Editor’s Note: A story from the Associated Press yesterday reported how a display by Chile at Shanghai’s World Expo that highlights the country’s recent success in rescuing 33 trapped miners has raised questions among visiting Chinese about China’s own appalling safety record. “I have to say they respect human life and human rights more than us . . . China should learn from Chile, not just rescue skills, but also their inner spirit,” the AP quoted a retired Chinese professor as remarking after seeing the exhibit. As the AP also noted, the official Xinhua News Agency has reported on the exhibit and the lessons it holds for China. In the following piece, written for China Reform, Yan Changhai (颜昌海), a Shenzhen-based freelance writer and former official, talks about the lessons the recent mining disaster in Chile has for China and its political system. [Frontpage photo by Gwydion Williams available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]
What Lessons Does the Mine Disaster in Chile Have for China?
By Yan Changhai (颜昌海)
October 21, 2010
When an earthquake struck Chile earlier this year, Chinese internet users took this occasion to compare the disaster to China’s Wenchuan earthquake. They pointed out that Chile’s quake measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, its intensity surpassing that of the Sichuan quake. Moreover, its destructiveness was 15 times that of the Wenchuan quake. But only 800 people died in Chile, compared to close to 90,000 in China, meaning the loss of life was more than 100 times greater than in Chile. The reason for this dramatic difference was that Chile has “the world’s strictest” building standards, and these are strictly enforced. So homes in the country are solid and earthquake resistant. In China, many of the buildings that collapsed, schools in particular, were so-called tofu suds structures of inferior quality. Chile’s democratic system, and its robust market economy, a legacy of the Pinochet years, was also distinct advantages over China in terms of disaster relief.
The recent mine collapse in Chile that drew the attention of the world, in which 33 miners trapped underground for 69 days were all rescued, has once again stood in marked contrast to China’s own handling of mining-related disasters, underscoring for many the differences between the systems and governments in these two countries.
First of all, after the mineshaft collapsed, the government in Chile pursued the matter with full force, not slacking in their rescue efforts regardless of how many days it had been since contact had been made with the miners. In China, we have never seen a case in the event of a mining disaster where the government has treated the situation as a priority above priorities. Chinese internet users remarked that in situations like this (where for half a month there had been not a whisper from the miners), if occurring in China, authorities would have long ago pronounced the miners dead. In Chile, [they said], miners “rose out of the shaft” (were saved, that is), while in China they could only “rise to heaven” (or die beneath the ground).
Secondly, when the miners in Chile were located, they had already been underground for 17 days, and the reason they could survive for so long was that a safety chamber had been prepared deep in the mine, equipped with supplies of oxygen, water and food. In China, miners inform us that they have never seen hide or hair, nor have they ever heard, of the preparation of such things as “safety chambers.” So in the event that mines do collapse, there is no oxygen, no water, no food, and no way to survive for any length of time. When you add to this the number of small, privately operated mines in China that are flouting safety standards, you get China’s world-topping annual statistics for death in mining disasters. In 2009, official Chinese figures put the number of mining deaths at 2,631 (in the US the number was 34). The numbers were highest for 2002, when China had 6,995 deaths in mining disasters. Experts say, however, that the real numbers are higher than those in official figures.
Third, when the mining disaster occurred in Chile, President Sebastian Pinera, who was on a state visit overseas, returned immediately, and he went quickly to the scene to be with the family members of the miners. He stayed in a temporary shelter right outside the mine and personally directed the rescue effort. He was quoted as saying to the First Lady, “We will not rest, day or night, until even one miner is rescued and brought up.” From the beginning to the end, the Chilean president was at the scene. Every miner rescued was hugged by the President and his wife, and given immediate congratulations and comfort. Chinese internet users sighed: how we envy this country where people are treated as human beings, where even the president is close by! No one even knows how Chinese miners die. Not only do top Chinese leaders not go to the scene of the disaster to command the rescue effort, but when media film high-level local leaders [on the scene] they are not depicted in sadness but always wear a smile.
One of the miners trapped in the Chile disaster was a Bolivian national, and after he was rescued he knelt down on the ground, extremely moved. Not only was he embraced by the Chilean president – the president of Bolivia had traveled especially to the scene to take part in the rescue effort and be there when this miner from his own country emerged. The miner was conveyed back to Bolivia in the presidential jet and given a parcel of land. Because those who cross national borders to work as miners are all very poor people.
Fourth, when mining disasters and such incidents occur in China, the first thought of the authorities is to close down the area, prevent media from reporting and keep the rest of the world from finding out. But the scene of Chile’s disaster was opened to the entire world, and 1,700 reporters from all over the world gathered there, filming the actual situation on the scene – and a billion people around the world were following the story. The Chilean government even used fiber optics to show television audiences around the world the real situation of the miners trapped 700 meters below the surface. Chinese internet users sighed: “They even dare to broadcast live to the whole world. And we don’t even let reporters in!”
Fifth, not only did Chile not suppress the news — they were much more open in accepting help from advanced nations. On the scene of the mining disaster, aside from the national flag of Chile, there were American, Canadian and Argentine national flags flying – demonstrating that the rescue effort was an international effort. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has moon-landing technology, sent an expert team to the scene, advising on nutritional and behavioral health issues. The underground fiber-optic line was provided by Taiwan, the crane was made in China. Chile used technology and expertise from all around the world to carry out the most difficult and most successful rescue known to mankind, accomplishing “an impossible task.” But in China, even during the Sichuan earthquake, during the 72-hour “golden period” in which saving lives is most urgent, the government spurned overseas assistance, turning away even the very experienced earthquake rescue teams from Japan and Taiwan. This was little different from the attitude of the Gang of Four during the Great Tangshan Earthquake [of 1976]. The attitude toward disaster response in mainland China is to put political considerations first, in order to fully ensure the face of the Party and the government, or to protect the secrets of official and corporate special interests. So officials can disregard the lives and safety of people in the disaster area, turning away the advanced technologies, equipment and experience of foreign nations – or they can postpone the entry of foreign disaster relief teams, resulting in greater loss of life and property. These are things with which we’ve become familiar in the Tangshan earthquake, the Wenchuan earthquake and other natural disasters, as well as in perhaps all mining disasters.
China places its emphasis on politics, on what is beneficial to [Party] rule. Chile, on the other hand, places its emphasis on life, on the government being responsible to the people. Chinese media reported during this recent disaster how a Chinese made crane was used in the rescue effort. They said that the Chilean government chose this “San Yi” crane among many different brands. In fact, what this tells us is that the focus of the Chilean government was on the miner’s lives, and they thought nothing of equipment’s country of origin as they engaged in the rescue. It also tells us about the government’s openness and transparency, in which no details were covered up. Seen the other way around, this focus tells us about the lack of respect given in China to the lives of miners, because we’ve never seen such “San Yi” cranes being used on the scene of mining disasters in our own country. In China, human life is worth nothing, and certainly not worth the employment of advanced machines.
. . . . [Portions of the essay here have not been translated for the sake of length].
Chilean disaster relief efforts tell the Chinese people: only a government chosen by the people can put its whole heart into the people. The barrel of the gun may give rise to political power, but never will it serve the public . . . .