“Not again,” I thought as I read the initial reports of the explosions that shook the eastern fringes of Tianjin on August 12th. Images and videos of 20 storey-high fireballs, burnt-out cars, and a landscape that appeared to have been ravaged by war were aired on media networks across the world. A warehouse storing thousands of tons of hazardous chemicals ignited, resulting in multiple blasts which measured on the Richter scale and could be seen from space. Over 100 people were killed, 700 more were injured, upwards of 6,000 people were forced from their homes, and the local environment was devastated.
In the wake of this disaster there was mass public outcry and the government vowed action, including a new "zero tolerance” policy for safety violations. But before the blazes in Tianjin could even be quelled, another chemical plant in Shandong Province exploded. Then a week later, another.
Industrial and civil engineering accidents occur almost daily in China. On the same day as the Tianjin explosion, a landslide buried a mining camp in Shaanxi Province, killing seven and leaving 57 missing. The day before, a gas explosion in a coal mine in Guizhou Province killed 13 people. The day before that, a fertiliser plant in Sichuan Province sprung a leak, exposing entire neighborhoods to toxic liquid ammonia gas, resulting in no less than 10,000 people being evacuated.
Last month, six people were killed when a bathhouse collapsed in Tianjin and twelve died when a shoe factory crumbled in Zhejiang Province. In May, a leak at a chemical factory in Shanxi Province killed eight. In April, a PX chemical plant in Zhangzhou that was recently lauded by the government as a “model of good mass work” exploded, causing the relocation of 29,000 people. Last year, an auto parts factory ignited in Kunshan, killing more than 75 people and seriously injuring 186 others. In 2013, a poultry plant in Jilin went up in flames, killing 121. At least twenty bridges have collapsed across China since 2007.
Such catastrophes are an ever present reality in China, but why?
1. Too much, too quickly
After the tragic crash of two high speed trains in Wenzhou in 2011, the hazards of China’s rapid pace of development were thrust into public view. In the aftermath, Qiu Qiming, an anchor for CCTV, China’s national news network, even deviated from his script to exclaim: "Can we drink a glass of safe milk? Can we live in apartments that do not fall down? Can the roads we drive on in our cities not collapse? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you keep going so fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind."
Over four years later, China is still speeding down the same track, leaving flaming factories, collapsing bridges, and exploding warehouses in its wake.
A collapsed bridge in Houxing. Image: author's own.
China has urbanised faster than any other country, ever. 600 new cities have popped up across the country since 1949, and many more are on the way. Every five days, a new skyscraper is topped off. A 16,000 km (and growing) high-speed rail network blanketed the country in a little over a decade. In just nine years the length of its highway network was expanded two and a half times, making it the most extensive in the world. Each year 2,000 sq km of floor space, nearly enough to cover Hong Kong twice, is being built.
To get a picture of the speed and scale at which China can build you don’t need to look any further than the Zhengdong New District in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province. In just five years, over 100 sq km of land was cleared out and prepped for construction, a central business district with 86 skyscrapers was built, and a new university zone that would eventually bring in 240,000 students and staff was created.
“The speed of construction means that shortcuts get taken,” says Austin Williams, an architecture professor at Liverpool-Jiaotong University in Suzhou. The breakneck pace of construction means large projects are rushed into developments, while proper safety protocols are ovelrooked in order to meet targets and deadlines.
“The key issue is that workplace safety, building and production integrity are not given the same priority as economic growth and the pursuit of profit,” says Geoff Crothall of China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong based NGO that promotes the rights of workers in China. “As a result, China's economic miracle has come at a cost of millions of workers' lives and untold environmental destruction.”
The Binhai New Area in Tianjin, where the explosions occurred, has undergone rapid development over the past couple of decades. There are new housing projects, new industrial parks and technology zones, the largest port in the north of China, and even entire new cities — such as Yujiapu, China’s “Manhattan replica,” and the Sino-Singapore Ecocity, which lies just to the north of the blast site. Just a generation ago this was an area of mudflats and fishing villages, but now it is home to some of the most prominent emerging development areas in the country. This backdrop of frenzied activity makes the number of accidents look a little less surprising.
On 18 April 2007, 32 workers were boiled beyond recognition when a ladle holding 30 tons of molten steel separated from its supports and spilled upon them in a steel plant in Liaoning Province. The causes? The improper use of the wrong equipment, lax safety oversight, and substandard work areas that did not meet legal requirements.
Ultimately, it is not the Chinese legal system that is to blame for the country's many civil engineering and industrial accidents. On the books, China’s laws provide adequate safety measures for workers, and construction projects are generally held to international standards of quality. The problem comes in enforcement.
“In terms of legal enforcement, local governments often do not have the ability or the will to enforce existing legislation and collusion with business owners to circumvent the law is widespread. In many cases, local government officials or their family members will be the indirect owners of businesses where workplace accidents occur,” Geoff Crothall explains.
The government and many of the companies which industrial and infrastructural accidents through lax safety protocols are often connected in some way. The owners of the company that operated the warehouses that exploded in Tianjin were a former executive at Sinochem, which until 2009 was wholly owned by the Chinese government, and the son of the former police chief of Tianjin Port — very well connected individuals who were able to use their influence to subvert safety regulations, which increased the scale of the tragedy and may have lead to needless deaths and pollution.
