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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 14:39 GMT
China's mining film noir
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News Online

"China has a shortage of everything but people," says one character in Li Yang's film Blind Shaft.

Life is cheap in Yang's feature, which opened in London cinemas this week. It shines a searchlight on the shocking conditions and endemic corruption in parts of China's mining industry, which has probably the worst safety record in the world.

The film's two main protagonists, grizzled miners Song and Tang, have a lucrative scam going.

Yuan Fengming
Blind Shaft evokes a brutal world of poverty and corruption
They help jobless migrants find work by passing them off as their relatives, kill them down the mine and pretend it was an accident, and then extract money from the mine's managers as a reward for not squealing to the authorities.

"Next time, it's your turn to mourn," Tang tells Song after they have killed the film's first unsuspecting victim.

The film at first seems a critique of modern China's unchecked capitalism and people's rush to get rich.

But the plot thickens when their next prey - the innocent and ineffectual teenager Yuan Fengming - turns out to be an ultimately tougher proposition.

The film is deftly done, with glittering cinematography and grim humour. But its theme is as dark as coal, all the more haunting because the corruption which underpins it is not just a plot device, but a reflection of a typical day at many Chinese mines.

"The issue of owners trying to pay off compensation to cover up accidents, that is quite common," said Dominique Muller of the Hong Kong-based rights group, China Labour Bulletin (CLB).

Back-handers may be expensive, but not as costly as having the mine shut down or being forced to pay statutory compensation.

People are obviously wanting to make a profit, and safety equipment is expensive
Dominique Muller, China Labour Bulletin

And there are some startling examples of mine owners taking drastic action to avoid paying compensation altogether.

In May 2002, according to China's official media, 21 miners were trapped by an explosion in a mine in the north-west of the country. But instead of attempting to rescue them, the mine's owner destroyed employee records and whitewashed over scorch marks, leaving them to die.

And last June in northern China, the bodies of 36 miners who had been killed in a blast in a gold mine were found to have been hidden in an attempt to cover up the accident.

Such cases are probably rare. But for China's mines generally - their profit margins squeezed by competition and over-supply - safety records appear to be getting worse.

According to official statistics, in the first nine months of this year, 11,499 people died in mining accidents. That compares to about 6,000 deaths for the whole of 2002.

And these figures do not include incidents which go unreported or are covered up.

According to the CLB, two-thirds of all accidents occur in small, privately-run enterprises which have mushroomed since China started effecting economic reforms two decades ago.

Although illegal mines and those failing safety inspections have been ordered to close down, they often start up again straight away.

Local officials, eager for tax revenues, are bought off by the mines' owners, and there are few inspectors available to check the situation.

Even if the local government knows of the mine, they might not know how many miners work there, making an accident all the easier to cover up, said Ms Muller.

Wang Suangbao as Tang and Li Yixiang as Song in Blind Shaft
Money unites then divides the two miners

The CLB said that the cheapest and easiest way for the local authorities to enforce safety guidelines was from "the bottom up" - using the miners themselves.

But, in a country where all independent unions are forbidden, this is delicate ground.

"A grass roots method would be a low cost and very immediate method that they could use, but in a way their reluctance to do that is linked to the lack of freedom of association in China," said Ms Muller.

And in any case, the miners have a vested interest in keeping the mines alive too.

It may be a hard life, but many are former farmers whose land has been swallowed up by China's economic modernisation. Many feel they have no choice but to go down the pit.

In one telling exchange in Blind Shaft, Li Yang underlines the miners' status at the very bottom of Chinese society.

Tang complains that the prostitutes they visit earn far more than they do.

"You just spread your legs," he says.

China's miners know they risk losing theirs.

Workplace deaths rise in China
23 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
China suffers another mine blast
20 Aug 03  |  Asia-Pacific
China reveals mine disaster cover-up
30 May 02  |  Asia-Pacific

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