By Michael Lelyveld
BOSTON—As China tries to halt its latest rash of coal mining accidents, the government appears to be reaching out to show workers that it shares their concerns.
At least 55 miners died in five accidents July 17-18, according to state media reports.
A series of fires, explosions, and floods struck mines in Shaanxi, Henan, Hunan, Gansu, and Liaoning provinces, the official Xinhua news agency said.
The deadly wave comes despite steady improvements in China's safety record.
Last year, fatalities fell 17 percent to 2,681, according to the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety.
Analysts say the drop is significant, considering that China has tripled coal production to some 3 billion tons over the last decade.
"There's been a reduction from something over four fatalities per million tons in 1996-97 to around one fatality per million tons last year, so it is a dramatic improvement," said Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at Scotland's University of Dundee.
But a string of accidents this year has continued to highlight conditions in the world's deadliest coal industry.
In March, international attention focused on China after 153 miners were trapped underground in northern Shanxi province.
A dramatic rescue freed 115 workers from the flooded shaft in April, but 50 more died within three days of the accident at mines in Henan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
In April, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) said the improving trend had reversed as 592 mining deaths in the first quarter climbed 16 percent from a year earlier.
In May, at least 80 miners were killed in seven accidents reported by Xinhua.
On July 9, Premier Wen Jiabao issued an unusually strong statement to mine bosses after an explosion killed another 47 workers at an unlicensed pit in Henan on June 21.
At a State Council meeting, Wen ordered managers to "descend into mine pits with workers" and work regular shifts alongside them to assure safety.
But from reports of the fatalities on July 17-18, it appears that Wen's orders were ignored.
There was no sign that managers were in the pits during the fires and explosions.
On July 23, the State Council issued a circular, requiring the presence of at least one senior manager underground with workers at all times.
Violators are subject to administrative punishment and fines, said the official English-language China Daily newspaper.
In the case of the Shaanxi accident, which killed 28 at the Xiaonangu mine in Hancheng City in July, the owner was detained.
A deputy mayor was fired, and the deputy director of the coal industry's municipal bureau was ordered to resign.
Analysts say that Wen's statement may have been a message for workers rather than bosses, aimed at showing that the government sympathizes with the miners' plight.
"When President Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao came into power, they said they were there to look after the people, and this is Wen reminding us that he has a caring government," Andrews-Speed said.
The statement may also reflect a concern that the recent wage hikes and labor demands in coastal cities could have a major impact on China's coal-dependent economy if the trend spreads to migrant workers, who bear much of the risk in the country's mines.
"I think it could be both an economic problem and an energy security problem," said Robert Ebel, senior adviser to the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"What happens if all of a sudden miners drop their tools and stay away?"
Reliance on coal
So far, China's 5.5 million coal workers, mostly migrant laborers, haven't mounted strikes such as those at China's auto plants and some other industries.
But coal is the major resource on which all other industries depend.
On July 20, the National Energy Administration (NEA) said China has targeted a 7 percent cut in the country's reliance on coal by 2015.
Last year, coal represented 70 percent of the country's total energy consumption, the NEA said.
But even with the reduction, China would remain highly vulnerable to disruptions in coal production.
"What would the government do? Can it order workers back into the mines and say you've got to go back because it's a national security issue?" Ebel asked.
Migrant miners are seen as having few alternatives, since the work has paid relatively high wages.
But the government's heightened attention to safety conditions may be a sign of concern about possible labor unrest.
Earlier this year, migrant workers sparked labor shortages in some coastal cities by returning to jobs in the interior, where living costs are lower.
"If the workers in the coal industry started to cause organized trouble, this would be a severe energy supply problem for the country," Andrews-Speed said.