The backlash over the appalling rate of coalmine deaths in China is proving fortuitous for Australia, write John Garnaut in Taiyuan and Clancy Yeates.
The people of Shanxi, a province famous in China for its deadly coal mines and toxic air, have had enough.
"We don't want blood-tainted GDP," Fu Sufen, a mother and taxi driver, says in the provincial capital, Taiyuan.
One statistic China failed to mention in the week's 60th anniversary celebrations is that more than a quarter of a million Chinese workers have died in coal mines since 1949.
Shanxi province has produced far more coal and coal mining deaths than any other. The worst of the disasters, when 682 died in an accident in 1960, was classified as a state secret and not disclosed until 1998.
The regular gas explosions, mine shaft floods, cave-ins and generally Dickensian working conditions have undermined Shanxi's standing on the national stage, along with China's claims to being a civilised nation.
Over the past decade, Beijing has repeatedly launched safety campaigns but they have mostly subsided beneath layers of corruption and collusion.
But that all changed dramatically one year ago when, after yet another Shanxi mine disaster, China's top leadership signalled they had also had enough blood-tainted GDP.
The provincial Governor, Meng Xuelong, was sacked and replaced with Wang Jun, who was then the director of the State Administration of Work Safety.
In 12 months, Mr Wang has upended the province's priorities. Mine deaths have plummeted. But so has coal production and Shanxi's economy.
In the first half of the year, Shanxi slipped from first to fourth place on the national mine death list, with 132 fatalities.
The reduction helped pull down the national death toll to 1175 for the half-year, down 15 per cent from the previous year. Last year, 3200 people were killed in China's coal mines, which was less than half of the 7000 fatalities recorded in 2003.
The cost of Shanxi's sudden safety drive is that it was the only province in China to report its economy contracted in the first half of this year - by a huge 4.4 per cent from a year earlier - while China as a whole grew 7 per cent.
Shanxi coal production fell by 150 million tonnes in the first half of the year compared with the previous year, said the president of Huadian Power International Corp, Chen Jianhua. That reduction was almost as large as Australia's entire coal output for the period.
It proved fortuitous for Australia.
Shanxi's safety-induced coal shortfall created an opening for Australian coal exporters for the first time in China's history.
In the seven months to July, Australia's thermal coal (for power generation) exports to China reached 8.8 million tonnes from a virtual standing start - up 986 per cent from the previous year.
Output of coking coal, the harder and more valuable variety used in steel making, reached 12.2 million 'nes in the first half, up by 1403 per cent.
The unexpected opening in China has offset a collapse in Australia's biggest coal export markets in Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
At the macro level, it has cushioned Australia's net exports and terms of trade. At the company level, Chinese exports have been the difference between record profits and disaster.
Macarthur Coal, which sells coal for pulverised coal injection (PCI) to steel mills, had not sold a single shipment of coal to China before this year. But in the six months to June, Chinese buyers soaked up half of its 2.3 million tonnes sold.
Macarthur's executive general manager of corporate development, Ian McAleese, says the safety-driven import surge was sustainable but he is no longer in a position to supply China because other markets in North-East Asia are surging back.
''We have not got the coal available to sell to China any more,'' he said. ''Demand for coal will probably remain there for the time being, but the availability of coal may not.''
Vicky Binns, an analyst at BHP Billiton, the world's biggest coking coal producer, said China was on track to import 30 million tonnes of coking coal this year compared with just 1 million tonnes last year.
"We see this trend continuing," she said.
But there are other close observers who have witnessed the cycles of official excitement, temporary mine closures and subsequent resurgence all too often before.
One hundred kilometres west of Taiyuan is a county called Yuanping whose economy, like much of Shanxi province, runs almost exclusively on coal.
The big mines in the area are mostly run by a huge provincial government-owned company called Datong. In those large mine areas, the towns are still caked with dust, the roads clogged bumper to bumper with coal trucks and everything is relatively normal.
The filthy air is about to get worse when Datong and the power company Huaneng Power complete what will be Shanxi's largest power plant.
But further up the barren valleys, where the private miners once ruled, it is a different story.
An old man squats in the dust of his mud-brick village and laments what the privately owned mines have done to his lifestyle.
"The spring-fed stream has dried up," he says. "And I can no longer crop half my field because a huge fissure has opened up in the middle of it, which I cannot cross."
His village used to own the mine until the private entrepreneurs arrived about five years ago. The coal bosses allow him to dig out coal for his own needs and to provide electricity but offered no other compensation.
"All the able-bodied workers in the village have all left because we've lost our only source of income," he says. "We've petitioned the county and provincial governments many times, but nothing ever happened."
