Hunan Leiyang Silicosis Village Investigation: Numerous Painful Suicides

Translation of 湖南耒阳尘肺乡调查:多人痛苦自杀 by 新京报


By an incomplete tally, to date 50 people have died in the Daozi village of Leiyang, Hunan. If we include the whole of the Leiyang Municipality, that number is 55.

Since the late 1980s, young people from Daozi village have migrated south to work, filled with dreams. In the booming city of Shenzhen, they worked the most lucrative job on the construction site—in drilling and blasting. Ten or more years later, these workers are have been collectively diagnosed with silicosis, and death for them is fast approaching.

Medical expenses have wiped out whatever money workers had made through years of going out working; families that had just risen out of poverty are now worse off than before. The local government has tried to help these families mired by silicosis. The only small comfort these families have, is that the young people from their village who migrate for work no longer work in drilling and blasting.

Yet, just 600 kilometers away, the migrant workers of Hunan’s Sangzhi County have taken over the drilling and blasting industry.

For over a week now, the 41 year-old silicosis victim Cao Bin has been repeatedly contemplating suicide.

Taking meds, hanging, or a pair of scissors. When one just can’t take it anymore, he says, there’s bound to be a way.

The three brothers of the Cao family are all silicosis patients. In the twelfth month of the 2011 lunar calendar, 35 year-old youngest brother Cao Manyun jumped from the seventh floor of his hospital building. One afternoon this April, 43 year-old oldest brother Cao Jin drank strong pesticide.

“With this disease, once you get to the end stages, you might as well be dead.” On August 26th, Cao Bin wore an empty gaze, silicosis made it difficult for him to breathe. The word “dead” was particularly dragged out.

In Daozi village, people call silicosis “stone ash sickness.” Almost every adult can accurately list the symptoms of this disease: chest pain, shortness of breath and persistent coughing.

In Daozi village, silicosis victims like Cao Bin number at least 103 people. That number is at least 119 when the four neighboring villages are included.

Silicosis is known as China’s top occupational disease. As of the end of 2011, the country had accumulated over 700,000 reported cases. The disease appears widely in coal mining, gold mining, tunnel construction and other silicosis-associated industries.

Silicosis is a disease of the lungs, affecting the whole body, with no treatment to date. Patients acquire fibrosis of the lungs, leading to the failure of lung and heart functions. Finally, their lungs will become as hard as rock.

Public reports reveal that every year this type of illness kills tens of thousands of workers migrant workers who work in dust-filled conditions.

By an incomplete tally, Leiyang has lost 55 people to silicosis, of these 50 are from Daozi village.


Unbearable Pain

On the road back to Leiyang, Cao Manyun told his brother, I can’t bear it any more, help me buy a bottle of pesticide.

“It’s finally our turn.” When his younger brother fell ill, Cao Bin realized, “it was our family’s turn this time.”

In December 2010, Cao Manyun, the youngest of the brothers, called home mentioning he was sick, but kept saying not to worry, “looks like I caught a cold, with coughing and chest pain.” In less than a year Cao Manyun had to be hospitalised.

He couldn’t breathe. As the illness got worse there was not a moment he could breathe properly, says Cao Bin.

In August 2011, silicosis victim Xu Xinsheng went to Xiatang village in Sandu township to call on Li Wanmei, who had also fallen victim to the disease.

Li Wanmei was “just skin and bones,” kneeling on the bed in just his underwear, his arms supporting his body, his head propped up by pillows. An electric fan was placed next to him, but he had trouble breathing and was sweating all over. “As if water was pouring out of his body.”

Li Wanmei had not eaten or slept for several days, he just kept kneeling in the same position.

Xu Xinsheng couldn’t help crying.

Less than a month later, Li Wanmei died kneeling in his bed.

In Tonglin village, Daozi county, one day during the 12th lunar month of 2011, silicosis victim Wang Congcheng couldn’t bear the torment any more. He used scissors to pierce his throat, then stabbed his abdomen and placed his hands into a water container while holding a power strip. He died the following day.

