Workers who built Chinese boomtown are dying of lung disease with nowhere to turn

Gerry Shih

THE WASHINGTON POST – Ill and defeated, Xu Chunlin approached the railing, the limits of a search for justice.

Before him was a 30-foot plunge into Shenzhen’s rush-hour traffic. Behind him stood police he had just clashed with. On the overpass with him were about 80 other former construction workers considering the same desperate calculus.

Leap now? Or wait to die when their lungs gave out?

The journey that led them to that bridge began in the early 1990s. The men were young and healthy then, wide-eyed migrant labourers from rural Hunan province. Shenzhen was a scruffy border boomtown to the south – not yet today’s cosmopolitan hub of 12 million – where they flocked for off-the-books jobs as drillers.

Many Hunanese worked for years, even decades, boring into the bedrock to build subway lines and the foundations of Shenzhen’s whole cityscape. But they didn’t know the inadequacy of the USD1.50 cotton masks they were given, or the irreversible harm of inhaling silica dust that caked their faces once their drills bit into granite-streaked crust.

ABOVE & BELOW: Wang Quanlong and Xu Chunlin. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

Wang Quanlong’s home is filled with stacks of medicines and oxygen bags to relieve symptoms of pneumoconiosis

More than 100 former labourers from Hunan have died in the past decade from silicosis, an incurable condition caused by inhaled dust particles that scar and harden the lungs.

About 600 more are suffering or slowly dying, the leaders of worker groups said. Three dirt-poor communities in Hunan that once survived off their earnings – even saw progress – are now mired in debt and grief while surviving workers spend their little savings and energy to clamour for compensation.

The lives of Hunan’s drillers trace China’s diverging realities.

One story is reflected in the gleaming skylines they built: The backdrop for a prosperous middle class of 400 million people who live in China’s cities and power its economy. Another story is framed by struggle: A vast, rural underclass still toils in hazardous conditions, lacking documentation or means to seek redress except through confrontation with the government.

Forty years after China shifted away from its socialist system – and the promise of cradle-to-grave care for workers – the country is settling hard questions accumulated in the rush to modernity.

Who benefitted and who suffered? Who is owed compensation and who should pay up?

Since early 2018, Hunan’s ailing drillers, led by Xu and others, have travelled more than a dozen times to Shenzhen to demand help. In early November 2018, hundreds of them occupied a government complex before police dispersed them with batons and pepper spray – further aggravating their weak lungs.

It was during that standoff – according to the accounts of four protesters, activists and news accounts – that workers cornered by police on an overpass threatened to die by mass suicide by hurling themselves onto an eight-lane highway.

Xu, one of the protest leaders that night, said he was ready to die for the cause.

But he also felt responsible for these men, he later explained. He was one of the first Hunanese to bring fellow villagers to Shenzhen in the 1990s, setting off a chain of success and tragedy that would unspool over 25 years.

Standing on that overpass, Xu said, he yelled at the men to back away from the ledge and the madness. Keep calm, he told them, and fight another day.

“China is like a cart. It won’t move forward if you don’t push,” he later said. “If you’re not afraid of dying, you can accomplish anything in this country.”

Steep sandstone ravines carve across Sangzhi county, a part of Hunan province with little industry or even agriculture. But multi-storey homes with faux-European balustrades line county road 420. They are the rewards of labouring in cities like Shenzhen – and monuments to the human cost.

“Everyone builds a big house and then there’s no one to live in it,” former driller Gu Zhongping said as he drove along, pointing out homes with a former Shenzhen worker dying or dead.

Gu Hejian, in the house with red posters for his son’s wedding, doesn’t expect to live much longer. Zhong Yichuan, who lived behind a corner store, died two years ago. Wang Zhaogang died in April and was buried by 10 ill workers counting the days themselves.

More than 26 former drillers in Sangzhi county have died of lung disease since 2009, according to residents, who said deaths are accelerating, with about 100 others who are seriously ill. In two other Hunan counties, Leiyang and Miluo, about 500 villagers who worked in Shenzhen have been diagnosed, according to workers’ representatives.

