Spotlight News 8/18/2015

Tianjin Disaster Underscores History of Industrial Accidents and Poor Regulation in China, Raises Questions About Possible Change

An explosion at a factory storing highly dangerous materials in the port area of Tianjin, China has raised new questions about the country’s history of workplace accidents, and poor regulation of industry that makes these incidents more likely. Chinese state news reported that the warehouse storing the dangerous goods operated without a license to handle such chemicals for over a year. Investigation of the site has also uncovered that the warehouse was storing 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide, a highly toxic chemical, and 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, and highly explosive chemical, when it was only licensed to house 10 tonnes of hazardous materials.

Local business owners familiar with the hazardous chemical trade in Tianjin, a highly lucrative industry for the city, indicated that strict safety regulations are routinely ignored. Unlicensed companies are known to handle large quantities of hazardous chemicals on a regular basis, and many companies will label hazardous chemicals as normal, innocuous goods to skirt regulations. Corruption and poor oversight allows this practice to continue unabated.

China has experienced other major industrial accidents recently. The disaster in Tianjin recalls an even deadlier industrial accident almost a year ago, when a dust explosion at a factory in Kunshan, located west of Shanghai, killed 146 workers. The factory, which supplied major American automakers, had been warned by city safety regulators about the potential for an explosion on several occasions. Following the accident, Chinese authorities suspended operations at 214 factories in the province where Kunshan is located to conduct safety evaluations.

Chinese authorities have promised a thorough investigation of the Tianjin disaster and have already arrested some of those involved in managing the warehouse where the explosion occurred in addition to the country’s top work safety regulator. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Tianjin explosion can catalyze greater change in industrial regulation in China, which suffers from a Severe threat of poor working conditions and industrial accidents.

The Tianjin disaster melds two sources of public discontent, industrial accidents and environmental degradation, in one incident, potentially imbuing it with greater long-term significance. Both the Kunshan and Tianjin disasters happened near large and relatively affluent urban centers, increasing the visibility of the incidents. Protests over the disaster have already begun in Tianjin, though it is unclear whether the demands of the protestors will expand beyond monetary compensation. Chinese censors are aggressively combating online criticism of the government over the disaster, indicating official concern over the impact. It is likely that the continued occurrence of major industrial accidents will raise the profile of the issue in China, forcing the government to do more to systematically reform industrial regulation in the country.