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China's safety issues under scrutiny again after rash of escalator accidents

A man walks past an escalator at a shopping mall in Beijing on June 17, 2015. In recent months, China has seen a spate of horrific safety lapses that caused one woman to plunge into an escalator pit after a loose footplate gave way and another steppi
A man walks past an escalator at a shopping mall in Beijing on June 17, 2015. In recent months, China has seen a spate of horrific safety lapses that caused one woman to plunge into an escalator pit after a loose footplate gave way and another stepping into a lift to be decapitated. AFP

I tread gingerly when I take an escalator or elevator these days.

A recent spate of horrific safety lapses in China that caused one woman to plunge into an escalator pit after a loose footplate gave way and another stepping into a lift to be decapitated has left me with a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. 

The most chilling realisation for me was that there was little the two women could have done to prevent the accidents. 

They were victims of a rapidly developing country that did not have safety and quality systems in place as economic growth sped past the need for the implementation of such frameworks.

While these cases hogged the headlines, there were 48 other elevator accidents resulting in 36 deaths last year, according to local media reports.

China is today the world’s biggest user and producer of elevators and escalators. The country had 3.6 million elevators and escalators in use by the end of last year – a sharp increase from the 300,000 lifts that were in service in 2003. 

Two years into my work posting in China, the severity of safety and health issues – ranging from food safety to air pollution to decapitating lifts – continues to colour my time here. The sheer incredulousness of some of the reported incidents shock me; the tragedies sadden me.

But I have gradually been desensitised to some of the issues. When it comes to food safety, for instance, the phrase ignorance is bliss could not ring more true.

I have gotten used to the possibility that the street side lamb skewers I gobble down over late night suppers might not actually be mutton (rat, mink and fox meat has been known to be treated with chemicals in order to pass it off as beef and mutton in China).

No big deal as long I don’t get a stomachache, I tell myself. It might be gross but at least it won’t kill me – unlike the melamine milk scandal in 2008 that left six babies dead and an estimated 300,000 children sick. 

I feel this way because there is only so much I can do to keep myself “safe”. 

Already, I drink only bottled water and have installed a water filter in my shower. I have also invested in an expensive face mask to guard against Beijing’s toxic smog and I shop at an import-only supermarket.

If I were to take any more precautions such as refusing to eat out entirely, I might as well live in a bubble. I won’t enjoy my time here trying to find living and hygiene standards that only developed countries enjoy. 

Thus, ever so often when dealing with the challenges of living in Beijing, the phrase “This is China” is paired with a shrug of resignation among expatriates. 

It signals the acceptance of the trade-off you make to live in one of the most dynamic and exciting countries today. And it is one that I am willing to make.

That is not to say that China should not take its safety issues seriously. 

Media reports point to the shortage of maintenance personnel and ageing equipment as the culprits that threaten the safe operation of China’s escalators and lifts.

They say that the country’s quality maintenance watchdog should introduce strict rules to prevent unqualified service providers from entering the sector. Those who allow unqualified firms into the industry should receive due penalties.

Rules should also stipulate heavy fines for companies that are found to be responsible for fatal elevator or escalator accidents.

These are measures that I agree with and they should be implemented sooner rather than later.

But the shock that comes whenever a safety lapse or health concern surfaces in China also comes from the weight of expectations that the world places on the country.

For example, Beijing is often criticised for its toxic air with immense media coverage on the issue but few people know that the Indian capital of New Delhi is actually much more polluted than Beijing. 

In fact, it is the world’s most polluted city. Some 13 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world also come from India, according to a list released by the World Health Organisation earlier this year. 

There is, however, little coverage whenever New Delhi’s air quality index goes off the charts yet China is on everyone’s minds.

This is not a bad thing. While some might find the intense scrutiny, coverage and criticism of China unfair, the global pressure is good for the country in the long run, shining light on problems and galvanising the political will to fix some of them.

Because if the world holds China to higher standards, shouldn’t China itself strive to achieve those standards too?