When a flooding disaster occurred at a coal mine in Shanxi Province just over a week ago, there were no obstacles to news coverage outside Shanxi itself – no central government bans, no stipulations about using only official news agency coverage. The story was fair game. But to read Chinese newspapers, you might media had been straight-jacketed into using official releases. Not only was nearly everything from Xinhua News Agency – it was from one very busy Xinhua reporter named Chen Zhonghua (陈忠华). [PHOTO: Rescue workers rest during the rescue operation for a startlingly similar disaster last year, also in Shanxi’s Zuoyun County, The Beijing News].

So what went wrong? Faced with a great story – about human tragedy, about greed and deadly collusion between business and local officials, about a failed national policy of no-tolerance – and given virtual carte blanche to cover it, why did Chinese media sit on their hands and wait for the next Xinhua release?

“We feel desensitized (审丑疲劳) to these mine disaster stories,” one editor at a major Chinese newsmagazine told the China Media Project when asked why they had not sent their own reporters to Shanxi. There had simply been too many mining stories like this in China, he said, and journalists and readers alike had grown tired of them. Given presumed lack of interest, there was no profit in the story, and therefore no reason to mobilize resources to cover it.

The dearth of independent coverage of the Xining Coal Mine accident underscores a new and growing challenge facing the public interest news story in China – commercial considerations. In China political controls have been, and are still, the major stumbling block in the way of journalists. But while government orders and bans continue to place strict controls on what media can and cannot cover, intensifying commercial pressures are leading some to discard even those stories that are fair game.

Official proclamations on the Xining Coal Mine accident have been strong and have come regularly. Just yesterday, newspapers across China reported a speech by the country’s top work safety official, Li Yizhong (李毅中), on the disaster in Shanxi. He spoke directly about the role of corrupt local officials in poor mine safety nationwide. The report of the speech was, not surprisingly, from Xinhua. Here is a portion of the story as it appeared in Sichuan’s Huaxi Dushibao (华西都市报):

(Xinhua) — As the investigation deepens into the severe flooding accident at the Xining Coal Mine in Shanxi’s Zuoyun County, more behind-the-scenes details are now coming to light. During the meeting forming the State Council’s Accident Investigation Group (国务院事故调查组), the head of that group and director of the State Administration of Work Safety, Li Yizhong (李毅中) said the Xining Coal Mine made several legal violations in its management of resources, production, safety, explosives, business and other areas, and actually showed “the five poisons all at once” (五毒俱全). What was most peculiar [said Director Li] was that this coal mine of “five poisons” had managed to have all six of the necessary official stamps (六证齐全) …

The existence of such a phenomenon thoroughly shows the loopholes present in the carrying out of inspection measures and other areas at the local level, and shows that in implementing the State Council’s spirit in such areas as safety inspection and clean-up of coal mines, low-level offices often talk loudly but implement nothing … showing that many cadres at many local governments make a superficial show of “severity”, while stealthily serving as an umbrella of protection [for illegal behavior].

Great stuff. But, again, no one is rushing to cover it. In fact, since the story appeared in the Chinese media on May 21, most newspapers have differentiated their “coverage” in only very minute ways, through headlines, layout and editorials.

As a kind of baseline, here is the May 21 report of the disaster in Beijing Daily, using Chen Zhonghua’s Xinhua report. Notice use of the word “accident”:

According to a May 21 release from Xinhua News Agency (reporter Chen Zhonghua/陈忠华) – According to early assessments by the emergency team on the scene, a flooding accident occurred at the Xinjing Coal Mine in Shanxi’s Zuoyun County, [which is under the jurisdiction of] Datong City, Jiazhang Village, on May 18 at 8:30pm. Up to now an estimated 44 miners are trapped inside. The reported discovered from the emergency team on the scene that when the accident occurred, there were 145 miners in the mine, of which 101 exited the mine on their own, leaving 44 trapped inside. On the afternoon of May 20, the Safety Inspection Bureau and other government offices started receiving calls from informants, who said that when the accident occurred on the 18th there were more than [the reported] 5 people in the mine and that the mine’s owners had kept the situation under wraps. The appropriate offices took the matter very seriously, and State Administration of Work Safety director Li Yizhong (李毅中), Shanxi Party Secretary Zhang Baoxun (张宝顺) and Shanxi Governor Yu Youjun (于幼军) went to the scene to direct the emergency effort. At the same time, they opened an investigation into the cause of the accident. On May 20 the reporter learned in a phone call to the head of the Shanxi Work Safety Office, Gong Anku (巩安库), that after the accident happened, the figure in charge of mining operations fled. According to escaped miners, there were probably more than five workers below, and that after the accident occurred, the mine boss took a taxi from one of the miner’s relatives and headed from Inner Mongolia. Taking all the above factors together, the Shanxi Work Safety Office believes a [criminal] cover-up may be involved. Nine of the mine’s principals have already been detained by public security officers.

On May 22, Beijing Daily ran a second Xinhua release making an adjustment to the number of miners supposed to be trapped:

According to a May 21 release from Xinhua News Agency (reporter Chen Zhonghua/陈忠华) – This reporter learned from the emergency team for the Xinjing Coal Mine flooding accident in Shanxi’s Zuoyun Country that the number of miners trapped in the accident has risen to 57. According to the latest findings of the team’s investigative group, the number of miners trapped might be 57, up 13 from the estimate of 44 given on May 20. As required by the Safety Inspection Bureau, the Shanxi Party Committee and the provincial government, the investigative group of the emergency team is working with family members to determine the number of miners trapped and produce a detailed list of names.