On a winter day in 2011, Cao Bin went to Shenzhen to escort his brother home for New Years. Cao Manyun was completely emaciated, weighing less than 35 kilograms. His face was flushed and he couldn’t stop coughing.

On the road back to Leiyang, Cao Manyun told his brother, I can’t bear it any more, buy me a bottle of pesticide.

“Hold out a little longer, I’ll buy it for you after New Years,” Cao Bin said to calm his brother.

After returning home, Cao Manyun was hospitalised in the Leiyang Central Hospital. The next day, he jumped out his seventh floor hospital room.

At that time, eldest brother Cao Jin had just returned from being hospitalized in Changsha.  He shed endless tears, but as it was so hard for him to breathe, he spent a long time inhaling oxygen before he was able to cry.

On an afternoon in April this year, Cao Jin decided to drink pesticide.

According to incomplete statistical data, out of 119 silicosis sufferers, eighteen had died by 2009. Since 2009 there have been 37 more deaths, at least nine of them suicides.

They used a rope, a bottle of pesticide, a pair of scissors or jumped out of a high building, ending the pain of not being able to breathe, and at the same time ending what ought to have been the prime of their lives.


A Drill Worker’s Dream

“Back then, we were brimming with energy, we all dreamed we would make big money here,” says Xu Zhihui of Shuangxi village.

After Cao Bin’s two brothers killed themselves, their father practically stopped talking. Sometimes the old man would just lie in bed crying. Cao Bin would console him on one side and grumble on the other: if our family was better off then, we wouldn’t have had to work as drillers.

Pneumatic drill worker was the identity that Cao Bin and the 119 others took on when they worked in Shenzhen.

The full name for this kind of work is pile hole blast well in-well pneumatic drilling: the worker must work in wells of 1.2 to 4 or 5 meters diameter on construction sites, drilling blast holes into the rock underfoot and then blasting them with explosives to form boreholes several dozen meters deep. These holes are eventually filled with re-enforced concrete to form part of the foundation a large building.

Daozi village is a typical southern agricultural mountain village. The five members of the Cao family have just over two mu[1] of land. Even in a good year, with two harvests of rice, each mu of land yields no more than 900 yuan in income.

Cao Bin remembers how, when he was a child, they had to borrow money almost every year to get through the Spring Festival.

Around 1989, Xu Ruibao, Xu Ruinai, Xu Chunlin, Xu Zhihui and others from Shuangxi village migrated south to Shenzhen to work as pneumatic drillers. They brought home the village’s first radio.

Because the skill requirements were low while wages were relatively high, “working the pneumatic drill” brought on Daozi village’s working migration south.

Cao Bin remembers that at the time one made 30 plus yuan a day working as mason, while a pneumatic driller could make more than 100 yuan a day.

Pneumatic drilling became a sought-after job. “Nobody would take you if you weren’t introduced by a friend.” Cao Bin recalls that once villagers who wanted to work as drillers brought tea-seed oil, a locally speciality, to Shenzhen as a gift for the construction site foremen.

In 1991, Cao Bin’s younger brother Cao Manyun meet Xu Chunlin of Shuangxi village. By way of Xu’s introduction, he became a member of the first group of pneumatic drillers from Shanggucun.

One after the other, Cao Manyun introduced his older brothers Cao Bin and Cao Jin, as well as his younger cousin Cao Xianben and many other villagers to the work.

Cao Bin had always regretted joining late. When he arrived in Shenzhen in 1993 to work as a driller, practically all of the men from neighbouring Shuangxi village’s eleventh brigade were already working as pneumatic drillers.

Earning money, returning home, building a house and getting married was these drill workers dream. In the Shenzhen of that era, the economy was developing rapidly and urgently needed migrant laborers.

On September 2nd, numbers provided by relevant government officials responsible for Daozi village revealed that at peak, more than 200 people from Daozi were working in Shenzhen as pneumatic drillers. For  certain period, they practically monopolized the pile hole blasting industry in Shenzhen.

“Back then, we were brimming with energy, we all dreamed we would make big money here, and then go home and built a beautiful multi-story house,” says Xu Zhihui, a Shuangxi village silicosis victim.


