The streets of Dalianhe, in China’s frigid northeast province of Heilongjiang, are lined with black snow. The town is home to one of China’s largest open-pit coal mines. Workers drive through its front gate into a massive gorge with cliffs the color of ink — a canyon of coal. Thousands of feet below, it’s silent but for the drip of melting snow.
It wasn’t always this way. Thousands used to work inside this mine on the northern fringe of China’s rust belt. It was established in 1960 at the height of Mao’s China, when the Communist Party considered this region a worker’s paradise. Coal mines and steel mills here employed millions.
Now it’s littered with deserted fossils of a bygone era. The 21st century’s Communist leaders are transforming China’s economy into a paradise for consumers, and have ordered inefficient, state-run mines like this one to close.
A dozen workers from the mine fill a tiny room decorated only with a portrait of Chairman Mao. They’re big, brawny men, and working in their hometown mine is the only job they’ve ever known.
All are employees of Longhua Harbin Coal Company, a subsidiary of China National Coal Group, the third-largest coal mining company in the world. Longhua has told the mine’s 4,000 workers they’ll all be out of a job by year’s end. The mine will be shut, wiping out the town’s main source of revenue.
Worker Wang Fuxiang says soon they’ll become the poorest residents of an already-poor region.
“President Xi [Jinping] says nobody should be left behind on the road to China’s prosperity, but now we won’t even be able to feed ourselves,” says Wang. “If they paid us our pensions and health insurance, we’d at least be able to survive.”
According to information brochures Longhua distributed to workers, the company is offering severance equivalent to $500 times the number of years they’ve worked. No more pension, no health insurance; just a lump sum of money.
Another worker, 40-year-old Wu Songtao, doesn’t know where he’s going to find work now. His grandfather worked at this mine in the 1930s, when occupying Japanese forces ran it, and his father worked here after the Communists took over. Mining coal is all he knows.
“This is a dangerous job,” he says. “Accidents have killed dozens of workers here. We’ve risked our lives for this mine and we earn just enough to afford cabbage. Now we won’t be able to take care of our parents or children.”
Wu’s son is 18 and about to graduate from high school.
“Honestly, my only dream now is that my son can someday become a government official,” Wu says. “That way, he can take bribes and live well. In the People’s Republic of China, only officials and their businessmen friends become rich.”
Longhua offered the equivalent of a $5,000 bonus for employees who took the severance offer before the end of last year. Not a single worker signed up.
Wu says Longhua’s workforce is fiercely united in their demands. Labor unions are banned in China, so they’ve organized over WeChat, a popular social media app.
“We have multiple chat groups devoted to discussing the severance and investigating corruption among the company’s leadership,” Wu says.
The miners reported the mine to the central government for safety violations, and after an inspection the government found their complaints to be valid, ordered the mine to be shut temporarily and fined the company.
Workers have posted videos that include a protest in front of company headquarters, and another from a demonstration in Beijing to demand a corruption investigation. Their posts have attracted the attention of netizens and labor groups — but also the attention of the police.
That happens in the middle of our interview. A local officer who has infiltrated the workers’ WeChat group and saw video clips of them talking to me and walks in. His timing is impeccable: He arrives as the workers tell me they’re not scared of the ramifications of speaking to a foreign journalist.
The officer orders me to turn my recorder off and checks my journalist card. After he leaves, the workers reassure me: “Don’t worry — there’s 4,000 of us and just a dozen of them. They wouldn’t dare bother you.”
Famous last words.
The following morning, I’m awoken by the news that Dalianhe’s police chief and the Communist Party secretary of Longhua have been waiting for me in my hotel lobby in Harbin since 2:30 a.m. They made the three-hour drive to the provincial capital, and they’ve forced miner Wu Songtao to come with them.
Through Wu, they demand that I hand over my interview recordings. They also threaten to block my exit at the airport.
After some back and forth, they relent on their demands and settle on having me come downstairs so that Wu can record himself saying that everything he said the day before — his anger with the company, the severance package, with being unemployed — is a lie.
In the lobby, an exhausted Wu waits for me.
“They want me to tell you that everything I said isn’t true,” he says. “They’re asking me to lie.”
Li Yuwen, the police chief, and Qiu Chunhui, the Longhua Communist Party secretary, are waiting outside. Wu tells me they don’t want me to record or take pictures of them.
But that’s where I go — to ask them a few questions. By the time I get outside, they’ve run away.
Back in the lobby, Wu is desperate to get this over with. He asks me to listen to his statement, while both he and I record him.
“Everything I said yesterday was a lie,” he says. “I didn’t see things clearly. I don’t want you to air this story.”
I tell Wu that I hear what he’s saying, but that I still plan to air the story. He nods and walks outside, looking for his town’s police chief and coal mine boss, who have fled into the frozen streets of downtown Harbin.
After I return to Shanghai, I reach Zhongmei, a subsidiary company of China National Coal Group, which owns the Longhua mine. They issue a statement that reads: “We’re following the relevant laws, everything is going well and we don’t want to trouble you with a return to Harbin.”
As for Wu Songtao, he has already has returned to Beijing with a dozen of his coworkers to petition China’s central government to investigate Longhua officials for corruption.