Black coal and thin pick­ings: China’s min­ers face de­cline

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

The global fight against cli­mate change and Bei­jing’s ef­forts to com­bat chok­ing pol­lu­tion have been a dis­as­ter for Lu Zhany­ong. Fac­ing un­em­ploy­ment af­ter years work­ing with ex­plo­sives deep in a coal mine on the out­skirts of the Chi­nese capital, Lu has lit­tle hope of find­ing an­other job, no rights to farm­land in his ru­ral home­town, and fears he is dy­ing of oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease.

“They’ll just give us con­tract labour­ers a bit of sev­er­ance and send us pack­ing,” he said. “But no one wants to hire some­one in their 40s.” “There are tens of thou­sands of min­ers like us; even if the gov­ern­ment wanted to, what could it pos­si­bly do for all of us?” he asked. China’s rise to be­come the world’s sec­ond largest econ­omy was largely pow­ered by cheap, dirty coal gouged out of the earth by mi­grant work­ers like Lu. But with growth slow­ing to its low­est rate in 25 years and Bei­jing be­gin­ning to re­duce coal’s share of the na­tional en­ergy mix, the coun­try’s de­mand for the fuel may have peaked, leav­ing the min­ers on the slagheaps of eco­nomic his­tory. All five of Bei­jing’s coal mines, Lu’s Da’an­shan col­liery among them, have been or­dered to shut by 2020, the city’s main plan­ning body said in Novem­ber. Lu came to work for the mine from the dis­tant south­west­ern prov­ince of Sichuan nearly a decade ago. For now, he makes 4,000 yuan ($560) a month do­ing some of the most dan­ger­ous un­der­ground work, pay­ing 200 yuan to rent a small brick room to share with his wife and 10-year-old son.

‘War on pol­lu­tion’

It is heated by a sin­gle coal-burn­ing bra­zier and pa­pered in col­or­ful gov­ern­ment posters de­cry­ing the dan­gers of un­di­ag­nosed HIV or coal gas poi­son­ing. Among Lu’s own great­est fears is that he has sil­i­co­sis, a com­mon min­ers’ lung dis­ease caused by in­hal­ing fine dust, and may not live long enough to raise his son. “Ev­ery year the coal mine au­thor­i­ties give us an exam, but they never give us the re­sults,” he said. The hills sur­round­ing his mine are crowned with heavy ma­chin­ery, swathed in thick grey smog.

Pub­lic dis­con­tent about coal’s en­vi­ron­men­tal toll has grown in China and many of the coun­try’s gi­ant state-owned coal mining firms are now un­vi­able and plagued by over­ca­pac­ity, lead­ing the gov­ern­ment to de­clare a “war on pol­lu­tion” and at­tempt to curb out­put. The Asian gi­ant set a tar­get of re­duc­ing coal pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity by 250 mil­lion tons this year, which Premier Li Ke­qiang an­nounced had been met by the end of October-al­though figures for ac­tual out­put were not yet avail­able. Its con­sump­tion of the fuel-the coun­try ac­counts for half of the world’s de­mand for coal and al­most half of its pro­duc­tion-had “likely peaked”, the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency said Mon­day.

But crit­ics say that ef­forts to cut coal use have fallen short of ex­pec­ta­tions. Even while China makes cuts to the sec­tor and op­er­ates many of its coal-fired power sta­tions at less than half their ca­pac­ity, it “per­versely” has plans to spend as much as half a tril­lion dol­lars on build­ing more such units, Lon­don-based cam­paign group Car­bon Tracker Ini­tia­tive said in a re­port last month. While coal cuts are cru­cial for the global bat­tle against cli­mate change, they spell catas­tro­phe for the work­ers they cast aside.

‘Noth­ing but wolves’

Ac­cord­ing to the web­site of Bei­jing Coal Group, the state-owned en­ter­prise that owns the mines near the capital, their gov­ern­ment­man­dated clo­sures will mean the loss of 6 mil­lion tons of coal pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity and the “re­set­tle­ment” of more than 11,000 work­ers, mostly mi­grants. It did not make clear whether that meant as­sign­ing them to other units, send­ing them home, or sim­ply sack­ing them.

“Once those mines are closed, there won’t be a damn thing left for them,” pre­dicted one dis­af­fected re­tired miner in his 50s, a Bei­jing na­tive sur­named Wu. “Noth­ing even to eat, drink or sus­tain them un­less they go out and beg.” The rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party has a dif­fi­cult bal­ance to strike be­tween turn­ing off the fi­nan­cial taps to the in­dus­try and risk­ing wide­spread un­em­ploy­ment, with its po­ten­tial for anger and un­rest. Wang Shuqing, 77, worked in Bei­jing Coal Group’s Wang­ping mine for 34 years be­fore re­tir­ing in the 90s. —AFP

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