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Coal Museum Mine crack in wall

Rough Cut
China: Undermined
Coal mines threaten villages


Duane Moles

Duane Moles is a student at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley, concentrating on documentary film. He spent the summer of 2007 interning at Al Jazeera English in Washington, DC, and has also worked in radio news at KQED, the PBS affiliate station in San Francisco.

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Length: 8:28

As part of a class at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, I traveled to China last spring with an assignment to report on the country's environment. Having grown up in a coal-mining region in West Virginia, I was really interested to see what life was like in China's coal belt.

More than in any other country, coal is the lifeblood of China's booming economy. Coal-fired power plants provide 70 percent of the country's electricity, and more than 30,000 mines operate throughout the country -- about 20 percent of which are illegal and, thus, unregulated.

China is also the most dangerous place in the world to be a coal miner. On average, 13 people a day die in mine accidents there, and more than 80 percent of mining deaths worldwide happen in China.

I headed west from Beijing to coal country, Shanxi Province, as part of a team of three reporters. Our plan was to see what life was like in a small village in the region. We knew that in November 2006 a villager named Hao Hualin had talked to Chinese news outlets about how the mines were burrowing beneath his village, causing homes to collapse. But we had no idea about the consequences of his speaking out.

The unrelated death of a reporter looking into illegal mines earlier that year was certainly in the back of my mind as we headed toward Hualin's village, Hao Jiazhai. Mining bosses killed the reporter after he threatened to expose their operation. The story became international news, and the talk had been that the reporter was trying to blackmail the company. But was that just a convenient excuse for the killers? And in this dangerous atmosphere, would anyone really talk to us?


What began as an investigation of environmental degradation turned into a story of whole villages being literally undermined by an aggressive coal industry.

To establish some common ground, I brought with me my family's West Virginia mining pictures -- my father having worked in the coal mines when I was a child. Whenever people were suspicious of my interest in coal, I just pulled out the photographs and started talking about West Virginia. Almost always I was instantly offered a cigarette.

While China's environment has taken a serious beating as the country bulls its way forward, I was surprised by peoples' disgust when I talked with them about the mountaintop removal mines that are slowly leveling West Virginia. One former miner asked me why we would destroy the mountains that way when we could use an underground mine and leave the mountains intact. I didn't have a good answer.

Within minutes of arriving in Hao Jiazhai, we found Hualin's home in the largely deserted village. When Hualin's mother opened the large tin doors to their courtyard, she was reluctant to speak with us. She broke into tears, but waved us into their home. Sitting on a platform in the main room of the house, she recounted how the intimidation against her family accelerated from broken windows to physical attacks on her and her son. Despite her initial reluctance, it was clear that she wanted to tell people about her experience. By the next day, though, fear won out: She left to stay with her sister while we interviewed Haulin and other villagers.

What began as an investigation of environmental degradation turned into a story of whole villages being literally undermined by an aggressive coal industry -- and of people who faced brutal retaliation when they blew the whistle on what is happening to their communities.

-- Duane Moles


Chao Su - San Diego, CA
The PBS has done a great service of telling real life stories from China. Bravo! The miseries of coal mining in rural China are the result of a combination of greed, short sightedness, unregulated free market, waning centralized government and corruption. It will probably take something like a "Dust Bowl" of 1930s in the US to turn the public opinions in China. The China since 1990 reminds me of the "Roaring Twenties" in the US. Hopefully, a sobering up of China will not require the same antidote the US took --a great depression.

Vieques, PR
I was shocked to see that mining is happening under actual homes. Thanks to the filmmaker for publicizing this destruction and horrible violation of human rights in China. Progress must have NO "collateral damage".

San Francisco, CA
The dark side of progress. I'm so disappointed that our mainstream media can spend countless hours on talentless "celebrities", but something as real and shocking as this is just a whisper in the wind. Hopefully China will learn from the mistakes of other industrialized nations and turn things around.

