The August 19th explosion of the Shandong Weiqiao Group’s aluminum plant in Zouping County, Shandong Province has received far less media attention than the Xintai mining disaster. But, at least from the standpoint of China’s industrial modernization, it is far more consequential. As I noted in a post to this blog on Monday, the Weiqiao aluminum plant is one of the largest aluminum manufacturing facilities in China (and, by extension, the world). The description posted to the company’s website suggests a technologically modern plant (built in 2003) capable of meeting modern manufacturing standards. I wrote on Monday:
Large, modern aluminum plants don’t explode because someone failed to replace a liner. If worker error was responsible for the accident, that error could only have occurred if there was a fatal design or safety flaw in the plant itself.
This was not, however, an opinion shared by the Shandong safety authorities. According to an early story in China Daily:
Workers’ negligence has been blamed for the molten aluminium spill that killed 14 and injured 59 at a factory in East China’s Shandong Province on Sunday, the provincial work safety watchdog said on Tuesday.
Now, thanks to a late-breaking report from Xinhua, we learn that China’s national State Administration of Work Safety has a different perspective on the issue. According to the English-language Interfax report on the disaster, “project design faults” were behind the explosion. The slightly more in-depth Chinese-language story from the Jinan Times reports that the plant suffered from design and construction flaws (in addition to lacking a proper emergency contingency plan).
The fact that national safety authorities would overrule Shandong’s provincial safety authorities is interesting and illuminating. As I noted in my original post, the Weiqiao Group is one of Shandong’s largest employers, and its state-owned status guarantees that it maintains tight relationships at the very highest levels of the provincial government. Thus, the provincial government’s immediate effort to shift blame away from the company, to the workers, was wholly predictable. Less predictable, however, is the national government’s interest in setting the record straight and placing the blame on shoddy design and construction practices at the company itself. Perhaps the Weiqiao plant’s relative proximity to the recent Xintai disaster caught the attention of the national safety authorities. Whatever the chain of events, it is remarkable that the national authorities would move so quickly to set the record straight. Presumably, they could not do so with such specificity unless they had high-level informants on the design and construction process within Weiqiao itself.
But again: why does the national government care?
For most of the last five years, China’s industrial policy as it applies to natural resources has stressed the need to shut-down small companies in favor of larger ones. The most public expression of this policy has been the oft-repeated intention to shut down small, wild-cat coal mines in favor of larger ones. In aluminum industry (and the Chinese non-ferrous metal industry, in general), the pattern has been similar: small, polluting factories have been shuttered in favor of a policy that favors and even subsidizes larger factories that presumably have better production and pollution-control technologies.
It’s a tough bargain, especially at the provincial level, where small-scale aluminum plants are often tightly connected to local governments. The trade-off, at least from the point-of-view of the national government, is a better-capitalized aluminum industry built to developed-world standards, capable of competing in the international markets.
Alas, the Weiqiao explosion suggests that – in spite of consolidation, government support, and better technology – some of China’s modern aluminum plants are being designed and built with the same cost-cutting disregard for worker safety as the old wild-cat plants. Under this scenario, consolidation may not mean better quality; it may just mean the same problems on a bigger scale.
Finally, Dan Harris at the excellent China Law Blog responds to my original post on the Weiqiao disaster by suggesting that China’s nascent legal system is, at least indirectly, responsible for the accident:
Whenever I read something like this, I cannot help but think that if China’s legal system allowed its injured to recover real damages, incidents like this would start decreasing rapidly. Now before you assail me with wanting to bring U.S. style tort litigation to China, at least ponder why it is that worker safety has improved so greatly in the United States in the last 50 years.
This is an interesting and – in my opinion – valid point, and Dan’s discussion of it is followed by an equally interesting comment thread. Well worth reading.