Saturday, May 27, 2017, 12:15 PM CST – China

Editorial

Ensuring public safety is a basic responsibility of the government

This string of accidents and disasters has revealed the deeply embedded problem of lax enforcement of safety standards resulting from China’s rapid urbanization.

With 116 confirmed dead, 60 missing and 646 hospitalized as of August 21, the massive explosion at a chemical warehouse in Tianjin on August 12 has left a nation in shock.

The disaster raised various questions regarding the safety standards adopted by the city government, such as why a facility handling dangerous chemicals was allowed to be constructed so close to residential areas.

What has concerned the public even more is that the Tianjin explosion was not an isolated case. China has witnessed a string of deadly industrial accidents stemming from a failure to enforce safety standards.

In April, six people were injured in an explosion at a factory producing the chemical paraxylene in the city of Zhangzhou, Fujian Province. The resulting blaze raged for two days, blowing fumes across the city and forcing many residents to evacuate their homes. Then, in July, video footage of a mother dragged to her death in the internal mechanism of a sloppily repaired escalator went viral, followed by the exposure of several other deadly escalator accidents in different cities.

The June 1 sinking of a cruise ship in the Yangtze River which left 440 dead, the worst maritime disaster in postwar Chinese history, was also linked to a poorly executed refit that may have altered the vessel’s center of gravity, though authorities have yet to confirm this.

Besides concerns surrounding the enforcement of national and local safety regulations, the Chinese public is also uneasy about the management of China’s ever-expanding urbanization drive. In the wake of the Tianjin blast, for example, questions were raised about why it took so long for the authorities in a city of 15 million to release information on the disaster to the public.

After a stampede on Shanghai’s historic waterfront on New Year’s Eve saw 36 people trampled to death, many alleged that the authorities’ failure to inform the public of the cancelation of a fireworks display “due to safety concerns” had indirectly caused the carnage. The cancelation meant that fewer police were deployed in the area, despite the overcrowding.

This string of accidents and disasters has revealed the deeply embedded problem of lax enforcement of safety standards resulting from China’s rapid urbanization. In recent years, as cities have expanded at an unprecedented rate, local officials and industrial stakeholders often placed rapid “development” ahead of public safety. Massive corruption, an ineffective legislature and poor legal enforcement often allow local officials and industrial stakeholders to continue to engage in irresponsible practices with impunity. For example, an investigation conducted by the authorities in the first six months of this year found that 5 percent of elevators examined by inspectors were “potentially hazardous.”

Following the Yangtze disaster, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that public safety “must be a top priority” in China. In a State Council meeting held on July 28, Premier Li Keqiang also stressed that China needs to change its approach to foster a “new type” of urbanization that focuses on quality rather than on quantity.

The Tianjin explosion has revealed the urgency of this task. As concern about physical safety becomes a major source of public anxiety, the authorities must show the political will and commitment to dedicate resources to protecting citizens from everyday threats in order to ensure their physical and environmental safety, which is, after all, the fundamental responsibility of any government. 

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