China, confronting another large-scale coal mine disaster, reported Thursday that an illegally operated mine in which more than 120 workers apparently drowned deep underground was partly owned by local officials.
The connection between the Daxing Coal Mine and officials in Xingning suggested an explanation for the local government's tolerance of overproduction, mismanagement and safety lapses that investigators said contributed to the tragedy. The revelation added urgency to an expanding investigation of malfeasance in the latest of a series of mining disasters in China.
The provincial government of Guangdong, where Xingning is located, ordered 69 officials with authority over private mining operations such as Daxing to make themselves available to investigators, and two mayors were suspended. Premier Wen Jiabao's office announced that the central government would lead the inquiry. A senior official from the Communist Party's Central Discipline Inspection Commission also flew to Daxing to participate.
Officials said virtually no hope remained for the miners, who were trapped in a shaft more than 900 feet underground when the flooding began early Sunday afternoon. In all, 127 workers were on the job when water rushed into the shaft from a previously worked cavity that had filled up with seepage. Four workers escaped. Of the remaining 123, one body has been found, the official New China News Agency quoted officials as saying.
Relatives of the miners, many of whom were migrant workers from poor areas of the country, traveled to Xingning, 200 miles northeast of Hong Kong, seeking news of their loved ones. In such cases, the government usually arranges for the mining company to pay compensation to survivors, a practice that has become sadly familiar in recent years as the number of accidents has multiplied.
Unsafe operations and lax enforcement of safety rules, often accompanied by bribes, have plagued coal mines in China as owners seek to maximize production to meet soaring energy demands and take advantage of high prices. As a result, coal mines here have become the world's most dangerous, with a steady rhythm of underground explosions and floods. About 2,700 Chinese coal miners have been killed in the first half of this year and more than 6,000 were killed in 2004, according to government statistics.
The government's seeming inability to resolve the problem has become a political liability for Wen and President Hu Jintao. The political impact is particularly high because many Chinese openly speculate that mine owners would not be able to disregard safety rules without cooperation from government officials.
As in the Xingning case, such concerns often have been verified during the course of investigations. After a gas explosion killed 18 coal miners in March, for instance, official media revealed that a local work safety official was part owner of the facility.
"Many local governments rely heavily on coal mines as a source of revenue, so they tend to turn a blind eye to safety in dangerous mines," the official China Daily said in an editorial Thursday. "Some crooked local officials and their relatives even have personal stakes in mines. Mine owners are sure they will be shielded by local governments, knowing all to well how the system works."
Across China, such intersection between private business interests and the Communist Party bureaucracy has become a major source of corruption among officials and resentment among common people. It was the underlying cause of a major riot that broke out in June in Chizhou, a farming hub in Anhui province.
The Daxing mine had received a license to continue production last June, officials reported. But Li Yizhong, head of the National Work Safety Supervision and Administration Bureau, told the official news agency that the license should not have been granted given the mine's operating conditions.