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Li Zihua lay dead in a coal mine in Handan, Hebei Province. His head and face had been smashed by stones and hammers, making him hard to identify. The cause of death had allegedly been an explosive accident, but for some reason, his co-workers "vanished" soon afterwards. Instead, his so-called relatives seemed to emerge from the ground that had claimed his life, demanding 1 million yuan ($160,000) for compensation.

The deadly scam was remarkably similar to the plot of Chinese film Blind Shaft, in which two coal miners talked some native migrant workers into working with them in a coal mine, then killed them and made the murder look like an accident to blackmail the unlicensed mine owner for money.

But in reality, murders aren't easy to pull off. Twenty one people were recently put on trial in Handan Intermediate People's Court in Hebei Province for their part in the scam, which resulted in the deaths of four people in the past year, including Li, and the blackmail of mine owners for 1.85 million yuan, according to the Guangdong-based biweekly South Reviews.

China is the world's largest consumer of coal and has the world's deadliest mines. Accidents in coal mines killed 1,067 people all over the country last year, according to the official statistics. The latest one was last month in Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, killing 22 people.

Since the 1990s there have been reports that migrant workers and mentally disabled people were tricked or kidnapped and made to work in illegal mines, and later murdered in fake accidents.

The official number of victims remains unknown, but the tragedies continue.

Deadly 'love'

Two months before Li's death, the 31-year-old Li had a "romantic experience" while he was working at a construction site in Sichuan Province. In June 2012, he got a phone call from an unknown woman called Wang Zhengxiu. He told her it was the wrong number, but she kept calling and texting him.

A week later, they decided to meet up in person. It was love at first sight, she said, as she hastily took him to a hotel.

Soon Li introduced this new "girlfriend" to his sister, but she had doubts. "She is too pretty to fall for someone like you," she warned him. But that was hardly what Li wanted to hear, so he did not listen.

One month later on July 27, this new girlfriend introduced him to a job at a coal mine and told him she would marry him when he made enough money.

Six days later, Li was found dead. Li's mother and sister at first had no idea, because Li was working there under a fake name. Some people who claimed to be Li's relatives showed up at the mine and demanded 1 million yuan in compensation. But the mine owner had doubts and called the police.

Subsequent investigations revealed that these so-called relatives were acting "abnormally": First, they seemed indifferent about the cause of Li's death. Second, even though Li's "wife" could perfectly describe his physical appearance, including how many scars he had and where they were, she did not seem very sad. Third, the "relatives" soon agreed to reduce the compensation payout from 1 million to 200,000 yuan, saying they just wanted to end the matter as soon as possible.

Police later found that three co-workers had used hammers to beat Li to death before they set off an explosion. All Li's "relatives" and "co-workers" were arrested. A gang of 21 people who extorted money by staging fatal accidents was also uncovered.

Financially challenged, single male migrant workers are usually the target of these schemes and the plot usually begins with a "romance." Another victim, Yuan Defu, was a divorced migrant worker from Yunnan Province. His wife left him with their 15-year-old daughter in 2009.

Other cases have targeted the mentally disabled, who are less likely to put up a fight or show suspicion. In 2009, nine people in Sichuan Province were arrested for murdering at least 17 mentally disabled people across the country since 2007, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

In one case, a miner died in an "accident" two days after he started working in a mine in Hubei Province. His "relatives" showed up and demanded for 200,000 yuan in compensation.

Some 130 people from Leibo county of Sichuan were reportedly responsible for faking at least 26 coal mine accidents, according to the West China Metropolis Daily.

From 2007 they kidnapped or lured mentally ill and deaf-mute people to work in coal mines across the country. "Many mine owners prefer to stay silent after the incidents, this makes it easier for the swindlers to fake the accidents," Jiang Ruofeng, the Party Secretary of the county, was quoted as saying.

