After deadly construction accident in China, how high will the blame reach?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 11:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 11:07pm

The investigation of a construction accident that caused 74 deaths in the Chinese province of Jiangxi is set to end the political careers of many local officials, but the question remains of how high the blame should go.

Local police have detained 13 people since the accident at a power plant under construction as a preliminary investigation zeroes in on how the building company rushed the job.

Xinhua said authorities had identified 68 of the 74 victims, with the youngest aged 23 and the eldest 53.

Most of the dead had been working on an interior concrete wall of a massive circular cooling tower 70 metres up when the scaffolding collapsed on Thursday morning, resulting in one of China’s most serious industrial accidents in years.

In a statement issued on Saturday, the State Administration of Work Safety of the State Council said early findings suggested that a shortened time frame for the project, hasty construction and mismanagement all played a role in the disaster, without giving further details.

As the deadly accident occurred in Jiangxi, it poses challenges for party chief Lu Xinshe and governor Liu Qi, who was seen as a political rising star after a stint he served in Zhejiang province overlapped with now President Xi Jinping for more than four years.

All but three of 70 workers on site killed in construction disaster at Chinese power station

“At present, dealings with the officials involved in such major accidents are based primarily on a set of provisions released in 2009 and Communist Party rules issued in June,” said Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of Peking University’s Clean Government Centre.

But as to which officials, whether at city or province level, would ultimately be held responsible, “we don’t have such specific rules”, he said.

The accident “would have an effect on cadres’ careers as it would be taken into consideration when they are promoted in the future”, Zhuang said.

A number of senior officials in China has been removed from office or resigned voluntarily after serious accidents resulting in multiple fatalities in their industry or ruling area over recent years.

One such is Meng Xuenong, who was sacked as Beijing mayor because of a SARS outbreak in 2003 and then again as Shanxi governor after a tailings dam landslide in Xiangfen county in 2008.

Meng became the Shanxi governor in early 2008, but took the blame and resigned after the mining accident in Xiangfen county eight months later, which left 277 people dead.

Li Changjiang, who was the head of General Administration of Quality Supervision,Inspection and Quarantine for seven years, quit the office in September 2008 after infant formula produced by Sanlu Group was exposed as being adulterated with melamine.

In contrast, some senior officials have avoided liability for fatal accidents and later been promoted.

As a high-flyer rising up from the Communist Youth League, now Premier Li Keqiang survived involvement with mining accidents and fires before he advanced to the Politburo.

In 2000, when Li was the governor of Henan province, a major fire broke out in a video club in Jiaozuo, resulting in more than 70 deaths. Nine months later, 309 people were killed in a fire in a commercial building in Luoyang on Christmas Day.

Two months before Li was transferred to Liaoning as party chief in 2004, a gas explosion at a coal mine in Henan killed 148 miners. A similar explosion occurred in Liaoning in 2005, causing 214 deaths.

But Li’s political rise appeared unaffected by those accidents and he was admitted to the Politburo in 2007 after his term in Liaoning.

Deadly Tianjin warehouse explosion: review leads to China moving 10 chemical plants

Tianjin mayor Huang Xingguo’s career appeared to survive a deadly warehouse explosion in August last year, although he was placed under investigation for possible corruption in September. Two deputy mayors and a deputy transport minister were punished over the tragedy.

Shenzhen party chief Ma Xingrui and mayor Xu Jian seem to have also come through unscathed politically after a massive landslide in December last year resulted in 73 deaths, with rumours that Ma is likely to become the next Jilin governor.

Nearly 50 other officials of the Shenzhen government received punishments, all of them from below minister level, according to the investigation report.

Additional reporting by Associated Press