“Dust Masks” and Escaping Poverty

Dust masks used to be worn for a month, but out of fear of getting sick, now they’re changed every two or three days. After all three brothers got drilling jobs, the Caos never again had to borrow money to get through the Spring Festival.

Once you start drilling—three, four meters down—the dust is everywhere, you can’t see anyone. When you climb out, you’re covered all over in white dust, only your two irises can be seen moving around.

At the time, the only protective measure was a dusk mask, says Cao Bin. But it was of limited use. “Your nostrils are full of dust, and even when you spit what comes out is slurry.”

In 1999, Cao Bin’s 6th year on the job, a couple of workers from Shuangxi Village who had been doing drilling work for a relatively long time started to manifest symptoms like fever, coughing and chest pain. They all thought they had caught a heavy cold, took medicine for a week until they felt they were better, and went back to working in the pit.

That year, [Cao Bin’s] older brother Cao Jin and younger brother Cao Manyun built new houses in the village. Before that, beginning in 1996, among the earliest batch of drillers from Shuangxi village, some five or six families, including Xu Ruibao’s, had successively built new houses.

But Cao Bin was never able to save the 50 thousand yuan necessary to build a new house. He didn’t “make big money” like in the stories circulated in the village told. He could bring home at most ten to fifteen thousand a year, said Cao Bin.

Pneumatic drilling isn’t the type of job where you have work every day. The company’s construction sites contracts are limited. When one site is finished, they rest until their boss secures the next one. “In one year, we work half a year’s time at most.”

The first time Cao Bin had heard of silicosis was around 2000. Li Cheng, Xu Longgu, Xu Yilong and others frin Shuangxi village were told by doctors they “might have silicosis.”

But no one knew what that implied. “If a cold is an illness that can be cured by taking medicine, maybe to cure silicosis you need to get injections.” Nobody took it seriously, says Cao Bin.

Cao Bin still blames Li Cheng for being selfish. He says Li Cheng feared others would shun him to avoid infection, and even more feared losing his job, and so only told his co-workers about his illness right before his death in 2003.

By 2008, among the first wave drill workers such as Xu Longgu, at least 14 had passed away. Practically all of them were from Shuangxi village.

Their symptoms before death: coughing, shortness of breath, lying on their beds unable to leave their oxygen machines, X-ray showing shadows over or dust covering their lungs.

But all the drillers persisted in doing their work.

Dai Chun, Assistant Professor at the Hunan Federation of Trade Unions Cadre School, who has been long-term paying attention to silicosis victims, explains that due to the pressure to make ends meet, virtually no first stage silicosis victims stop working to rest. And the direct result of working while sick is the rapid intensification of the illness.

Cao Bin and his younger brother Cao Manyun once discussed whether this disease was connected to their line of work. They felt they wouldn’t necessarily get sick, and even if they did, “We haven’t worked as long as the people from Shuangxi Village have, no matter what we should have another fifteen years to live.”

They felt they should change out their dusk masks frequently. Before, they would wear a dusk mask for a month. Now they change masks every two or three days.

After all three brothers got drilling jobs, the Caos never had to borrow money again. Sometimes villagers even came to borrow money from them. They felt fulfilled.


A Peculiar Way to Become “Prosperous”

Cao Bin got the highest compensation: 299800 yuan. It would have taken him 30 years of drilling to earn that kind of money. He felt like it was worth it.

When there was no more work to do on the boss’ construction site, Cao Jin, the eldest brother, returned home in 2004 to work as a mason. Cao Bin kept worked as driller through 2008, and then returned home. Only his younger brother Cao Manyun stayed in Shenzhen.

The three brothers hadn’t noticed anything unusual about their health, and hadn’t gone for any check-ups.

In April 2009, Xu Ruibao, a Shuangxi villager hit with the disease, deciding to give it a try, looked up his old boss  and demanded money for treatment. He managed to obtain 100,000 yuan.

This ignited the Daozi village drillers’ fight for their rights.

Cao Bin organised seven people to visit his former boss and demand money. The boss said they would have to first confirm whether they had silicosis.

