Tibet mine disaster exposes internal colonialism

Thousands of rescuers are struggling to reach 83 workers trapped by a landslide at a gold mine at Gyama, Maizhokunggar county, in China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region March 29. The facility is operated by the Tibet Huatailong Mining Development Co, a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Gold Group Corp. Ironically, the Gyama mine was something of a showcase for Beijing’s development of Tibet; the Huatailong company took it over in 2009 from some dozen small-scale private companies that operated on the margins of the law in what official news agency Xinhua called a “rat race for the rich ore supplies.” The disaster prompted a flurry of criticisms on Chinese social media, but AP reports these were quickly “scrubbed off or blocked from public view by censors.” 

The AP report, picked up by Taiwan-based China Post, did manage to save some comments before they were “scrubbed.” Btan Tundop, a Tibetan blogger, noted the mining company’s dominance in the area: “The entire Maizhokunggar has been taken over by China National Gold Group. Local Tibetans say the county and the village might as well be called Huatailong.”

While Chinese authorities called the landslide a “natural disaster,” Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser blogged: “Unchecked mining has polluted water, sickened animals and humans, dislocated herdsmen and now caused a massive mudslide.”

Wangchuktseten, a Tibetan scholar at Northwest University of Nationalities in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province, said: “The Tibetan Plateau is considered the lungs of Asia. Those short-sighted mining activities chase after quick benefits but ignore the environment for future generations.”

State media said that two of the buried workers are ethnic Tibetans, and that two are women. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was on an official trip to Africa, and Premier Li Keqiang ordered authorities to “spare no efforts” in their rescue work.

On the same day as the Gyama disaster, 28 miners were killed in a gas explosion at the Babao Coal Mine in Baishan, Jilin province, run by the state-owned Tonghua Mining Group. Chinese mines among the most dangerous in the world, International Business Times reports. Earlier this month 28 people were killed and 58 managed to escape to the surface after an explosion at the Machang coal mine in Guizhou province. An explosion at the Shangchang coal mine in Yunnan province left 17 people dead in December. Earlier that month, 23 were killed in a gas explosion in another coal mine in Guizhou. In August seven died in an explosion at another mine in Jilin.

The Chinese government last year closed down 600 small private mines that were considered the least safe. Official figures show a fall in the number of mining fatalities, with the 1,384 killed in 2012 down from 1,973 in 2011. However, some believe the real death toll may be much higher, with managers concealing fatalities and accidents.