Follow these links to see how Associated Press and Reuters used the same releases from Xinhua.

Nanfang Daily, Guangdong’s provincial paper with a reputation for pushing the limits just a bit farther than most of its counterparts, ran the same Xinhua release on May 22, merely adding a touch of exasperation to the headline: “Number Trapped in Zuoyun Mine Disaster Keeps Going Up: 5? 44? 57!” Notice also the reference to “disaster” here, which plays up the news more than the Beijing Daily version.

But rare editorials were the strongest expressions of “independence”. Here is the finish of a Nanfang Daily editorial appearing May 24 and calling for “punitive damages” to be levied on negligent mine bosses:

Indeed, the abhorrent cover-up at Zuoyun reminds our lawmakers (立法者), that mine bosses and managers who cover up the circumstances [of accidents] and prolong emergency efforts should be forced to pay punitive damages on top of the usual disaster compensation, even if it means the personal ruin of mine bosses. Only in this way, can we discourage people from challenging the law and the government on mine safety issues to protect their own financial gains.

The first papers to come out with their own editorial takes on the disaster, though, were Southern Metropolis Daily and Sichuan Daily, both on May 23. Here is Southern Metropolis Daily [See also PDF at top of page]:

Collusion Between Officials and Coal Industry Means Failure of “Iron Fisted” Clean-up [Policy]

Just as coal mine safety seemed to be taking a turn for the better and [mine] disaster reports had quieted down, the Xining Coal Mine flooding accident happened on May 18 in Shanxi’s Zuoyun County, bringing the issue of mine disasters once again before the public eye. This is an accident of an odious nature. It is abhorrent not because the mine boss is more heartless, the safety inspection system more ineffective, or the number of dead greater [than previous disasters]. It is abhorrent because the central government has been pushing its no-tolerance (铁腕) policy on the clean up of the coal industry for more than a year now – and then to have such a disaster, no less dark, no less ineffective, no less deadly. If we can say that anything at all has changed, we can say only that the means for covering up such disasters have increased.

We have already seen some results from the no-tolerance clean-up policy for safe production at coal mines, that much is certain. But the disaster at the Xining Coal Mine once again tells us with the lives of miners that complex local interest and departmental interests can make the implementation process fail for lack of final effort … [Social] advantages must be balanced equitably. How we can develop a comprehensive system for equitably balancing social advantages, truly making an iron-fisted clean-up as strong as iron, safeguarding safety — this question is much more urgent even than the emergency effort on the scene [in Shanxi].

The only other notable difference among mainland coverage was an apparent news blackout in effect in Shanxi Province, the site of the disaster. Although CMP has not obtained a provincial-level news ban on the Xining Coal Mine disaster, a ban can be inferred from the silence of local media. Shanxi Daily, the mouthpiece of the provincial party committee, did not report the disaster until May 23, a full three days after the first Xinhua releases were available. The interest in controlling the news locally is not surprising considering local party congress and other positions and due for a change-over this year. Here is the initial Shanxi Daily report:

7 people in criminal detention, 9 high-power water pumps to be delivered today

May 22 (reporter Zhao Zhicheng/赵志成) – After two days fighting bravely day-and-night, the Zuoyun County “5*18” mine flooding accident has been designated an accident of great proportions (特别重大事故), involving cover up by the mine boss of numbers of people [injured], illegal mining beyond designated deposits, serious over-mining with excessive personnel, power and degree, and chaotic workforce and safety management. The mine boss’s concealment of the accident was a vile act that bungled the most opportune time for emergency efforts, placing accident response efforts in an extremely difficult position. As of 12pm today, the emergency team raised the number of workers trapped in the mine to 57 from the previous 44. Seven people suspected of involvement [in the cover-up] have been taken into criminal detention, and other people involved in the case are being sought.

In the last two days, the emergency effort has been a race against time. Tongmei Group (同煤集团), Fenxi Mining Group (汾西矿业集团) and Qi, Linyi and Tunliu counties have, without asking for any compensation, contributed people and equipment, allowing for great headway in the emergency effort. Lately, six water pumps have been employed at the site, and three more are now being installed. It is estimated that by the 23rd, 9 water pumps will be in use, with a total drainage capacity of 1,200 cubic metres per hour.

Appropriate offices in [nearby] Datong City and Zuyun County are arranging aftercare for the families of the trapped miners. At the same time, environmental offices are monitoring the water quality in the area.

On May 24, six days after the disaster, the story finally made the front page of Shanxi Daily. Below is an image of the front page. The article on the Xining disaster runs above the central photograph, an unrelated and uplifting image of schoolchildren in the classroom. The headline reads: “Speeding Up Rescue Work/Seeking Those Responsible”:

mining.gif

China’s coalmining industry has the world’s worst safety record, with about 6,000 deaths at mines every year, according to an Associated Press report. In mid-2005, Chinese officials urged more spending on mine safety after government statistics showed 1,113 workers had died in mining accidents in just the first three months of the year.

[Posted by David Bandurski, May 30, 2006, 11:51am]