“I used to score road conditions and I once gave a very low score for one road that was very bad,” a former civil engineer named Oliver Chen explains. “The next time I went back there the road maintenance committee tried to give me a present. They had a big package of something and a hong bao (a red envelope that is often used for giving bribes). I refused to take it. They said, ‘Why not? I give to your boss, I give to your colleagues, why won’t you take it?’ It is my name that is on the paper, so if something goes wrong it is my problem. They then knew that I wasn’t one of them.”
The Tianjin explosions originated from a fire in a warehouse of Rui Hai International Logistics, where over 40 types of hazardous chemicals, amounting to around 3,000 tons, were stored. This was reported to include several hundred tons of sodium cynaide, a substance that becomes highly combustible on contact with water, when the warehouse was only approved to handle ten tons at a time. In addition to this, hazardous sites must be located at least 3,200 feet away from residential and commercial ares in China, but Vanke Port City, an apartment complex which was severely damaged by the explosions, was built a mere 2,000 feet away. Clearly, violations of current Chinese law were occurring in the face of, and perhaps in collusion with, regulatory authorities.
3. Social patterns
Deeply embedded social patterns, partly based on the old communist work structure, can also lead to compromised safety practices. Sites operate strict hierarchies, in which superiors cannot be questioned, and so dangerous working plans and badly worked out ideas are followed blindly. Workers do not want to stand out, and the disinclination to point out mistakes of coworkers and superiors to allow them to “save face” can lead to small issues growing into larger ones. Meanwhile, a typically segmented delegation of responsibility can lead to a lack of accountability when things go wrong, as errors are easily dismissed as someone else’s problem.
“When something happens everybody stands around scratching their heads and blaming somebody else,” explains Alex Papp, an Australian business owner who has set up factories in China. “So I have to train my workers that it’s their duty [to report irregularities] because you’re saving your own life, not just other people’s lives. If you notice something or smell something that’s not right or hear something strange you must report it.”
4. A matter of scale?
Construction in Binhai, near the site of the Tianjin explosion. Photo: author's own.
China is the world’s most populated country as well as its leading manufacturer. Add to this the fact that China is engaged in excessive amounts of truly large scale construction projects which, logically, have an increased potential for worker safety issues, and the country is well-positioned for leading the world in workplace accidents as well.
However, context doesn’t completely explain away what we’re seeing here. Nearly 70,000 people died in work related accidents in China last year, as opposed to less than 5,000 in the USA, the world’s second largest manufacturer. Even with population size taken into account, China’s on-the-job death rate is still 21 times greater than that of the UK.
5. China is taking on the world’s dirty work
“It is important to note that it took a long time — well over 100 years — for developed economies to really recognize the importance of workplace safety,” Geoff Crothall says, “and by that time globalisation meant that most of the high risk and dangerous jobs could be done by workers in developing countries like China.”
Adding to the higher rate of workplace accidents is the type of work carried out in China, as well as the materials and substances manufactured and used. China isn’t only willing to produce massive amounts of electronics, cars, textiles, and cheap plastic junk, but also hazardous materials, toxic chemicals, and other products that can be volatile to manufacture. Many Western countries have lowered their risks of industrial accidents precisely because an increasing amount of potentially pernicious products are now made in China. China has taken on a large part of the world’s dirty work.
6. Blighted avenues for change
Compounding the problems of improving workplace safety in China is the fact that there really isn’t any system in place for workers to push for change or have any kind of dialogue with decision makers. China has just one trade union, and it’s run by the government.“There is no social dynamism for workers to take initiative or to remedy problems,” Austin Williams points out.
Part of the reason why working conditions improved in the West down to the formation of very powerful unions that could push for safer workplaces and polices that could further distance workers from unnecessary risks.
7. The downside of development
“Since we casually talk about China's development catching up with the West, we must also expect a Three-Mile Island and a Flixborough-style disaster once in a while. Tragic, but brutally true,” Austin Williams says. “However, China needs to make sure that, like those terrible Western precursors, it learns lessons of regulatory openness and accountability, not simply legal and political retribution.”
Industrialisation in the West produced many environmental and public safety disasters. Many swathes of the United States were rendered wastelands. Rivers like the Cuyahoga, Chicago, and Buffalo were once so packed with pollutants they were flammable — all three ignited multiple times. China’s profusion of “cancer villages” had their predecessors at Love Canal in Niagara Falls and Times Beach in St. Louis.
However, countries like the UK and the United States had the political agility and power to create and enforce policy to change this situation in the wake of these catastrophes. Government leaders didn’t just give lip service to quell public outrage and punish a few well-targeted executives, but actually got to the root of the issue: they imposed regulations on the companies that were polluting and made them follow them.
The compounded effect of all of these tragedies is having a major impact on how the people of China view their government, and in the court of public opinion these accidents have passed the breaking point of acceptability. With each new disaster the people of China become united on social media, venting anger that’s generally directed towards a single source: the people who run the country. China is no longer a fledgling developing nation required to make massive sacrifices as it struggles to catch up with the West; no, it is now a well-established global economic, political, and technological leader, and its people are now demanding that it act as such.
Each major accident in China brings talk of the big changes that it will provoke and the profound lessons it taught. The people say enough is enough, the government officials say enough is enough, regulations are raised, punishments are dolled out, and systematic nationwide safety reviews are initiated. It always seems as if the deadly incident that had just occurred will be heinous enough to fundamentally change the public safety situation moving forward, and fires, toxic leaks, collapsing infrastructure, and mass evacuations will no longer be daily headlines. It always seems as if China can no longer afford take life so cheaply... and then something else explodes.