Another Perspective

A Tale of Two Mines

Why can't China be more like Chile?

By 10.22.10

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To borrow a phrase from Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The best in Chile, the worst in China in the wake of two mine collapses. In Chile, a copper mine cave-in half a mile under the earth's surface trapped 33 miners. In China, a gas explosion triggered an avalanche of coal dust, trapping 37 miners. Of these, 26 have been found dead and 11 are still missing.

In Chile, finding and rescuing the miners became the nation's immediate and highest priority.

President Sebastián Piñera said the nation would stop at nothing -- and it didn't. Offers of assistance came in and they took them. The resolve of the government, combined with innovations from the private sectors of a dozen countries, led, first, to finding and communicating with the men, then their rescue. Revolutionary drill bits that cut through to the miners came from a small Pennsylvania company. The Chilean Coast Guard designed and built the recovery capsule that brought each man to the surface. When Luis Urzua, the last man up, stepped out of the capsule, he said to the president, "We have done what the entire world was waiting for."

While trapped deep in the mine, the men organized themselves into shifts with chores, exercise routines, and rationing of food. Decisions were made democratically. Chile being a democratic capitalist society, it was not surprising that the miners took both a team and an entrepreneurial approach toward telling their story once they were back on the surface. They decided to tell very few details until all the book, television, and magazine deals had been made. All the funds will go into a joint account to be shared equally by all. It was democracy and the capitalist spirit in action.

As the rescue day approached more than a thousand media reporters were at Copiapo to film and write about it. Millions around the world watched as the men came out to be greeted by grateful families and friends and a president who staked his reputation on the belief that his country would make this a great success.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Henan Province, Chinese rescue workers were still sifting through coal dust in the hope they would find a few miners alive. This was the second disaster at this mine in two years. In 2008 another gas explosion killed 23 miners.

Unlike Chile, China invited foreign news people to stay away and it declined any outside rescue help. State media did show television and still pictures of rescue workers, but the lasting image the rest of the world saw was a photo of a distraught woman outside the mine being comforted by neighbors.

Despite the Chinese government's ongoing efforts to limit access of its citizens to news it doesn't like, many Chinese citizens were online on Internet forums and sites criticizing the government for its poor mine safety record.

Meanwhile, in Zambia, in sub-Saharan Africa, workers at the Chinese-owned Collum Coal Mine were protesting low pay and bad working conditions when their Chinese supervisors opened fire on them, wounding 11. A spokesman was quoted in the press as saying that the miners were "misguided." Some of them are paid as little as $70 a month. This was not the first protest at a Chinese-owned mine in Zambia.

Despite a successful effort in April to rescue 115 miners trapped in a flooded coal mine shaft in Shanxi Province, China has the world's worst mine safety record. Last year it recorded 2,631 mining fatalities. That is down from a high of 6,995 in 2002, but still reflects a much lower valuation on human life than it should have.

All this comes on the heels of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, a key participant in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations 21 years ago. Their sense of "face" embarrassed, the Chinese authorities put his wife under house arrest and cut off her telephone. It is further proof that, despite China's great economic gains in recent years, authoritarian rule and human rights are incompatible.

Mr. Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.


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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”