Naomi Zabot - Newton, MA
Exceptionally well done piece. Very informative and highly disturbing.

David Phan - Diamond Bar, CA
This is another eye opener on the realities of life in China. As one prospers, others suffer. This sad event occurs with every advancement in China. Unfortunately, as usual, the Chinese government plays a different tune to the media and only exceptional reporting such as Duane's captures the truth.

Celia Richman - Sarasota, FL
The reporting was very interesting, seeing these unfortunate people who have to live in the villages being undermined by the coal industry. It makes me worry for them, and for what else is going on with the environment in China -- and in the world at large. It was particularly interesting hearing from someone who is from West Virginia and had mining in his background. Thank you Mr. Moles!

John Duffy - Elizabethtown, PA
I am amazed at the similarities in the stories of China's mining today and those of the anthracite region of Pennsylvania where my family is from; murder, intimidation, greed, corruption, senseless death, subsidence and subterfuge, whole neighborhoods falling into the earth, fires burning for a generation. Underground mining in the region currently employes less than 100 people, but many are still living with the consequences of the last 150 years of coal mining. The scale of what China will be feeling in the years to come is more than the mind can handle.

Madison, WI
Fascinating topic and well reported, thanks.

charles haftl - flemington, pa
I really don't think the Chinese should be allowed to ignore saftey issues until they make enough money. Their country is too big and will have a huge environmental impact if caution isn't excercised.

reno, nevada
What has happened to this poor Chinese man, [the whistleblower?] Do you keep in touch with him, because as you know anyone who speaks against the goverment in China is an easy prey for jail or sometimes even death. But still the U.S. is allowing the Chinese goverment to do businness and they're making billions of dollars and destroying the environment.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Yes, we have remained in touch with our sources in this story and they are alright at this point. They made a brave, deliberate, conscious decision to speak out about this problem of coal mines undermining entire villages and forcing people out of their homes.

Peter owen - portland, oregon
Thanks for this report, I have geography as a great interest. You do inspire an independent view of it which pbs viewers need. I wish I could sit beside the real journalist who did the report. Keep up the good work.

Michael Smith - San Francisco, CA
I can't help but think stories like this are being repeated in countless ways in China, Brazil and other developing countries where industrialization and the effect of foreign investments are rapidly changing the countryside while severely affecting local communities. I'm grateful for the story, the quality of the reporting and the risks taken by all. We need to hear more stories on this subject.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
You may want to watch our story, "Jewel of the Amazon," about diamond mining in Brazil on an Indian reserve.

Ryan R - Salt Lake City, UT
I worked in the Coal mines of southern Utah to pay my way through school. Those mines are regulated and people still die. Learning more about this situation in China makes me sick. I feel angry that the need for energy and money allows these mines to ruin a community and everyone else looks the other way.

William Braden - Providence, RI
I've heard about environmental problems in China. This story makes it real, and heart-breaking.

Celia Richman - Sarasota, Fl
This piece was so interesting, and increased my awareness and concern for the environmental state of China -- and therefore the world. It was particularly appealing to hear about this topic from a reporter with coal mining in his background. Thanks.

Orinda, CA
I wish more people were aware of this and the story would get more media attention. The human interest in the piece is really moving and the environmental degradation is shocking. Thank you for this.

Leo Terbieten - Larkspur, CA
Great segment. The bravery of those people is inspirational. Great reporting by Mr. Moles. His knowledge of the coal biz must have helped give the villagers confidence that their story would be reported accurately

Katherine Kim - Honolulu, HI
Thank you for discussing this horrible reality. Coal mining in China is a tragic world and those poor people are going to feel the depression for generations due to the carelessness and indifference of the government.

Mining is such a dangerous job. Just look at those 3,000 South African miners who were trapped underground in a deep gold mine. Fortunately, they were rescued. I understand why China needs coal, but I really feel sorry for these villagers who are displaced and who are attacked if they complain.