The chemical warehouse explosions in Tianjin that killed 114 people raise larger questions about China's fire safety and environmental approval standards. Of course, the vagaries of chance that mark industrial accidents, like other accidents, cannot be eradicated completely from public or private life. However, what's preventable must be openly addressed. The high death toll, including the substantial number of firefighters who died in the line of duty, represents nothing less than a national disaster for China.
Unlike natural disasters, in which the emphasis falls more on rescue and recovery efforts than on prevention, major industrial accidents call for a thorough investigation of particular causes, the regulation of high-risk activities and the monitoring of compliance. It is reassuring in this context that the authorities have not only set up a panel to investigate the accident and determine liability, but also launched a national initiative to check dangerous substances in general.
In the case of the Tianjin blasts, questions have been asked about whether executives of the company concerned had employed connections to obtain fire safety and environmental approvals. If such links in general run afoul of the law, even if no bribery is involved, these must be unearthed so that businessmen are deterred from taking administrative short cuts to profits. Capitalising on personal connections to facilitate bureaucratic approval is wrong and punishment must be painfully commensurate with consequences when such irregularities contribute to a human disaster on the scale of the Tianjin explosions.
A pertinent point is that, according to Xinhua, Chinese law stipulates that dangerous warehouses must be built 1,000m from major transport hubs and public buildings. Glaringly, the warehouse was only 560m away from a residential community and 630m from a railway station. Thousands were evacuated after toxic chemicals were found in the air. Naturally, affected residents are up in arms now that they know how close they were to a company working with hazardous substances.
The Tianjin accident holds important lessons for rapidly industrialising countries, including China. The inaugural period of the Industrial Revolution in Europe was characterised by a cynical disregard for human life and limb that would be found morally and legally outrageous in the West today. Countries joining the trajectory of that revolution have the benefit of the Western experience to avoid making similar mistakes. The sanctity of life and public health should not be sidelined in the name of progress. Catching up with the West economically must include equalling it in the promotion of human well-being too. Emerging states must ensure that people's needs are protected in the relentless quest for development.