Power shortage, breakneck growth make safety plans hard to implement
China's much-vaunted plans to improve the country's appalling industrial safety record are having little impact, as experts estimate that the scale of the problem is far greater than reported officially.
While Beijing claims it has taken steps to prevent accidents, whether any significant actions have resulted at all remains unclear. At the start of 2003, the official People's Daily newspaper reported that China would "step up enforcement of industrial safety law and increase international cooperation to meet its 2003 goal of reducing the number of major industrial accidents by 10 percent."
But the English-language China Daily reported last month that more than 120,000 people died in work-related accidents between January and November 2003, a rate that suggests little change.
Dara O'Rourke, assistant professor of environmental and labor policy at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, told RFA that rapid economic growth and industrialization has exposed Chinese workers to more risks, including new toxic substances.
"The government doesn't have the capacity right now to regulate the growth in industry within China," O'Rourke told RFA special correspondent Michael Lelyveld. "It doesn't have enough health and safety inspectors, it doesn't have enough environmental inspectors, it doesn't have enough industrial hygiene inspectors to track industrial illnesses, [and] it doesn't have enough coal mine inspectors."
Many deaths in industrial accidents occur in coal-mines and factories, where owners and operators engage in cost-cutting which affects safety standards. But analysts say cost-cutting is no longer the chief problem in implementing the government's plans for better safety conditions.
"Now the challenge for the Chinese government is providing these regulatory authorities with the resources they need, and it's not just financial," said Richard Ferris, of the Washington law firm Beveridge & Diamond, which specializes in China's environmental, health, and safety law.
"It's also personnel and expertise. In other words, the capacity to be able to address what are, as you know, the huge numbers of accidents and also just general training needs throughout the country," Ferris said.
Some experts believe the safety problem actually exceeds the horrific numbers reported in the official press.
"Our problem right now is that we don't have good data to really evaluate these things and track them over time, but my suspicion would be that these numbers really are only the starting point of what's really going on," O'Rourke said.
She said corruption among local officials meant that regulators had a disincentive to regulate these facilities, as local governments seek to promote local investment in order to bring jobs and new tax revenues to their areas.
"That has made it so the government is not in all cases doing its job of really seriously regulating these risks to Chinese workers and to the Chinese community," O'Rourke said.
Garrett Brown, a researcher on labor conditions in China and Mexico, said China's booming economy and its increasingly acute energy problems were prompting local governments to reopen unsafe mines or to skip safety procedures in the quest to satisfy the country's skyrocketing demand for power.