From end of May to beginning of June 2009, the three Cao brothers were among some 170 people who underwent examinations at the Shenzhen Occupational Disease Prevention and Treatment Center. Only in nine cases was silicosis ruled out.

The three brothers were all diagnosed with silicosis. Cao Bin with third stage silicosis, Cao Jin with second stage, and Cao Manyun with first stage.

“We showed the results to our boss. But he wouldn’t admit responsibility and claimed we also worked for other companies,” Cao Bin says. Their fight for their rights was in a deadlock.

On June 15 2009, more than 100 drillers returning to Shenzhen Occupational Disease Prevention and Treatment Center for a re-examination got in to an argument with the Center’s director was dragged the director along to the door of the local government building. That day, the Shenzhen government established a “stability maintenance group.”  Leiyang Municipality also sent a working group to Shenzhen.

That August, the Shenzhen government issued a plan for dealing with the Leiyang drillers. According to the severity of each individual case, the 119 sick workers or families of deceased workers from Daozi village and other four neighbouring villages, would receive compensation in an amount ranging from 70000 yuan to 299800 yuan.

At the time, Cao Bin still wasn’t too clear what silicosis actually was. When the results came out, the three brothers were still able to eat and work. Cao Bin used to think that third stage was the least severe stage of silicosis and that first stage was the gravest. It was only when he got his compensation that he realised it was the other way around.

“So many people are sick, we’ll never get to my turn to die.” Everybody was thinking like that, says Cao Bin. They would compare results and make jokes: you’re third stage, you’re bound to die first.

They were more concerned with the amount of their compensation. At the time, Cao Bin’s condition was the most severe, and on top of that he [could prove he] was in an employment relation, so he received top compensation of 299800 yuan.

It would have taken him 30 years of drilling to earn that kind of money. He felt like it was worth it.

Villagers who were not sick would go so far as to envy those who became “rich.” Cao Bin liked to gamble. He says he once lost 50000 yuan in one go. Cao Jin and Cao Manyun finally had the money to redecorate their houses. Some of the silicosis victims used the compensation money to build a house. Others used it to go into business.

The hopes that Cao Bin nurtured when he migrated south to Shenzhen were in this way realized.


The “Widow Village” Under Silicosis’ Shadow

The Shuangxi village eleventh brigade has been given the name of Widow Village. Among 48 households, at least 23 people have fallen sick and 16 have died. How rapidly the disease took hold was beyond Cao Bin’s imagination. His younger brother Cao Manyun was the first to develop symptoms. Cao Bin followed.

In June of this year, Cao Bin was hospitalized for the first time. After two discharges, in the middle of August he was hospitalized again. “When you’re almost out of money you are discharged, and once you’ve borrowed more money you go back again.”

The money for his current hospital stay is borrowed from his son-in-law. Treatment now costs over 1000 yuan per day. Cao Bin says he now owes more than 50,000 yuan.

Silicosis is a chronic disease that continues to develop and needs ongoing treatment, which means ongoing [medical] costs.

Xu Longgu from Shuangxi village made 100,000 plus yuan in ten years of work. In 2009, he was compensated 70,000 yuan. Before Xu Longgu died, his family says, they spent 300,000 yuan on his treatment.

Wang Ping of Daozi village could not afford treatment. He could only inhale oxygen at home.

In the morning of August 28th, Wang Ping pointed to the oxygen machine at his bedside and said: I bought this from Cao Bin’s brother-in-law Liu Fangzhi for 600 yuan. Before him, Cao Xiaoqing was using it, and before him Cao Xinwen was using it. All three have already died of silicosis.

At the end of 2011, the Daozi village government visited all of the silicosis families. On September 2nd, Li Guoqiang, the village party committee member said that the vast majority of silicosis patients were between 40 and 50 years of age and were the pillars of their households. After they fell ill, on one hand, the household lost its labor power, and on the other hand, expensive medical bills were bankrupting households.

The most painful shadow of Daozi’s silicosis hangs over Shuangxi village’s eleventh brigade. Among 48 households, at least 23 people have fallen sick and 16 have died. As the deceased are mostly male, the village has been dubbed the Widow Village.

