The humanity of Chilean mine saga: a poignant contrast with China

On 5 August 2010, more than 33 miners were trapped deep inside a mine, causing many to fear for the worst. However, remarkably, 17 days later, the miners were found to be still alive, to the relief and joy of their families and countrymen.

After reading news stories of the events and watching video, one couldn’t help but be struck by the stark contrasts with Chinese post-incident report coverage:

First, in Chile, most of the media attention has been on the actual miners – on their health and safety, their psychological well being, and their stories as individuals. International mine safety experts have been consulted. The Chilean government has tried to care for the emotional health of the miners, by consulting NASA about how people deal with extreme isolation. Professional psychologists are also helping the miners and their family members. In China, on the other hand, media focus is almost always directed at the heroic efforts of the government to save trapped miners. Family members and miners are rarely the main profile of stories, and families only serve as objects of paternalistic relief efforts. The CLB research report Bone and Blood: The Price of Coal in China points out that after mining incidents, the government strictly controls the media, by controlling the content and tone of the stories, and limiting access to the mines and bereaved family members. While in Chile, the foreign and domestic media has free access to report the truth. Also, we learn that not only have food, water and anti-depressants been sent down a small tube to the miners, but also individualized gifts, such as a national football jersey signed by the entire Chilean national team, as well as a photo of Elvis for an adoring fan. The extent to which the media has focused on individuals in Chile would be unthinkable in China.

Second, upon hearing that the miners were still alive, dozens of spontaneous celebrations broke out in Santiago and elsewhere, with people joyfully honking horns and waving the Chilean flag. Having lived in Chile for a year, when I saw these scenes on TV, I couldn’t help but feel extremely happy for Chile and the inspirational and determined spirit of the trapped miners. In China, in contrast, one rarely sees spontaneous national celebrations when miners are found alive. To some extent, that’s understandable, since China is an enormous country with many big and important media stories happening simultaneously. And yet, sometimes it’s possible to detect a certain numbness and complacency on the part of the public towards mining incidents. In some ways, again, this is understandable. Mining disasters occur all the time, and the disaster reports are usually reported in a stale, cookie-cutter approach. Besides, even a jubilant and spontaneous celebration involving thousands of people might be seen as a “mass incident” in China, and the government would then take appropriate “measures” to ensure “stability”.

Finally, in Chile, the workers have had strong institutional support on their side. Since the company who owns the mine has gone broke, union leaders are fighting on behalf of the workers to make sure their wages are paid. Also, family members have already filed lawsuits against the mining company San Esteban Mining. In China, immediately after mining disasters, groups of government officials – usually in work teams of three− go to each affected family to comfort them – and to get them to sign a compensation settlement as quickly as possible. By targeting each family individually, officials can decrease the risk that the bereaved family members will unite as a collective force or seek legal advice. Also, once the family has signed a compensation agreement, the employment relationship between the dead worker and the mine operator is ended, and workers’ families are no longer able to sue the mine bosses.
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