Xiangshui Chemical Explosion Reveals Problems with Obsolete Industrial Regions

A chemical factory in eastern China suffered from a deadly explosion, causing at least 78 people dead and more than 500 people injured.

The chemical factory is located in Xiangshui, a county under China’s eastern province of Jiangsu. As the rescue mission continues, more horrific scenes have been released by local officials. According to local firefighting officials, it is possible that some of the victims were instantly vaporized moments after the explosion took place.

It has been almost a decade since the Wenzhou train crash accident that claimed 40 people’s life in 2011, but we witnessed some issues regarding the way these crises are handled. Local officials are focusing more on stopping information from being released, rather than solving the imminent problems. Instead of focusing on saving more lives, local officials are deploying a portion of its best available resources on monitoring journalists and reports.

For the Chinese government, accidents as such seem to have a routine script to follow: The government will order local officials to rescue individuals as soon as possible. Some of the local officials and corporate owners will be arrested and questioned for their wrongdoings.

It takes a few weeks for the public to move on and forget about the past tragic experience, and after that, things will go on as usual.

Are the measures taken actually effective? There are no procedures that prevent further accidents from happening, and there is no further legislation to halt any loopholes that may exist in the system. The arrest and suspension of individuals responsible for the accidents are rather coming from a political perspective, rather than a legal perspective: Officials may step down or even go to prison because of the accident, yet it might only take a few years for them to get back to a prominent position somewhere else in the region.

Perhaps there are central policies that require local governments to ensure safety standards and residents’ well-being. However, when it comes to standard safety inspections, issues are starting to emerge. It takes time to replace traditional methods of production, yet local governments may find it hard to complete the shifts in a short period of time.

Over the years, China has been emphasizing the success of its economic model which focuses on concentrating all resources to certain key industries or corporations to achieve the best outcome. It is not only a national strategy, but also a path of development for many regions. Take the Xiangshui county here, for example, the chemical factories are the core of the local economy. ‘Gathering all resources to achieve something big’: This has become the dominant strategy that all levels of governments in China adopted during the economic reform in 1978.

However, it is evident that while such strategies may be helpful in accomplishing certain quantifiable goals in the short run, such as increasing local gross domestic products and local investments, the development path left many of the essential areas and qualitative developments behind. Following the explosion, many local residents fear that pollutants unleashed by local chemical factories may cause permanent damage to the local air and water quality. Local residents are concerned about their well-being and the local environment. However, none of these seem to be the top priority of the local government if such accidents did not take place. While pursuing economic development in full gear, the China economic model has left many important questions unaddressed.

There is nothing wrong in taking proactive actions and conducting necessary interventions to optimize the local economy. The government officials are expected to adopt policies that serve the best interests of the local residents and the economy. However, from time to time, we see a lack of action and failed policies. In addition to the handles of tragic accidents as such, long-term issues such as air pollution, income inequalities, and regional development inequalities also need to be dealt with urgently.

China’s economic development model requires officials from all levels to predict, foresee, and react to various kinds of risks and issues that may emerge in the local economy. Yet, there is little procedure to ensure local officials of meeting such standards. In addition, local officials often face predicaments in balancing between safety and the potential opportunities for growth. On one side of the equation there is the mandatory requirement of securing GDP growth and generating wealth, on the other side there is the risk of serious accidents and potential deadly tragedies brought by obsolete industrial factories.

Putting aside the arguments on the efficiency of China’s economic model, we witnessed the disadvantages of adopting these radical development strategies when it comes to environmental issues and living conditions. These traditional industrial zones which are left out by the times, will be facing more challenges in the days waiting ahead.

Featured photo credit to sohu