Mining has resumed in the frigid shafts, and long lines of 18-wheelers laden with coal once again clog the twisty mountain roads leading out of Linfen. This grime-covered city, where the packed snow long ago turned black and carbon-colored dust hangs in the air, has reclaimed its role as the capital of coal.
A gas explosion in December threatened Linfen's boom ways. The accident, at a suburban mine, killed 105 workers and led authorities to halt this region's production of the coal so badly needed to fuel China's roaring economy. The businesses in Linfen, in Shanxi province 400 miles southwest of Beijing, were hit hard. "They wouldn't let anybody work," complained Liu Wancong, who runs a small grocery in the city center.
The toll from the explosion ranked as the year's second-worst. The government reported 3,786 miners killed in 2007, a 20 percent drop from 2006 but still making the country's mines the most dangerous in the world.
But the Xinyao Coal Mine accident was different. It touched off a political explosion as well, laying bare in unusual detail the corruption running through China's mining industry. Investigators found that Linfen was a thriving example of the payoffs to regulatory officials that allow unsafe mining practices to persist despite repeated vows by the government in Beijing to crack down and stop the underground tragedies. The disclosures opened a window into the extent of corruption among Communist Party officials as the surging economy encounters an authoritarian system in which party executives make high-stakes decisions without judicial or legislative oversight.
Worries, but little oversight
President Hu Jintao and his government have promised repeatedly to clean things up, warning that the party's grip on power could be at stake. But Hu has refused to relinquish its monopoly on power -- to create an independent court system, for instance, or allow a genuine legislature that could review and challenge party decisions.
In the case of Linfen, he also acted in the knowledge that China's electricity plants, which rely on coal for three-fourths of their fuel, are dangerously low on supplies after exceptionally severe winter weather. The cold snap, which iced lines and cut power across a wide swath of central China, interrupted vital rail deliveries from mines in the north to power plants in the south.
In a recent visit to mines at Datong north of here, Hu said he was losing sleep over worries that southern electricity plants would run out of coal to power the region's humming assembly plants. His premier, Wen Jiabao, said recently that this was a crucial period, with many factories reopening last Wednesday or Thursday after the Chinese New Year holiday and resuming high electricity consumption.
Against that background, the National Development and Reform Commission, Beijing's main economic planning bureau, announced that some mines closed because of safety concerns would be allowed to reopen. The criteria were not revealed. But most state-owned coal mines in the Linfen area have resumed production, residents here said, and owners of shuttered private shafts are also angling for ways to get working again.
Xinyao, a large privatized company that produced 30 million tons in 2007, will probably stay closed, local mining officials said. But other private mine owners, some of them small operators, have started up again despite the ban, according to Linfen residents.
"There are coal mines nearby that are producing without authorization right now," said a 22-year-old mine mechanic whose identity is being withheld to protect him from retribution by his employers.
"I know who they are," he added. "There is a box for reporting such things. But no one dares to report them. Including me. People are afraid of revenge. The owners of these illegal coal mines have a very strong position, and they bribe local officials."
Mine owners covered their tracks
At the time of the accident here, the Xinyao mine was operating with more than double its authorized workforce of 60 miners, investigators found. In addition, the extra miners were digging in a new seam that had not been authorized for production, they said.
Seeking to cover up their illegal activities, the mine's managers waited five hours after the blast before calling authorities for help, officials reported later. During that time, they sent down a rescue crew made up of fellow miners, some of whom were also trapped and became part of the death toll, an inquiry found.
Soon after the accident, authorities took about 35 people into custody for interrogation, including the mine's managers. As the investigation continued, a web of official connections became visible. Last month, Shanxi province authorities held a news conference to announce that key officials in Linfen's party and municipal leadership were involved.
Attempts to root out corruption
The center of the web seemed to be Deputy Mayor Miao Yuanli, who authorities said took nearly $1 million in bribes over the past several years from mine owners operating outside the law. Miao, who had been in office for seven years, had direct responsibility for Linfen's coal industry. In particular, he wielded power to decide whether small mines would be shut down in response to an order from Beijing safety administrators that those producing less than 90,000 tons a year should close because they were the main source of fatal accidents.
Yang Jichun, director of the city's Coal Industry Administration Bureau, was also held for investigation after the Xinyao explosion, as was his deputy, Li Zhigang, and the local propaganda chief, Wang Yuexi. Previously, Yang had been cited as a model Communist Party official for five years running, the Beijing newspaper Xing Jing Bao reported, but he was now being denounced by officials for what they said was a key role in funneling bribe money to Miao.
The investigation, by the party's Shanxi province Discipline and Inspection Committee, pushed on, moving up the local hierarchy. By the end of last month, officials had announced that Miao's boss, Mayor Li Tiantai, was also expelled from the party and kicked out of his job, charged with failing to supervise mine safety.
The city's leadership would be renewed, the committee promised, and this time with honest officials. The provincial party chief, Zhang Baoshun, announced that his main task for 2008 would be cleaning up corruption in Shanxi's mining industry.
Linfen seemed likely to remain at the center of his worries. With nearly 400 mines and billions of tons of proven reserves under Linfen's jurisdiction, the area accounts for more than half of Shanxi's coal production. But local residents gave Zhang little chance of success. The appeal of money in a country hungry for coal is too strong, they said, and fly-by-night mine operators are too willing to cut corners on safety regulations to boost their profits.
"Do any of those officials dislike money?" said the mine mechanic.
"The officials around here are all corrupt, from top to bottom," another Shanxi worker said. "Of course they won't be able to stop the illegal mines from operating."
Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.