape with illegal pits. Trucks laden with coal constantly rumble through western Guizhou's villages, leaving a coating of ebony dust on children walking home from school.
At an unlicensed, unnamed mine near the village of Zhongzai, a bedraggled corps of 25 workers doesn't wait for the cover of night: even though the mine is illegal, no one has bothered to come check this remote corner of Bijie township. Blackened, sinewy men pull massive lumps of coal from a slimy tunnel. The miners disappear for up to five hours at a time into the cramped, disorienting dark, crouching low to heave their pickaxes into the crumbling blackness. To pass the time, some light cigarettes, risking a deadly explosion. The pay for a day's work is $1.20. If the miners are lucky, they can take small chunks of coal back home to heat their hearth. Still, Guizhou's able-bodied men clamor for these jobs. "How can the government close the mines?" asks Zhu Hua, 20, who has been working underground for five years. "We need the coal. Everybody does."
Despite its dirty, dangerous legacy, coal is what fuels China. While most other nations ended coal dependence years ago, China is still both the world's largest producer and consumer. Chairman Mao linked his country's future success to the cheap fuel, and from the hearth of the tiniest hut to the boiler rooms of big state-owned factories, coal is king. But decades of overuse have left sooty skies, polluted streams and eroded topsoil levels. Despite a pledge to cut down its contribution to global warming, China is the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases behind the U.S., with a far smaller economy. In winter, neat circles of coal briquettes are piled high outside city apartment blocks, while peasants shovel unprocessed chunks into their furnaces.
Little wonder then that illegal mines mottle the landscape, even if some counties now produce so much that the price of coal has plummeted. With most of the small mines operating at barely profitable levels, workers are rarely supplied with labor contracts or insurance. The only piece of paper regularly produced by mine owners is a document waiving responsibility should any accident happen. Many of the miners are illiterate, so they simply press a black thumb to the disclaimer in lieu of a signature. Widow Zhang was promised compensation for her husband's death two months ago by a municipal official, but she doubts she will get it because her husband's was an illegal mine.
Such accidents do happen with monotonous regularity. In August, there were seven major incidents, claiming 32 lives, in Guizhou alone. Labor activists estimate that for every reported death, there are perhaps three others that are never documented. Remoteness isolates local cadres from responsibility, and they know that a bad safety record could jettison their hopes of promotion. It's the rare case that comes into full light: a few weeks ago, an unusually zealous national media discovered that the deaths of 77 tin mine workers in Guangxi province had been hidden for weeks.
Villagers have heard horror stories of illegal mining companies intimidating victims' families who speak out. In a village in Bijie township, a woman complained to neighbors last month that mine owners didn't pay compensation for her husband's death. The next day, she disappeared. No one has heard from her since. A boy leading his mule past Heguantun village instinctively shakes his head when asked about coal mines in the area. Yet just meters away, in the center of this dusty hamlet, men haul bits of coal out of a narrow shaft. "This is not an illegal mine," insists its affable owner, Yan Lizhe. "It's too small."
Those are precisely the most dangerous ones: small, unregistered and free to operate without safety equipment and supervision. In the wake of the Duck Pond accident, the government closed more than 130 mines in the area, leaving only three officially open. But Guizhou's earth has far more coal to give. Zhang's 15-year-old son, Li Enyong, will likely join the night brigade soon. With his father dead, the family no longer has enough money to send the boy to school. "What else is there for him to do?" asks his mother, her hand resting on her son's shoulder. In Guizhou, the only hope the earth has ever given its people is a black hole.