Editor’s note: this article was translated and edited from New.21cn.com, and tells the compelling story of one Chinese mineworker – Lan Tianzhong – and the motivations behind his decision to sacrifice his health by working in a dangerous mine in Beijing. Like countless other miners in China, Lan eventually contracted a deadly lung disease, for which he was only recently was compensated. Sadly, Lan’s story is not a unique one, but it does help shine the spotlight on the vast sacrifices Chinese miners across the country are willing to make in order to ensure a better future for their families.
Roughly 1,500 meters beneath the surface, Lan Tianzhong and his workmates used to pick away at a seemingly endless tunnel, lit up only by the flashlights attached to their helmets. Early on, Lan earned around 2,000 RMB a month, which for someone born and raised in rural China wasn’t too bad. Although his wife wasn’t keen on his dangerous profession, Lan was working to ensure his children – a son and a daughter – could attend university. Every year, when Lan left his hometown of Ziyang, Sichuan, to work in a mine in Beijing’s Fangshan District, he had to write up a will to his family should anything happen. Such was the way of things for Lan and his family for eight years.
In 2010, Lan and 15 of his workmates discovered they were suffering from pneumoconiosis, a lung disease often brought on by inhalation of coal dust while working in mines. Due to policy rulings, the mine that Lan worked in was shut down, but it wasn’t until March 19 that he received his rightful compensation—73,000 RMB. “I accept my misfortunes, but I don’t have any regrets. I have done it so my children have a chance to go to university. At least they won’t have to go through what I did.” After speaking, 50 year-old Lan Tianzhong turned around and quietly wiped away his tears.
Home a distant memory
Describing his home in Ziyang, Lan uses a mixture of hand gestures and speech. “It’s on a little hill, not nearly as dry as the north. The fields are all full of rice and corn.” Lan remembers every detail of the brick building that houses his family of four. Lan even recalls the six newborn piglets that occupy the pigsty in his yard. While Lan was working in Beijing from February 2002 to April 2010 however, all of this purely existed in his memories and dreams.
Lan’s parents died early, while his two elder brothers took Lan to the fields to harvest crops and dig out weeds. At the time, Lan thought that he would end up like his ancestors – working in a field for the rest of his life. As his children were about to start school however, Lan, who was around 40 years old at the time, decided to make a living away from home.
After a journey on railroads, highways, and mountain paths, Lan and friends from his hometown arrived at the Taixi Coal Mine in Fangshan District’s Shijiaying County for work. Unlike his hometown, the ground there was full of black stones. In the mine however, there was plenty of the so-called “black gold” (coal) waiting to be dug up. Their earnings would eventually be sent back home to raise their families. Lan says that he had to work 12 hours a day, earning 50-60 RMB.
“As long as I could get my children out of that poor mountainous area”
“Do you know how much that is?” says an excited Lan. From a good harvest back home, Lan and his family could only make around 700-800 RMB a year. However, 4.5 RMB a day had to be given to his children for meal money, and the study costs were about 500-600 RMB a year. In the mines, one month’s work was enough to keep his family going for the year, and he no longer had to worry about tuition fees for his son and daughter.
“As long as it was enough for them to be able to get out of that poor mountainous area.” With this in mind, Lan and his friends from home were willing to go through whatever it took while working in the mine. Every year when they went back to the mine to work after Spring Festival, Lan and his friends only brought with them one pair of long johns, a flashlight, a helmet, and a pair of boots. Lan stated that as they were all in the same boat, no one laughed at the other, even if they were covered in soot from head to toe. Underground, all that mattered was getting to work.
“Apart from our teeth, our whole bodies were black from the soot. After being down there for three days I often coughed up black phlegm,” said 45 year-old Zhao Mingchao. Zhao is from a small village near Hebei Province’s Baoding, and has been a miner since he was 17. Previously, they all thought that coughing up black phlegm was nothing to be worried about; as long there were no serious accidents down in the mine, they were all fine.
Dreams smashed with diagnosis and mine closure
“At that time , my daughter was a freshman and my son was getting top grades in middle school. If both ended up at university, my 4,500 RMB a month salary would be able to cover it.” Until 2010, Lan’s work down in the mine was relatively problem-free. However, that year, two of his workmates suffered injuries at work. After being submitted to hospital, both were diagnosed with pneumoconiosis. At the same time, many news programs also started running stories about how many miners were found to have the same disease after being checked into hospital. On April 10 2010, Lan Tianzhong, Zhao Mingchao and 16 other coworkers were also diagnosed with early-stage pneumoconiosis.
After 20 days, the licenses of Taixi Mine and 13 other nearby mines expired and were subsequently shut down by the government. Lan’s moneymaking mining mission had ceased. Later on, after the Fangshan Labor Committee was unsuccessful in contacting Lan directly, a report of his sickness was sent to his daughter at university instead. The report stated that he’d been classified as having received a “level seven” occupational disease.
“The doctor didn’t say I was necessarily going to die. Whatever they said, I had to first get my child out of the village.” After walking for a few minutes, Lan had to stop to catch his breath, which worried a lot of the locals in his Sichuan hometown. To combat this, Lan had only bought some simple painkillers, as the money he earned over the years as a miner had been all spent on getting his daughter into university. Out of desperation, Lan and 16 other miners decided to file a lawsuit, and obtained lawyers to help them out with the case. Although they eventually won the case, the actual owner of the mine was unable to be found. The subsequent 80,000 RMB disease compensation—which was split between the 16 of them— “didn’t really have any effect,” according to Lan.
On December 27 2011, “Mr Wang”, the owner of the Taixi mine was finally tracked down by the legal authorities. Wang agreed to pay the remaining 300,000 RMB compensation to the men—73,000 RMB of which was given to Lan Tianzhong. After the case was closed, Lan wrapped an arm around judge Zhang Shengli, saying “thank you” repeatedly.
How many other Lan Tianzhongs are there?
According to the Ministry of Health, since the 1950s, there have been an estimated 749,970 cases of work-related disease. 676,541 were related to pneumoconiosis. Of those people with pneumoconiosis, 149,110 died—a 22.04% fatality rate. In 2010, it was estimated that almost 527,431 people were currently suffering from the disease, making pneumoconiosis the highest work-affiliated disease.
These statistics are of course only official, and with lack of regulations and necessary protection at mines and other working environments across the country, the actual number is probably incalculable.
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Keywords: miners in China Chinese mineworker Chinese miner
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