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Is corruption behind China firetraps?

In what has been called China’s deadliest industrial accident in five years, at least 120 people were killed and 77 injured in a June fire at a poultry processing plant in Jilin Province.
 
Reports were divided as to what sparked the blaze. Some blamed a leak in the plant’s cooling system, others faulty wiring.
 
But all reports from the scene indicate fire safety lapses contributed to the staggering body count. Survivors said they had never been shown the location of, or how to use, the plant’s firefighting equipment. Workers said all but one of the plant’s exit doors were locked during working hours, reportedly to prevent employees from using the bathroom too often.
 
State Administration of Work Safety head Yang Dongliang told reporters the plant’s fire safety standards were “extremely chaotic” leading up to the blaze.
 
The Jilin inferno occurred just four days after a fire swept through Sinograin depots in Heilongjiang Province, resulting in losses of about $13 million.
 
Fanned by dry weather and windy conditions, the Sinograin fire was reportedly started when a power distribution box short-circuited.
 
As for the safety officials responsible in both cases, the public have concluded they must have been either blind or bribed.
 
According to an experienced Wuhan (Hubei Province) fire safety official interviewed in South China Morning Post, a large part of businesses’ fire prevention budgets goes toward bribing inspectors rather than safety.
 
“The power held by fire departments has gone unchecked for decades,” warned an economist quoted by the newspaper.
 
Most local businesses are subject to a five-step regime of fire safety approvals whose complexity, some say, is designed to aid officials in soliciting bribes to speed things along.
 
In 2009, a former chief fire safety inspector in Shangyu (Zhejiang Province) was sentenced to ten years for soliciting bribes from internet cafés and entertainment venues.
 
To avoid the red tape altogether, businesses can engage third parties to work with local fire departments on their behalf.
 
In 2011, the deputy head of a district-level fire department in Shenzhen (Guangdong Province) got two years for working with a middleman to collect bribes from local companies.
 
In a 2007 case, authorities said a middleman provided a restaurant in Zhengzhou (Henan Province) with a counterfeit fire certificate after trying and failing to bribe local officials.
 
A query on leading search engine Baidu for “agent fire safety certificate” produced nearly 4.5 million results.
 
Some agents can be contacted only through popular instant-messaging service QQ.
 
Most promise to obtain fire safety certificates for clients quickly and at a reasonable price.

Sources: Beijing Daily (北京日报), China Daily, Southern Daily (南方日报), People’s Daily Online (人民网)

 

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