(China’s Coal: Part 2)

Outside of Beijing, the sight of a Westerner arouses interest. I am stared at constantly. Our team has traveled to Taiyuan, the capital of China’s Shanxi Province. I think of Shanxi as the West Virginia of China — though it certainly does not feel like home. Along the miles from Beijing, factories increasingly dot the landscape, which seems to grow drier by the mile. A distinct twinge of sulfur hits me as I step out of the train and my nose tells me I am in coal country.

Social and business connections appear and evaporate quickly in China. By the afternoon, one person leads to another, then quickly to a third. One connection goes by the Chinese equivalent of “John Doe.” The crevices of his teeth are stained from cigarettes, yet he dresses in a soft pastel sport jacket. He smokes with a caring underhand grip and looks at his cigarette lovingly. I need little more than my half-dozen words of Mandarin to realize two things about our John Doe: he’s very well connected, and he’s not completely trustworthy.

A quick phone call and a couple of hours later I am filming in an illegal coal mine 50 miles out in the countryside. The mine owner, his fingers yellowed from years of filterless smokes, points out the basics of the mine. Despite the rapid-fire concerns of his second in command, the mine owner says that we are friends and I can film all I want to.

Small-scale illegal mines in China are a current government bugaboo. Current edicts say the State is going to close down tens of thousands of them because they are unregulated and the source of thousands of deaths a year. The mine we visit is little more than a bricked hole in the ground. A power generator runs a winch that raises and lowers a bucket down a six-foot wide shaft. Below men pick away at the earth by hand and work a bucket at a time. The technology here lags decades behind mining in the U.S. Take away the generator and it’s more like a century.

Living conditions would make most workers pine for the good ol’ days of the company town and coal baron. The hovels are simple holes cut in the hillside and lined with tarps.

Neither the mine owner nor our connection allowed pictures of them taken. John Doe had planned to speak with us the next day about meeting some other mine bosses, but stopped answering our calls and we never heard from him again.

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Duane Moles is a freelance journalist and a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.