Jiang apologized in public for what people from his hometown did. To put an end to the tragedy, the local government launched an investigation across the county, in which it rescued 277 mentally ill or disabled people and sent them to mental hospitals or aid centers, said Jiang.

Jiang added that it was hard for the police to collect evidence because these people cannot really describe what happened to them. "So we can only charge these people for forced labor or illegal imprisonment," Jiang said.

Femme fatales

Behind the four dead coal miners killed by the 21-member gang, there was a scheming woman - 48-year-old Zhang Weilan from a village of Tongjiang county, Sichuan. Zhang's role in the group was introducing victims to the coal mines and making a fake identification of them, as well as finding illegal coal mines and blackmailing them.

Zhang has six brothers and sisters. As the youngest daughter of her family, villagers said Zhang was a very responsible and caring person. To support her poor family in a rural area, Zhang had to work miles from home. And she took a job which could make quick money.

Each member of the group could earn 30,000 to 40,000 yuan for each person they killed.

Local villagers did not know how she made the money to build a new house in the central area of the county until the murder case was revealed. When they heard of her crimes, the villagers assumed she had been driven to desperation by her failed marriage, and the pressure of being the only support for her mother, disabled brother and two children.

Another key person was 35-year-old Wang Zhengxiu. Her nickname was "crazy bitch," but she was not crazy at all. Her role was to have a "romantic" relationship with the target and sleep with them to get to know their body, so that she could describe it to the mine owner after the inevitable tragic "accident."

A South Reviews' reporter found that the members of this criminal group have something in common: They are all from very poor families with an annual income ranging from just 500 to 2,000 yuan.

One of the suspects, Zhang Chengyong, was said to have killed people so he could pay his debts. His wife had had leukemia and died seven years ago, leaving the family medical debts to pay. Her daughter had tuberculosis and was too sick to go to school. His son said Zhang was a good father who never fought with anyone.

The wife of another suspect, Xu Chengde, also died in 2010, leaving behind a daughter. He got married again and had twins. His annual income raising pigs was about 1,000 yuan. But villagers also said Xu got well along with everyone in the village.

The villagers say it was the "dirty outside world" that changed them.

Legacy of murder

Why do the killings continue? Simply because one man's death is another man's treasure, said Liu Qingbang, the author of the novel Blind Shaft, which was published in 2000.

Liu was a former editor at China Coal News. His reports on coal mine accidents inspired him to write such a novel. Since the 1990s, a lot of coal mines have opened up all over the country. Whenever accidents happened, local authorities and mine owners would cover it up with money, which was seen as "a good business opportunity," according to Liu.

So how much is the life of a coal miner worth? Since 2005, many provinces have raised the minimum compensation to families of victims in mine accidents to 200,000 yuan. In some cases, which made national or even international headlines, compensation reached up to 700,000 yuan.

In order to rectify the notorious numbers of mining deaths, local authorities across the country have introduced methods to drop the death rate. In Shanxi Province for example, which has a quarter of the country's coal mining accidents and tops the list for deaths, the authorities have cracked down on illegal or small mines, and introduced safety regulations, as well as punishments for mine owners. As a result, the death rate plunged from 202 in 2009 to 83 in 2012, according to the Shanxi Provincial Coal Industry Department.

However, some mines have reportedly refused to report or are under-reporting the death rate. For those unlicensed or small mine owners, private settlements by paying compensation cost much less than reporting the accident to the authorities or attracting public attention which would undoubtedly result in the closure of the mine and huge penalties.

Last year, four coal mine accidents were reportedly covered up by a Shanxi-based coal mine because the owner "was under great pressure," according to Oriental Outlook magazine.

Former policeman Zhao Lianshi's 41-year-old son Zhao Jun was one of the 21 defendants. He was accused of being the main enforcer who used hammers on the four victims. Zhao is anxiously waiting for the results of sentencing. "I have spent my whole life catching bad guys, at the end of the day, my son was the one be arrested," Zhao said.

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