Although official figures are unavailable, a Hunan city-level document found online supported the villagers’ claims. A 2017 health check showed that 290 villagers, mostly in Sangzhi, had silicosis.

Work-related lung diseases have held steady or declined in developed countries as jobs such as coal mining waned and safety standards rose. In China, cases are proliferating.

In 2018, about 873,000 Chinese workers had pneumoconiosis, a broad class of lung disease, up from about 559,000 in 2000, according to China’s National Health Commission. Love Save Pneumoconiosis, a Beijing non-profit, estimates the true number of sufferers to be much higher – possibly about six million.

Chinese officials, who are drawing up new plans to study the crisis, said 23 million workers are at risk of getting the disease. That’s far more than the 11.5 million at-risk workers in India, two million in the United States and 1.7 million in Europe estimated by health authorities and researchers.

Workers who inhale dust and tiny mineral crystals found in rock and sand do not immediately feel symptoms. But over months, sometimes decades, the lodged particles do devastating damage.

Walking, even talking, becomes difficult. Lying flat creates the sensation of suffocation, so most patients sleep sitting next to a small oxygen machine. In the latter stages, they suffer heavy wheezing, steep weight loss, frequent bouts of colds and fevers. Pneumonia and tuberculosis can easily turn fatal. Sooner or later, the lungs simply give out.

Behind a trash-strewn basketball court that serves as a village square in Sangzhi county, a country doctor, Li Li, watched Cheng Xiangyong, a 49-year-old who was doubled over the couch in her office, coughing up long, thick goop.

“He should have one and a half to three years to live,” Li predicted as she prepared familiar drips: Ambroxol to dissolve mucus, aminophylline to dilate air passages and an antibiotic.

Three of her silicosis patients recently died. Sick workers keep streaming in. The one-room clinic she converted out of a ramshackle storefront doesn’t have proper medicines, equipment or, Li admits, know-how.

But for sick workers in the remote hills who need care several times a month, it’s better than a two-hour drive to a city hospital or six hours to the provincial capital, Changsha, she said.

“We have so many people like this,” Li said. “I tell them not to come. I can’t handle them. I can’t handle the risk.”

As he clutched a table, Cheng’s hoarse wheezes filled the room. He had drilled on and off in Shenzhen for 13 years until 2017, when his symptoms surfaced. His weight recently plummeted from 156 pounds to 114.

Cheng worried about dying as quickly as his friend Gu Erhu, whose lungs failed on August 14 just hours after they spoke. Cheng worried about not having money to buy his own casket, about leaving his wife, Chunyue, and his 82-year-old mother to fend for themselves.

“We’ll manage,” Chunyue said, smiling across the table. “There is no other way.”

Shenzhen had a population of 30,000 in 1980 when China’s leaders designated it the country’s first free-market laboratory. Within decades, farmland and mangrove swamps would turn into factories for the world’s iPhones, Asia’s fourth-largest stock exchange, and high-rise towers and digs for the super-rich such as USD4,000-a-night St Regis hotel suites.

Shenzhen’s economic output soared from USD4 million in 1980 to USD340 billion in 2018. Officials have often marketed the city as China’s window to the world.

For Xu Chunlin – decades before he thought about jumping from the bridge – Shenzhen was a path out of hardscrabble Leiyang county in Hunan.

A short and badly underfed 21-year-old in 1989, Xu first ventured 500 miles south that year with four brothers to work at Shenzhen construction sites. He returned for Lunar New Year with CNY5,000 (about USD710 in today’s money), he recalled, and immediately spent it all on more than 3,300 pounds of rice to pile in a granary so his family could recover to their healthy body weights.

Within four years, Xu was working as a middleman. That meant introducing villagers to Shenzhen’s subcontractors, who set aside half the positions at work sites for the Hunanese. Sometimes the jobs were worth USD45,000, making Xu a relatively rich man on his cut.

“Everybody in the village wanted to know me because I had jobs,” he said, sitting in a three-storey brick house he built in Leiyang county. “Every boss in Shenzhen wanted to know me because I had men.”