The price of coal

China’s behemoth economy may have been built on it, but the people who live in the country’s coal producing regions have been suffering the consequences for decades. Nan Wu tells the story of one young man who decided to fight back.

Hao Hualin calls the place where he grew up, “Talking Graves.” Ever since he could remember, the ground has shifted and twisted beneath the homes of Haojia Zhai, causing roofs to fall, walls to collapse and houses to slide. Piles of gray bricks and broken glass are all that remain now of Hao’s old village.

“When I walk by these houses, I feel like I’m hearing screams and echoes for ‘HELP’ coming out from the ruins,” said Hualin. “It’s like voices from graveyards.”

Tired of watching his village slide into ruin, Hualin, 24, began lobbying the local government for housing safety in 2003. His mentor is Hao Guiqin, 60, a retired former party secretary of the village. Guiqin has spent most of his life negotiating with the coal owners to relocate Haojia Zhai, which has been collapsing from reckless mining operations for more than four decades.

Haojia Zhai is about 100 kilometres south of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province in northeast China. As one of China’s main coal producing regions, Shanxi is also known for its land subsidence, or sinking, problem. Haojia Zhai is a typical example, where severe manmade subsidence shifts have caused the land to slump as it settles around abandoned mine shafts.

For years, the villagers of Haojia Zhai suffered from the effects of subsidence on their homes, but one incident finally spurred them to action: when a falling roof crushed a villager’s 8-year-old son in 1973.

The tragic end of a young life made the villagers very angry, said Guiqin. They demanded that he negotiate with the state-owned Shuiyu Mine’s parent company, Fen Xi State Mine Bureau, for both compensation and a solution to the problem of their collapsing houses.

The villagers won, and in 1974 a settlement was made to relocate more than 140 families and 1,000 people in Haojia Zhai. Since then, the villagers have had to move not once, but twice, in 1974 and again in 1990.

“Now at night when it’s quiet, people can hear sounds like bombs as tiles fall and the earth subsides as the mining goes on,” said Hualin. His family lives in “Upper New Town,” where half of the families in the 1974 settlement moved, thinking they would be safe. But the mining company dug tunnels there too.

Every day, said Hualin, their living conditions became worse. First, large cracks began to open in the dry ground outside Hualin’s house. Then he found a finger-wide gap on the wall of his room. The gap became larger and larger until it was big enough for an adult to put a fist through. Now cracks have begun to appear in the roof.

“When it rains hard outside, it rains inside,” said Hualin. “When the wind blows, it becomes freezing cold in the room. It’s unbearable.”

In 1990, fearing the subsidence in Upper New Town, the remaining families in Haojia Zhai moved to “Lower New Town,” located just down the hill. It, too, eventually began to collapse. Shuiyu Mine claimed there was not enough proof that the new subsidence was related to their coal mines. But in 2001, professors Zhong Weilin and He Wanlong, members of the Coal Mining Damage Appraisal Committee of China’s Coal Society, confirmed that the damage to the houses was caused by mining in Haojia Zhai. They reported that the subsiding ground paralleled the underground coal mine being dug below.

“The mines were digging some 4,000 tonnes of coal out every day,” said Guiqin. “I was hardly surprised the ground was subsiding.”

Shuiyu Mine’s total annual production has increased to 12 times what they were producing in the 1960s. According to the China National Coal Association, China’s tax revenues have soared as investment in coal has surpassed 200 billion yuan (US$25 billion dollars) since 2003. At the same time, the financial support for China’s coal mine safety as a percentage of GDP accounted for only about 1%, while in some developed countries, the percentage is 3.3%.

Professor Li Lianji from Shanxi Academy of Social Sciences wrote in a 2005 paper entitled, “Empty Mines, Subsiding Land and the Transit of Local Economy,” that China, like many developing countries, has allowed mines to damage the land severely. Indeed, there are 7 billion square metres of subsiding land in China, which has cost the country 50 billion yuan (US$6.8 billion). A central government ruling states that with mining damage in China, “whoever causes the damage, pays.” Compensation is supposed to be divided accordingly among the central government, local government and the mine.

For the villagers in Haojia Zhai, the compensation issue is complex. The village losses are no longer only the responsibility of the central government, because the mine underneath Upper New Town was leased to the village head in 2000, and as the operator, he is responsible for the compensation. As a result, Guiqin and Hualin had to negotiate with both the mine and the village in order to receive compensation.

