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Industrial and Environmental Disasters inside the Global Giant: Is something wrong with the Chinese development model?

Avinash Godbole was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • August 20, 2010

    China’s spectacular economic growth continues unabated and it has now surpassed Japan to have the second largest GDP in the world in dollar terms. China’s growth has certainly been miraculous and it has belied many negative assessments about its economic prospects. But at the same time, the People’s Republic seems to have developed a negative reputation due to recurring industrial and environmental disasters. In particular, in the last couple of months, China has faced major industrial and mining accidents and natural disasters.

    These disasters have caused not only financial loss but their human costs have also been substantial. While the number of disasters was low in the days of economic slowdown, at a time when the economy is growing faster in the post recovery period the race to the economic top is fuelling a slide to the bottom in terms of safety for the people and endurance of the processes. One is of course not considering here the damage caused by drought and floods that hit China periodically. A combination of some natural causes and some macro economic policies has caused much of the recent floods and droughts. It is a glaring fact that the world’s factory is not able to manage the costs of its status as the second largest economy in the world.

    One major accident in the recent past was the oil leak caused by an explosion in the Dalian pipeline. The oil slick which spread to over 400 sq kms in no time threatened marine life and water quality, and hampered transportation in the region. It must be noted that the Dalian site was treated as hazardous by the environmental agencies. However, it was not a one of its kind incident. There were other incidents of oil slick reported as well: in May 2010 in Shanxi province, and in July in Jilin province. These were followed by the gas leak explosion in Nanjing in Jiangsu in which at least 12 people were killed and another 300 injured according to official estimates.

    The latest in this series has been the landslide in Zhugqu County of Gansu province, which has caused one of the biggest human tragedies from a natural disaster. So far 1250 deaths have been confirmed and more than 450 people are treated as missing. There are voices being expressed by environmental activists that the Gansu tragedy was triggered by relentless construction of roads and dams on the upper sides of the mountains for which forests were cleared off.

    Mining accidents in China regularly grab headlines for their casualty figures. These accidents have accounted for more than acceptable numbers of death at an average of more than seven each day. The safety and pollution control records of mines in China are the worst anywhere in the world. Political backing by powerful party leaders who only want to flaunt ever higher economic numbers allows these mines to neglect safety standards. In a recent incident, effluents from a copper mine killed 1900 tonnes of fish and contaminated drinking water supplies in Fujian. A similar incident was reported in Guanxi as well.

    Generally, in China, the number of industrial accidents had gone down drastically since 2000, when some form of regulations governing safety procedures began to be implemented. In the days following the Wall Street crash of fall 2008, industrial activity had slowed down in China. It was felt at that time that the environmental and safety budgets would face the harshest cuts in the cost cutting initiatives that were announced in China. The recent industrial disasters that have accompanied the post-recovery economic acceleration have proven those predictions beyond doubt and one should not be surprised if this trend continues.

    The much celebrated non-governmental organisations and environmental activists have been conspicuously absent during these instances. This proves beyond doubt the limits of such activism in China as the Party and money continue to reign supreme. Breaking this nexus is going to be a tough ask where the state machinery is intricately meshed with the communist party.

    The only silver lining perhaps is that the central leadership appears to be serious about these issues. It is not downplaying these incidents and allowing greater media coverage unlike the infamous SARS case when a media blackout was in place. However, the major media focus is on the swiftness of the relief and rescue work rather than on the causes for the incident itself. Thus, it is apparent that the top leadership of the party uses instances like this to reach out to the people with its message of care and concern. One would have to wait and see if this reflects in the development strategies of China.

    There is a huge group of experts and advocates who visits Shanghai and awed by freeways and skyscrapers advocate the Chinese model of development for India without really going into details. There is also another group that compares the rate of infrastructure development of India and China and paint a negative picture of India. There is no denying that the bottlenecks in the Indian policy structure can and should be removed. However, the present reality of industrial and environmental disasters in China calls for a reality check about blindly copying the Chinese development model.