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China Halts Coal Mine Production in Latest Safety Drive

China has ordered one third of its coal mines to suspend production as part of its effort to improve safety in the country's high-risk mining industry. But, some experts say the campaign may not be enough.

Seven thousand mines are on the suspension list. These mines - many unlicensed - reportedly do not meet safety regulations and lack proper mining equipment. The State Administration of Coal Mine Safety this week said if the shuttered mines do not improve their safety, they will be shut down permanently.

China has about 24,000 coal mines and they are the most dangerous in the world. More than 2,700 miners died in the first half of this year in fires, floods, and explosions.

As part of the safety campaign, the government has used explosives to block the entrances of several dozen illegal mines in Guangdong Province in southern China.

Peng Cheng, a chief engineer at the China Coal Information Institute, praises the latest crackdown on unsafe mines.

"The goal now is to reduce deaths," he explained. "There are too many deaths recently. This [move] is good. How can you open a mine without caring about the lives of your workers? These miners work without guarantee, just for little money. For the workers sake, the government needs to pull them far from these unsafe places. Human lives should come first."

China's growing thirst for electricity has increased demand for coal - and prices for the fuel have risen. As a result, many companies have opened illegal mines - where the accidents most often occur.

The central government has repeatedly vowed to crackdown on corruption, which is behind many mining disasters. Beijing acknowledges that many local officials are illegally involved in the coal business and that mine owners often bribe officials to get licenses or to continue operating.

The director of the China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong, Han Dongfang says the government is unlikely to succeed in this battle for safety.

"These government officials are very deeply involved in this business - their personal interests are in the coal mining industry," he said. "The central government has no capacity to stop these corrupt local officials from being involved in this business of making money for them selves."

He says past safety campaigns have had little effect. Mr. Han suggests that the best way to improve safety is to give miners a say on their work conditions.

"There is a great element that is not there, in that the workers should have the right to organize their own union," he said. "Letting Chinese workers have the right to practice trade union law, elect their own trade unions to monitor working conditions everyday, is the only solution."

But he says the government is not willing to give them that much control.