How many more people have to die before China gets to grips with the root causes of man-made disasters?

A comment by Cary Huang says we hear officials promising to act after every deadly industrial accident, but all the efforts seem unable to prevent yet more fatalities

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 January, 2016, 3:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 January, 2016, 6:10pm

Not a day goes by, it seems, without a man-made industrial incident in China. And every few months, at the very least, the country witnesses a massive disaster that kills scores of people.

As the world was seeing in 2015, 36 revellers were killed in a stampede on Shanghai’s scenic Bund. On July 1, more than 440 people died when a cruise ship capsized on the Yangtze River in heavy rain. On August 12, over 173 people were killed and more than 700 injured in a series of explosions at a chemical warehouse in Tianjin (天津), which also forced over 6,000 people to leave their homes. And more than 80 people are feared dead after a massive landslide of earth and construction waste buried buildings at an industrial estate in Shenzhen on December 20.

READ MORE: Shenzhen landslide aftermath: official who rubber-stamped waste dump that triggered disaster takes his own life

Of course, other countries suffer man-made incidents. But as the world’s most populous nation and leading manufacturer, China has more than its fair share. Add to this the fact that the world’s second-largest economy has been building vast numbers of large-scale infrastructure projects which only increase the potential for such incidents.

Many of China’s problems are unique. First, China tops the world for these grim statistics. Last year, some 70,000 people died in work-related accidents in the country, compared with less than 5,000 in the US, the world’s second-largest manufacturer. With nearly 200 deaths per day, China’s on-the-job death rate is a dozen times higher than that of most industrialised nations.

The reasons behind such occurrences are similar across the board: a lack of oversight, corruption among officials and attempts to boost profits by ignoring laws and regulations

Second, such incidents often occur due to the flouting of regulations that could have been detected and prevented beforehand, but were not. For instance, Shenzhen media have reported several times in the past few years that companies were illegally dumping construction waste as the legal dumps were all full. But the alarm bells got little attention from officials responsible for industrial safety.

In the Tianjin accident, the hazardous materials were located near apartments, in violation of regulations, and there were no official records of the materials stored there that were to blame for the deaths of many firefighters.

READ MORE: Tap water in Tianjin, scene of deadly blast in August, turns bright green after chemical factory spill

Third, the problem is that despite all the government’s efforts, the situation has not improved, allowing such disasters to happen time and again. In the wake of each disaster, we witness officials vowing to act, as regulations are increased, punishments meted out and systematic nationwide safety reviews are initiated. But all efforts seem to have been unable to prevent other incidents.

China’s “war against pollution” has been similar, with air pollution going from bad to worse last year as Beijing was forced to declare “red alerts”, the most severe air pollution warning, for the first time.

These problems are endemic to most areas of Chinese society, whether it concerns food, workplace safety or environmental protection. The reasons behind such occurrences are similar across the board: a lack of oversight, corruption among officials and attempts to boost profits by ignoring laws and regulations. They also point to the dysfunction of China’s one-party system, which lacks a free press to monitor the bureaucracy, an independent judiciary for law enforcement, and checks and balances to hold officials accountable.

In recent surveys, most people ranked environment, food and workplace safety as “the most important quality-of-life issues”. The leadership should understand that only when China is a safe, clean and pleasurable place to live can people begin to dream of achieving what President Xi Jinping (習近平) has called a “national renaissance”.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post