BEIJING — Chinese authorities acknowledged Thursday that not enough has been done to improve their country's dismal work safety record, especially in the deadly coal mining industry.
Despite repeated government crackdowns, including a recent campaign that singled out 133 officials for punishment, accidents continue to soar due to illegal production and lax law enforcement.
"We have been too lenient, we have not been tough enough," Li Yizhong, minister of the Work Safety administration, said Thursday at a news briefing. "That's why some businesses believe they will not be held accountable."
The coal mining accidents claimed 4,746 lives last year, a drop of about 20% from the year before. But "the situation remains grave, very grave," Li said.
Chinese coal mines are the deadliest in the world. Since the beginning of this year, more than 400 miners have died in about 60 accidents.
A gas explosion Saturday in Shanxi province, China's mining capital, killed 28 miners and injured 23. It was the second blast in the province in a week. The mine had reportedly been shut down but continued operation without a license.
A lack of underground ventilation apparently sealed the victims' fate.
A separate work area had been set up with some safety mechanisms, but it was only meant for show when inspectors came, according to Zhao Tiechui, director of the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety Supervision, who had just returned from the scene.
"The illegal mining had gone on for some time, but inspectors failed to fulfill their duty," Zhao said.
The main reason for negligence is simple economics: China's red-hot economy and role as the world's factory give it an insatiable appetite for energy. Coal provides 70% of the country's energy needs, and some coal mine operators have become fabulously wealthy.
Coal production in the first four months of this year increased 6.4%. Prices jumped 6.2%, stimulating mining companies to operate beyond capacity and skirt safety rules, Li said.
In response, Beijing introduced a new set of rules effective next month to punish offenders. It has also begun to hand out much harsher sentences, including life imprisonment, for violators.
The problem lies not with government policy, observers say, but with enforcement.
"That's where officials fall flat on their faces," said Robin Munro, research director of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.
"They are up against this dense wall of corruption and links between the local officials and coal mine owners, where both sides stand to gain from ignoring the rules and regulations."
Among the 133 officials and mine owners who were disciplined in the past two years, 51 faced criminal charges. The others were fired, demoted or given administrative demerits, said Chen Changzhi, a lead prosecutor.
One case involved two deputy directors of a local public security office who were accused of taking bribes from the mine owner and enabling him to flee to Canada after an explosion killed 108 people. One of the officers also turned out to have an illegal investment in the mine.
About 60% of China's 5.5 million coal miners are disenfranchised rural migrants. They work for low wages and mostly without a contract or any kind of accident insurance.
"The government wants to help them protect their legal rights, including setting up a minimum wage requirement," Li said.