In a rare admission, China has acknowledged an increase in deaths from major coal mine accidents as the government presses its campaign to cut production overcapacity in the industry.
On July 28, a top safety official singled out the coal industry while reporting an overall drop in production accidents during the first half of the year, the official Xinhua news agency said.
According to Yang Huanning, director of the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS), a total of 23,534 production accidents claimed 14,136 lives during the period, down 8.8 percent and 5.3 percent from a year earlier, respectively.
But Yang told a Beijing press conference that coal was the exception in "a generally stable work safety situation."
Sixty-four workers had died in five major coal accidents through June compared with 21 deaths in one accident a year before, Yang said.
Across all industries tracked by SAWS, 198 deaths occurred in 15 major accidents, representing reductions of 23.9 and 25 percent, Xinhua reported.
Yang cited neglect of equipment maintenance by struggling coal mines as one likely cause of major accidents. Mines slated for closure had also raised risks by prolonging production due to recent price hikes for coal, he said.
Recent death toll improvements
The comments were unusual on several counts, most notably because China has previously reported dramatic improvements in coal mine death tolls in recent years.
In 2014, the latest year for which state media have reported complete numbers, coal mine fatalities totaled 931, dropping below 1,000 per year for the first time.
In 1996-2000, the annual death toll averaged 7,619, an astonishing rate of over 20 per day, according to previous official reports on one of the world's most dangerous industries.
China's progress in promoting safety and closing its most treacherous small mines has been impressive, considering the country's increase in coal output as fatalities declined.
In 1990, the ratio of deaths per million metric tons of coal mined stood at 6.1, a 2004 study at Chinese University of Hong Kong found. In 2014, the ratio fell to 0.24, RFA calculated from official reports.
But the official reports have grown sketchy and sporadic, suggesting that the most recent tally of "major" accidents was intended to make a point.
The major accident category represents only a fraction of China's coal mining deaths, but comprehensive figures have not been publicized, making it unclear whether total fatalities went up or down.
SAWS defines major accidents as those that kill over 10 people, injure over 50 or result in direct economic losses over 50 million yuan (U.S. $7.5 million), Xinhua said.
But trying to construct complete figures from official reports of SAWS statements is difficult.
On April 25, the agency said coal mine accidents in the first quarter dropped 36.2 percent from a year earlier, while the death toll had decreased by 4.7 percent.
But 10 days later, SAWS said that coal accidents in the four-month period through April rose 40 percent, Xinhua reported.
State media reports of accidents during the period do not account for the discrepancy, suggesting that the sudden increase may be only for accidents classified as major.
Speaking at the SAWS press conference, a coal safety official cited 205 deaths from all coal accidents during the six-month period, an increase from 116 in the year-earlier period, according to a transcript.
But neither figure appears to correlate with the death rates reported for 2014 or the first quarter of this year.
Last December, Xinhua reported a 68-percent drop in deaths from major coal accidents for an 11-month period of 2015 without citing a figure for all accidents.
In January, another report cited a 37-percent decline in mine deaths from gas explosions last year without giving a figure for all fatalities.
In April, Xinhua also reported the first-quarter decrease in coal deaths using percentage terms without disclosing the fatality numbers for either the quarterly period or all of 2015.
The pattern of publishing partial or cherry-picked data is usually seen as putting the best face on China's progress, making it all the more exceptional to report the rise in major accidents.
The new focus coincides with the government's drive to shut down surplus coal production capacity in the country that consumes about half of the world's high-polluting fuel.
In January, the China National Coal Association (CNCA) estimated production capacity at 5.7 billion metric tons, compared with the 3.75 billion tons produced last year.
The CNCA claims to have shed 560 million tons of capacity and closed 7,250 mines in the past five years, although China's coal figures have been widely questioned.
Earlier this year, the government set a goal of shutting 4,300 more mines and eliminating 700 million tons of capacity in two to three years.
A guideline from the cabinet-level State Council has called for trimming 500 million tons of capacity and consolidating another 500 million among mine operators within three to five years.
In another unusual report on July 26, China's top planning agency reminded local governments and state-owned enterprises that they had made only 29 percent of their targeted 2016 capacity cuts by midyear.
While several provinces and regions have been on track with mine shutdowns, nine others had made no progress at all, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said.
"Chinese authorities are alarmed by the slow progress in reducing overcapacity in the in the coal and steel industries as a temporary market recovery impeded efforts to shut down production," a Xinhua report on Aug. 5 said.
On Aug. 11, the NDRC ordered local governments and companies to speed up coal mine closures. After seven months, the shutdowns had reached 38 percent of this year's goal of 250 million tons, the agency said.
"Local governments should strive to fulfill their targets by the end of November, while central and state-owned coal producers should complete in the early part of that month," said Deputy Director Lian Weiliang.
The official statements are a sign that the central government is watching closely as coal producers delay closures to take advantage of rising prices after two years of declining demand.
By highlighting the increase in major accidents, SAWS and state media appear to be reinforcing the government's drive to reduce overcapacity.
But the motivations behind the manipulation of data may do little to clarify the real safety situation in China's mines.
Tim Wright, an authority on China's coal industry and professor emeritus of Chinese studies at Britain's University of Sheffield, said that experts have been debating whether the previous reductions in accidents have resulted from capacity cuts.
"But this argues the opposite," Wright said in an email message, referring to the SAWS account of deferred maintenance during the prolonged process.
Wright criticized the release of partial data on coal mine accidents.
The reports "are often ambiguous as between total fatalities and major accidents," he said. The uncertainty may only make it harder to corroborate claims of reduced death tolls.
Wright said the central and provincial governments have both cut back on releasing more specific safety statistics by types of mines over the past decade.
The "cessation of publication of more detailed statistics (is) both annoying and puzzling," said Wright, arguing that it would be in China's best interest to issue complete reports.
"If you have a good news story, surely you should make the information as widely and fully available as possible," he said.