Last Monday, four employees of the British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto were found guilty of accepting bribes and stealing commercial secrets from state owned Chinese companies. A Shanghai court handed down stiff sentences of 7 to 14 years to the four defendants. While news of the harsh ruling was still reverberating in international business circles, there came word of another mining accident in northern China, with 153 miners trapped in a flooded shaft. That story, however, had a far happier ending. After more than a week of dwindling hope, 115 miners were miraculously carried out alive. Unfortunately the miracle rescue was just that – an exceptional case of good fortune in a country which sees thousands of mining related deaths every year. So much so that even the state controlled media acknowledges mining as the deadliest job in China.
In the developed world we eat our meats shrink-wrapped, our fruits and vegetables flown in from Latin America in the winters, and consume power without much thought to the sources of electricity. China, however, is still in the throes of industrialization. These stories of mining accidents appear with frightening frequency. Court cases involving accusations of international commercial espionage and bribery are rare, but the Rio Tinto case, too, serves as a reminder that economic development carries a price. Too often the price is a matter of life and death.
Since my own research is on the introduction of geology and mining sciences in late nineteenth century China, I follow news reports on Chinese mining with great interest. The Rio Tinto case reminded me of the 1905 London trial over the fate of Kaiping Mines in northeastern China. The Chinese plaintiffs alleged that the British company had acquired Kaiping Mines through illegal means during the chaos of the Boxer Rebellion (1898-01), including misrepresentation, fraud, and threats. Humble though mining may seem, mining issues frequently touch upon sovereignty, labor rights, property rights and other larger questions. Over one hundred years later, it is far more difficult for a foreign company to seize control of a Chinese mines, through legal or illegal means. The Chinese government has gained firm control over the country’s mineral resources and embraced the mantra of economic growth. The Chinese government can now try even foreign employees of mining companies. Yet, it is this same rush to development which has resulted in poor safety standards in mines and is the root cause of the frequency of accidents. It is still the poor miners, the proletariats once heralded by the Chinese communist party, who pay the price with their lives.