Looting orgy at Chinese mine

(First Edition)

WHEN the peasants of Yingde county in southern China saw their local coal mine preparing to close, petty theft turned into what the Canton newspaper Yangcheng Wanbao called 'more or less open robbery' and finally 'massive collective looting'.

For three days last month, 600 to 700 peasants swarmed over the mine in Guangdong province, beating up miners who refused to pay protection money, stealing everything that could be moved and using looted dynamite to blow up heavy equipment for scrap. Even the red scarves of the Youth Pioneers were taken, along with the primary school's 400lb iron gate. Riot police had to be brought in to stop the 'mad plundering'.

By the time the newspaper's reporter reached the scene, Jintan Branch Mine lay in ruins. The 35,000kW high-voltage line to the complex had been cut. The repair shop was emptied of rail cars and large quantities of steel rail, while the water treatment system was demolished for its steel reinforcing beams.

Nor did the mine's staff facilities escape. Chairs, bowls, chopsticks and even jars of preserved vegetables were all taken from the mess hall, as were the electric cookers, crockery, stoves and drainpipes in the kitchen. Things that could not be removed, such as refrigerators, chopping blocks and boilers, were blown to pieces. Nearly half the mine's 229 workers fled during the orgy of looting.

Seeking to explain how so much state property could be plundered for so long without hindrance, Yangcheng Wanbao blamed incompetence and complacency among local party and law enforcement officials. Police had been assigned to the mine as it gradually closed down but they withdrew after six months, during which nothing had been done to remove the equipment. Leading officials had already found jobs elsewhere and the miners, who had not been paid for two months, showed little inclination to protect their employers' property when villagers, 'not caring whether it was day or night', sacked the mine between 6 and 9 May.

China's widening gap between rich and poor is most obvious in Guangdong province. Factories bordering Hong Kong pay the highest wages in the country, but much of the interior remains untouched by the wealth. While this may account for the eruption of greed which laid waste to Jintan Branch Mine, an encounter with some of those arrested afterwards left the Canton journalist uneasy.

They were all about 20, with only three to five years' schooling. 'All were saying: 'I am not sure that what we did broke the law. Everybody was taking things. I just joined them.' '. His article concluded: 'These illiterates, semi-illiterates and law-illiterates have the potential to be a great problem for law and order in the 1990s.'

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