It is not necessary to hate or envy coal mine owners.
Many Chinese will never hesitate to associate the catchphrase meilaoban (coal mine owner or boss) with wealth and luxurious lifestyle. This is because they have often heard too many stories or reports about how these coal mine owners squander their money on limousines and lavish wedding ceremonies.
That is also the reason why I could not wait to open the book Meilaoban when it reached my desk. It is a fictional account, but if only it were non-fiction, based on interviews of many such people!
Still, this book could serve as a mirror reflecting the vicissitudes and mentality of this group of people. The protagonist is a woman who has stumbled her way up to become one of the wealthiest coalmine owners in her hometown.
The misery she goes through in the process is beyond imagining. Even when she strikes it rich by becoming the owner of a local coal mine, she has to maintain a tricky balance in relationships with local government officials and the elite.
In the novel, she goes bankrupt overnight when coal prices drop dramatically following the global financial crisis. She then becomes richer than earlier when prices pick up.
Coal mine owners have certainly benefited from the market economy that the opening up and reform have entailed.
They are mostly uneducated. Some are completely illiterate.
Yet, they were wise enough to grab the opportunity when local governments contracted coal mines to individuals. They were also audacious enough to cultivate good relations with local government leaders or key officials, who protect them whenever they fail to toe the line. Sometimes these local officials even devise policies that favor them.
It would be unfair to deny the contributions they have made to this country's economic growth by providing quite a large share of its much-needed energy resources.
Without their efforts at producing more coal, a large number of enterprises in the developed coastal areas would hardly be able to survive.
Yet, the flip side of the coin is the damage to the environment in North China's Shanxi province. These coal mines have bypassed environmental protection measures in their random exploitation of this fossil fuel.
There have been reports that some villages near these mines have caved in because of over-exploitation of the coal underneath, and that some of the villagers had to relocate after over-exploitation made their homes unfit to live in.
Of course, local governments are to blame. They have turned a blind eye to the random and irresponsible mining by coal miners and have turned a deaf ear to complaints by local residents about the deteriorating environment and living conditions.
Many of them are in the same boat as the coal mine owners. They have either invested in the mines or have been given shares in the mines. Coal mine owners have turned out to be major links in the local social and political fabric. After several deadly coal mine accidents took place several years ago, the central government issued orders requiring local government officials to withdraw their interest in local coalmines within the stipulated timeframe.
Shanxi province, a major coal producer, started to overhaul the sector by acquiring or merging private coal mines last year. How these upstarts will survive remains a question.
Showing off their wealth has also had a negative influence on the youth. It is not without jealousy and admiration that some youngsters talk about these people.
How should we view this group? People should neither hate them for their extravagance nor envy them for the great wealth they have accumulated.
I remember the English saying: Only the toad beneath the harrow knows where it hurts.