Villager Xu Yilong’s home had been surrounded by wild grass as tall as a person. Vines climb up its mossy walls and up onto the rooves of his and his neighbour Xu Shuzhong’s houses. His other two neighbours are Xu Ruibao and Xu Ruinai.

The four died one after the other from silicosis between 2004 and 2010.

On the evening of August 25th, taking in the village from the house of silicosis victim Xu Xinsheng, only three homes were lighted. Taking Xu Xinsheng’s house as the center point, 17 neighbors have silicosis, 12 have already died.

This year alone, another two people died of the illness. On the first day of the lunar new year, Xu Zuobin died in the arms of his 68-year old mother. Half a year later, his older brother Xu Zuoqing also died.

Seventy-six year old Wang Cuilan has five sons. All of them have done pneumatic drilling work. Three sons have already died of silicosis. Her third son had done drilling work for the shortest time but unfortunately died of a snakebite. Only Xu Chunlin is still alive. This year, he started to develop symptoms of silicosis.

On August 25th, Wang Cuilan recalled, before we were poor but the village was lively. Later, we had good policy and our young people went to the cities to work. “They made money, built houses, got married, but now they are dead. The village has become empty.”

Is this a good or a bad thing? Wang Cuilan asks.


What Changes and What Doesn’t

The young people of Daozi village still go out for work, but they don’t do drilling anymore. Now, migrant workers from Hunan’s Sangzhi County, 600 kilometers away, have “taken over”.

“Even if you don’t get into college, and even if you are poor, don’t do work that will harm your body. Steal or rob if you have to, but don’t ever go into pneumatic drilling.” Cao Bin worries about the future of his two sons, 14 and 8 years old respectively, who are still in school.

He’s now almost unable to walk. When he rolls up the leg of his trousers, his legs are like two wooden sticks that abruptly stick out of his body.

The numbers of the sick are still increasing. In 2009, Cao Bin’s apprentice, Wang Zenghe had not yet been diagnosed, but in April of this year he also received the diagnosis “consider the possibility of silicosis”. Cao Bin’s other workmate, Li Zhuyun of Shuangxi village, is also showing early symptoms.

Daozi cillage Party Committee member Li Guoqiang says the government wants to help the sick. They have helped sick workers’ families register for a basic subsistence allowance. In the past few years, they’ve provided 6 oxygen machines to the sick. [They also] do their best to protect the silicosis victims’ villages from power outages, as the sick need to continuously breath oxygen.

Cao Bin’s 22 year old daughter has migrated south to work in Shenzhen. The changes in Shenzhen have surprised Cao Bin. In 2011 when he went to escort Cao Manyun, the uncultivated land and tiled-roof houses of yesteryear were long gone. Amidst the forests of tall buildings, the lights and debauchery, Cao Bin got lost several times.

Xu Zhihui’s 24 year old son has also migrated south to Shenzhen. Not far from his workplace is what was once the tallest building in Asia. The foundations of this building were drilled by his father and his father’s coworkers.

According to Li Guoqiang, by a conservative estimate, out of the current population of 30,000, 30-40% have migrated for work; almost all of those are young adults. Fortunately, none of them are working in drilling anymore.

After migrant workers from Leiyang gradually withdrew from Shenzhen’s drilling industry, workers from Sangzhi County in Zhangjiajie, 600 kilometers away, began to take over. Statistics show that since 2004, the number of migrant workers from Zhangjiajie working in Shenzhen’s drilling and blasting industry stands at about 300.

Gu Longguo of Furongqiao Village, Sangzhi County, has been working as a driller in Shenzhen since 2006. As of September 1st, according to Gu’s estimates, there are still about 100 workers from Sangzhi County drilling in Shenzhen.

He’s heard from people at home that the symptoms of fellow villagers who came out to drill early are showing growing more severe, and that at least two people have died this year. “The situation we see now in Daozi village is very likely our future”.

When asked why he is still working as a driller, Gu Longguo says his family is poor and he’s not young; drilling is the best work he can find. He says that the amount of dust inhaled these days is much less than before, because the masks they wear now are thicker and have sponge pads.


[1] One mu is approximately 1/6 of an acre.


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