Everyday Corruption

Nick Holdstock

The huge blast at a chemical factory in Tianjin on 12 August, which killed around 150 people, was China's worst industrial accident for several years. Since then there have been two more explosions in Shandong province, and now another in Zhejiang province on Monday. There have been at least 38 explosions so far this year at chemical plants, firework factories and mines. Among the causes are a lack of oversight, local corruption and attempts to boost profits by employing less qualified workers or ignoring safety protocols. These problems are endemic to most areas of the Chinese economy, whether it be food provision, the rail network or domestic tourism, all of which have seen serious accidents or health scares in recent years.

President Xi Jinping has been carrying out a purge of corrupt officials since he came to power in 2012, but its focus has been on high-level financial crimes. Little attention has been paid to the everyday corruption that involves, as in Tianjin, a company being allowed to handle toxic chemicals without a licence, or safety reviews being outsourced to a contractor paid by the company being inspected. Local officials aren't entirely to blame for allowing profitable chemical plants or mines to operate without supervision: they are under pressure from their superiors to raise local revenue. Since 1994, Chinese cities and townships have been responsible for financing themselves.

Western commentators have been predicting the imminent collapse of the Chinese Communist Party for years, but the country’s slowing economy and dire industrial pollution indicate the need for a shift in governance, especially at local levels. It's unclear how much desire there is for Western-style democracy in China, but the government is going to have to find a way to reassure its citizens that it can guarantee their safety: the middle class is willing to protest over environmental concerns. Plans have been announced to upgrade or relocate chemical plants, but as with other recent environmental laws, without capable and honest local officials it's doubtful they will be enforced any better than the regulations which were supposed to prevent the explosions in Tianjin and Shandong.


  • 12 September 2015 at 3:13pm
    kessler says:
    Honesty & ability both are good things, but novelty is a greater problem here perhaps: China is new, just a generation ago few of these chemical-spill risks existed, there -- I've just read a history of our last-century US Transcontinental Railroad innovation & the errors & horrors were horrendous there too -- & Silicon Valley makes $ mistakes, ask any financier. We've weathered ours; be patient with China.