When their pleas for compensation went unheard, Hualin and Guiqin organized 90 villagers to petition the regional authority, Xiaoyi city council, in March 2003. Shortly following their rally, they received a warning when someone smashed the windows of both their houses at night. Guiqin, already suffering from poor health, decided to retire, but Hualin carried on alone. In 2005, Hualin took his petition to the Shanxi provincial ministry. But, as he later recalled, that is what “really brought disaster on my family.”

On October 21, 2005, Hualin’s father went to work a night shift in the village mine. Only Hualin and his mother remained in the house, which had a single living room and a bedroom connected to each other. Around midnight, while Hualin was sleeping in the living room and his mother was sleeping in the bedroom, they heard a window creaking. Hualin and his mother woke up to hear people whispering in their yard. Hualin rushed to call the police. The police answered and said they would come.

“The windows of our living room were smashed, so I just hung up the phone,” he remembers. “Then three men with golf clubs and a flashlight suddenly broke into our room.”

The intruders shone the light in Hualin’s eyes so that he could not see their faces.

“When are you going to move?” They yelled.

“Move where?” He asked them.

“We don’t care. But we’ll fix you if you don’t move,” they said.

Then they started to beat Hualin nonstop with their golf clubs. He screamed when his left foot was smashed.

“My mother heard my screaming and struggled to cover me,” he recalls. “Then one man started to beat her, too.”

The beating continued for half an hour until they could not move. Finally the thugs left without a word.

Hualin crawled to the phone and again called the police. But the police said that they could not come right away because all their officers were out.

“We waited until 6am when my father came back,” said Hualin, tears dripping to his chin.. “Then he sent us to the hospital.”

They were beaten black and blue. Photographs were taken as evidence, but later the police dropped the case for lack of clues.

“I feel so sad remembering what happened to us,” sobbed Hualin.

Hualin’s mother, 45, is less than five feet (1.52 metres) tall. She is extremely thin. Her leg is permanently deformed since the attack. Her shoulders hunch, making her look much shorter.

“My mother cried a lot after that. Now she’s always scared that those thugs will come back, “said Hualin. “She does not want me to talk about the coal mines anymore.”

After he recovered, Hualin went to see the village head, who denied responsibility.

“He just told me he’s not afraid of a fight or a petition,” said Hualin.

Later, Hualin’s father was asked to meet with the coal mine owner, who offered Hualin a job that paid 1,500 yuan (US$200) a month with no responsibilities other than sitting in the mine everyday.

“I rejected it,” said Hualin. “Justice should not be stolen with money.”

Hualin doesn’t think he has done anything wrong. In his diary he wrote Guanbi Minfan, an old proverb that means, “When officials use force, the people will rebel.” “That saying has been proven by thousands of years of Chinese history,” says Hualin.

According to the Xinhua news agency, the central Chinese government provided 7 billion yuan (US$875 million) between 2003 and 2004 to relocate people living in mining areas where there is subsidence. In 2005, Shanxi provincial officials planned to give out 7 billion yuan over two years to relocate the local people – a process that is still underway. But the question remains: how can everyone be relocated? In Shanxi alone, over 1,900 villages and more than one million people are living on land that is collapsing beneath them due to coal mining.

Hualin is still struggling to get to Beijing so that he can tell the story of his village to someone in the central government.

“The local officials make deals with coalminers, so they’re bound to each other,” said Hualin, who believes it is impossible for him to get justice in Shanxi. “It’s the deal between money and power. We have to demand our legal rights, because our lives have been ruined.”

Hualin’s family now depends on his father’s 1,000 yuan (US$125) monthly wage from working as a guard in the village mine. Sometimes, Hualin’s younger brother and sister mail a little money they manage to save working in the city. The family lives as cheaply as possible, eating hand-made noodles everyday and even saving the noodle water to feed their chickens. Sometimes they stir-fry a dish of potatoes with homemade tomatoes and pepper sauce.

Today, Hualin and his parents squeeze into the least damaged room of their house. The other two bedrooms are so badly cracked that they are unsafe to live in. More than 100 families in Haojia Zhai live in similar homes, waiting out their time as the village slowly collapses around them.

“I know if I can continue to petition and speak out, I will have some hope,” says Hualin. “But I still don’t know when we can move.”

Wu Nan worked as an international news reporter for the Economic Observer in Beijing and as news assistant for The Boston Globe’s Beijing bureau from 2003-2006. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley. 

Homepage photo by andi808