In the past, he says, the mines shut down for short periods just before the mine safety inspectors arrived and then opened straight up again after they departed. But this time he has become a little happier because the mine has stayed shut since late last year, which is when the former coal safety chief, Wang Jun, arrived as provincial governor.
The coal cart tracks are all rusted over and only a skeleton construction crew remains.
The prolonged mine shutdown has left the old man with a new trickle of stream water.
Back in Taiyuan, however, the former owner of one of the area's mines under construction is furious.
"It's like I buy this cup," says the former mine boss, as he handles his tea thermos. "It's my cup, but now I'm told I'm not allowed to use it."
The mine boss, whom we will call Zhang, is accustomed to covering his philosophical bases. On one wall is a picture of almost 1000 entrepreneurs at a private industry association meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. On the opposite wall are dusty old photos of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
Since 2006, Mr Zhang's private consortium has invested 70 million yuan ($11.8 million) in the mountain mine, including about 30 million yuan to pay an upfront royalty on the underlying 15 million tonne coal reserves. He shows us an old document from the provincial coal industry bureau giving him permission to start mining in December this year.
But in December last year, the Government told him to suspend his project. And on May 14, the Shanxi Government issued an edict that all mines producing less than 900,000 tonnes would be shut, merged or taken over, reducing the number of coal mines from 2600 to 1000 by next year. By 2012, it said, the production threshold would be increased to 1.2 million tonnes and the number of mines to 800 by 2012.
The edict listed seven large state-owned mines as eligible to make the acquisitions.
Mr Zhang was told he would be bought out by Datong, the local coal mining giant, on terms that he could not negotiate.
"Whether you merge is not up to you, it's totally forced under threat of closure," he says.
Last month, Mr Zhang and hundreds of other "coal bosses" finally accepted that this policy was not for changing. He sold out to a consortium of Wenzhou coal bosses who owned three mines in the same area as his, and who bundled the four mines together to sell to Datong.
The Wenzhou consortium will take 49 per cent and give 51 per cent, with the promise of an undetermined quantum of compensation from Datong at an unknown date.
"I sold for 50 million yuan, I've invested 70 million, but the market value of my mine is 600 million," says Mr Zhang.
"In foreign countries, people abide by the law, but in China things are done according to 'red heading documents'," he says, referring to the form of Chinese administrative edicts.
In his view, China is lurching away from the entrepreneurial dynamism embodied in the photo above his desk and back towards its stodgy Leninist past.
Shanxi's coal bosses are widely maligned as the evil symbol of Dickensian China. According to the ubiquitous stereotype, they drive stretch limousines, sprinkling wads of cash in front of greedy officials and are known for vanishing into thin air when their mines collapse and kill their workers.
But now, it seems, they are an endangered species.
Another Shanxi coal boss, whom we'll call Huang, has invested 40 million yuan on a mine in Linshi county producing 150,00 tonnes a year. He is still operating but says he will be closed within two months.
"It's not even possible to bribe officials now," he says. "Of 96 mines in the county, only 36 are still operating and production has been cut by half."
Two weeks ago, one of China's most dynamic newspapers ran a cover story headed "A world without coal bosses".
"The group of people who embody 'getting rich quick' in China is now experiencing a turnaround from heaven to hell," it said.
The Southern Weekend article, based on two weeks of interviews in Shanxi, concluded that "the coal boss will retreat from history's stage" - while adding that a few private bosses would yet make it to the big league with the help of official connections and "car boots filled with euros".
There will be few in China who mourn the departure of the Shanxi coal boss. But there are also respected voices within the media, academia and government who warn that Governor Wang Jun is making a grave mistake. They say the future direction of China is at stake.
One official, who is a representative at the Taiyuan City People's Congress, told BusinessDay he had personally heard Wang Jun advocating "guo jin min tui" - which means "advance of the state and retreat of private enterprise".
He says Mr Wang has confused objectives so that eliminating private coal bosses has become an end in itself, rather than improving mine safety.
"State-owned enterprises are raping private enterprise," he says. "The Government is ignoring the law and violating human rights when it should be enforcing industry safety standards and developing a proper system of inspection."
He predicts that by next year, Shanxi will rebound and produce 700 million tonnes of coal - above last year's 650 million tones - and only the shareholding structures but not the safety records of Shanxi's small mines will have changed.
It is noteworthy that the worst coal mining disaster in Shanxi this year occurred at a large, state-owned mine.
Few in Shanxi are game to voice their opinions publicly. But some have done so from the safety of distant provinces.
"Some coal bosses cannot prove they obtained their mines through legal means," wrote Ye Tan, a respected finance commentator, in last week's Southern Weekend.
But she warns that "depriving thieves" can quickly evolve to "depriving the disloyal".
"We have seen the consequences of such social turmoil in the past," she wrote. "If nationalisation is the answer, then it means the past 30 years of reforms have failed."