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Deadliest mines shame China

China miner
China has world's deadliest mines and is only beginning to correct the problem  

By Jaime Florcruz
Beijing Bureau Chief

BEIJING, China -- Several days after China pledged to tighten safety standards in mines and factories, fatal disasters continue.

More than 200 people were trapped inside the Longquan Mine in southern province of Guangxi on July 16, when miners digging a new shaft apparently struck an abandoned well.

News of the accident emerged only this week amid allegations of a cover-up.

The official Wenhui Daily reported that more than 70 dead bodies had been found so far.

The newspaper said water quickly filled the mine, blocking escape routes. Rescuers have found more than 70 bodies and already brought half to the surface for identification by their families, it said.

But the central government's industrial safety bureau said it checked the report and found there was no accident.

A bureau spokeswoman said the report was "completely fabricated." Officials at the mine also denied there was an accident.

If the death toll goes as high as feared, the accident would be one of the worst in China's mining industry, which already has a dismal history of deadly incidents.

Only last week, an explosion at a coal mine in eastern Jiangsu left 105 dead or missing and feared dead.

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Sadly, these disasters have become all too common. China's mines are the world's deadliest, with explosions, floods and other accidents killing thousands every year.

Dickensian conditions

Overworked and underpaid laborers typically work in Dickensian conditions. Mines often lack safety equipment and operate illegally, sometimes employing inexperienced and illiterate farmers.

Accidents at mines, factories and public places killed 47,000 people in the first half of this year, the official Xinhua News Agency reported last week.

What is remarkably unusual of late is that officials are now finding it more and more difficult to cover up these accidents.

Enterprising journalists, for example, reported the Guangxi accident for several Chinese newspapers and websites, prompting official feedback.

Allegations of cover-up

The Shanghai Youth Daily said its reporter was initially blocked from approaching the mine as part of what it alleged was a cover-up of the accident.

It claimed the mine owner paid $2,500 to victims' families to keep them from talking.

The Yangzi Evening News, based in the eastern city of Nanjing, on Tuesday buttresses allegations of cover-up.

The state-run paper said: "It's very common in China that large accidents are not reported, especially those involving private owners and relevant government offices."

Officials at the mine said after the first media accounts of the disaster on Monday that the reports were rumors spread by people envious of the mine's owner, Li Dongming. Li is a well-known and well-connected private entrepreneur in Guangxi province.

An investigation team was reportedly set up Tuesday to probe the latest mining tragedy amid claims of a cover-up, police and reports said. A local mining bureau confirmed it was investigating the incident.

What emboldened local reporters not to toe the official line? Aside from the natural urge to boost circulation and advertisements, they are also egged on by subtle winks from Beijing's top leaders.

Punish officials

Fearing public backlash, the central government has recently started holding local officials responsible for fatal accidents.

Premier Zhu Rongji earlier this year vowed to punish government officials, all the way up to provincial governors, if found negligent in failing to prevent deadly accidents.

He has carried out his threat, causing alarm among government officials.

Cheng Andong, the communist party boss of southern Jiangxi province, who holds a rank higher than the governor, was replaced shortly after 42 people, mostly children, were killed on March 6 in an explosion at a Jiangxi primary school where pupils were forced to assemble fireworks.

The central government also replaced the communist party boss and deputy party secretary in the northeastern city of Shijiazhuang following a string of explosions that killed at least 108 people in the city.

The fact that errant Chinese officials can now be held accountable is no small progress in the People's Republic.

But that is no consolation for the hundreds of disaster victims and their families.

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