A blast tore through a section of Dajingta, a fairly remote village in the mountains of China’s northwestern Shaanxi province on Thursday. After 72 hours, there remained total silence on the tragedy, which – by Thursday – had claimed 14 lives and injured more than one-hundred people, according to reports from state media.

An accident of this scale has to be devastating in a community like Dajingta and its adjacent Xinmin Township, which has a population in the thousands. But there were no human stories emerging on Thursday — or probably any day — from the coal heaps of Dajingta, despite its potentially symbolic role as a reflection of changes in China’s economy.

Shaanxi province is one of China’s leading coal producers, and the city of Yulin, whose jurisdiction encompasses the site of Monday’s explosion, is at the very heart of the country’s energy industry. According to Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily, the value of the city’s output of raw coal, natural gas, crude oil and other mineral resources accounts for 30 percent of China’s total. Xinmin Township, in which the village of Dajingta is located, is a top producer of raw coal in the region.

According to Sxcoal.com, an information website specialising in China’s coal industry, there are a total of 267 coal mines within the jurisdiction of Yulin. Of these, 35 are owned by the central or provincial governments, while 232 are owned by governments at lower levels.

As industrial output in China has slowed in recent years, however, the country has experienced coal surpluses, and this has prompted production shutdowns across Shaanxi. “Yulin’s coal sector may continue to be negatively impacted by sluggish coal prices and the nation-wide campaign to cut excess capacity in the next few years,” Sxcoal reported in January this year.

A government source in Fugu County, which administers Xinmin and other nearby townships, told the Oriental Daily that authorities had called a halt to local coal mining. The source speculated that traditional coal producing areas like Dajingta Village had possibly continued to mine coal secretly, requiring purchase by stealth of the necessary explosives.

As all of Yulin’s 267 registered coal mines are operated by central, provincial or local governments, this certainly raises the question of government complicity in any illegal mining activities that might have led to Monday’s explosion.
Behind Dajingta’s immediate suffering there are almost surely compelling stories about local corruption, and about the social and economic pain the community has suffered as China’s economy endures what President Xi Jinping has called the “new normal.”

Those are stories we shouldn’t expect to read.

Looking at news coverage in mainland China on Thursday, we can find no fresh coverage whatsoever of the Monday explosion in Shaanxi. Not a single mainland newspaper mentions the incident, nor do major news websites offer versions that differ in any way from the last official release from Xinhua News Agency, sent out late afternoon on Tuesday, October 25th.

On Tuesday, the second full day following the disaster, just 14 newspapers across the country ran any coverage of the explosion in Dajinta Village, and all of these ran the text of the October 25 Xinhua release verbatim.

Here is how the story appeared Wednesday on page 15 of the Western Economic Daily, a commercial spin-off of the official Gansu Daily. The article, clearly marked as Xinhua copy, appears in the lower right-hand corner of the page.

The following is a translation of the Xinhua release as it was run in the Western Economic Daily. Readers may note that the sprinkling of facts offered in the story’s lede is followed by a long section emphasising the actions taken by Party and government leaders at various levels, a very typical propaganda approach to breaking incidents in China.

Explosion Accident in Shaanxi’s Fugu Caused by Illegal Manufacture and Storage of Explosives

Western Economic Daily / October 26, 2016, A15, Domestic News

Xinhua News Agency — On October 24 at 2:03 p.m. an explosion occurred in five prefabricated buildings in Dajinta Village (打井塔村) in Xinmin Township, Fugu County, Yulin City, Shaanxi province. Onsite investigations by police have revealed that the centre of the explosion is an oval-shaped pit 16 by 15 metres, and 3 metres [deep], on which site there were originally five prefabricated buildings that have been destroyed, and that the accident resulted in varying degrees of damage to neighbouring structures. The police investigation has found that the cause of the explosion was the illegal manufacture and storage of explosives.

Under the direction of the Ministry of Public Security, and through the coordinated efforts of police in both Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia, three suspects were already arrested in the case early in the morning on the 25th, and relevant responsible persons are now in custody. In the course of the investigation, the suspects candidly confessed to illegally manufacturing and storing explosives.

As of 4 p.m. on the 25th, the accident had resulted in 14 deaths, including 4 males and 10 females, 12 adults and 2 children. There are 106 injured still in hospital, including 11 in critical condition. 41 people left on their own after receiving treatment for minor injuries.

After the incident occurred, Shaanxi province and Yulin City, in accordance with Central Party leaders and the provincial [Party] committee, and with the written instructions, comments and demands of principal leaders in the provincial government, assigned agency personnel to hurry to the scene and organise the rescue effort. They held meetings on the scene through the night and formed a rescue leadership team, and the province and the city together formed an onsite relief command centre and 7 work team, putting full energy into carrying out rescue work.

At 2:30 a.m. on October 25, the last person trapped [in the rubble] was rescued, onsite rescue work essentially came to an end, and the handling of the aftermath was carried forward with order and intensity. As of now, all people whose homes were damaged have been removed [from the area]. As the investigation into the accident goes forward, Shaanxi’s provincial Party committee and provincial government have already tasked Yulin City with launching mechanisms to seek out those responsible, handling severely any people found to have neglected their duty.


David Bandurski

David is the co-director of the China Media Project, a research and fellowship program with the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. A frequent commentator on Chinese media, his writings have appeared in Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, Index on Censorship, the SCMP and others.