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Feather's Miscellany: China And The Chinese

John Waddington-Feather tells of the ordeal of three Chinese coal miners who were trapped underground for 25 days.

I’ve always been attracted to China and its people. Perhaps it’s because I read so much about them when a boy and saw those movies with pig-tailed, impassive, strangely garbed workers on Western railways or serving on in restaurants. But recently, since China became a capitalist nation, I’ve been taking a more serious interest in China and receive daily news bulletins about the country.

I’ve never visited mainland China, but I did spend a few days in Hong Kong some years ago en route for New Zealand and Australia.; and I was wined and dined right royally by two friends who worked there . They were well paid and hosted my wife and I well. Food was expensive but very tasty and the service excellent but most of all, I was surprised to find among the many eating houses in the city, a bit of Yorkshire: an outpost of Harry Ramsden’s fish-and-chip restaurant based near Otley.

It’s the largest and most well known of all Yorkshire’s chippies and it sells superb meals; its fish coming fresh from the east coast ports. Yet my biggest surprise of all there was to see hanging on the wall a 1930s photograph of Harry Ramsden himself with my father, Ira Feather, old drinking cronies, standing outside that famous fish-and-chip shop in Yorkshire.

I’ve watched China steadily develop and become an industrialised nation, for better or for worse. There’s been a sea-change come over that vast country. It’s still Communist, of course, but a very different style of Communism from only a few decades ago. It has a more benevolent government than what Communist states still remain, North Korea and Cuba, which in many ways are backward.

China has embraced Capitalism without, it seems to me, the unpleasant trappings of Capitalism: organised crime, vice, drug syndicates and large scale corruption. I’m sure there are elements of these in modern China, but they’re not as apparent or extensive as in the West. And I’m also sure there are human rights abuses, but not on the scale of many other nations.

China is certainly showing off its new found wealth and growing status in the world. What magnificent displays of showmanship we had at the 2008 Olympics. What superbly organised set-pieces of dancing and firework displays, of music and marching. And recently I was watching the Edinburgh Tattoo where a very colourful and well drilled troupe of Chinese dancers performed a traditional dance, some of the dancers on stilts, dressed in dragon costume; all accompanied by drummers and cymbal players dancing with the rest.

What has surprised me most of all in recent years is the way the Chinese have adopted classical Western music to produce a galaxy of soloists for virtually every instrument, especially the piano and the violin. And you’ve only to look at American and European orchestras to see a sprinkling of Chinese (and Japanese) faces in the international mixture of instrumentalists.

But what I’m going to write about now is a tale of heroism lived out by three Chinese coal-miners trapped for twenty five days underground in a flooded mine following and explosion. We in Britain have had our share of cola-mining disasters, so can relate to the miners in this true story played out in China earlier this year.

It all took place in Quinlong in Ghizhou Province when a terrific explosion ripped through a coal seam and buried eleven miners underground on June 17th. Two more were drowned when water flooded the mineshaft, but three others somehow managed to scramble to safety to a higher reach above the rising water level, but were trapped twenty five days in total darkness with virtually only water to live on
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The first day or two, they hoped rescuers would manage to find them, but no one came and as hope receded, hunger set in, deep, gnawing hunger as they’d nothing to eat. They began gnawing at tree bark they found floating about which they saw in the bit of light from the head lamps, light they had to ration before the batteries gave out. They didn’t feel hungry after the fifth day, but collected water leaking into the mine shaft from the rocks above them and drank that.

One of them had a watch, so they knew how many days they’d been trapped until the fifteenth day. Then the watch stopped and the darkness and the fear of death, which they thought was inevitable now, began to have their effect. They huddled together for comfort and warmth, speaking only at intervals; even sleep evaded them in time, and when they were eventually rescued they couldn’t sleep for more than an hour a day as the nightmare of that twenty five day incarceration stayed with them. The miners were still in intensive care four months after their accident, being counselled by a leading psychiatrist. There are hopeful signs they will recover from their ordeal.

What surprised me was the amount of state medical help given to the miners when they were eventually rescued, state medical help which has expanded enormously over the past twenty years. By the end of 1999 there were 310,000 free public health institutions including local clinics; and 3.5 million beds. Altogether there are also 4.46 million medical personnel with 2.05 million well trained doctors and 1.25 million trained nurses – an increase of 83% since 1978 when Capitalism was introduced into China.

There may be questions over China’s record of human rights, especially after Tiannamen Square, yet there are questions over many nations’ record of human rights in the West and elsewhere, too; but certain it is that China’s industrial and financial development over the past two decades has been phenomenal, making her a world power with more say in the world’s affairs. As the late Alastair Cooke might have said, “Watch this slot, folks!”

John Waddington-Feather ©

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