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Why the Shanghai fire was actually a good thing

November 17, 2010


All eyes are on this fire, in China and abroad, which may prove to be the upside of this terrible tragedy. (Photo: Reuters)


First of all, I’m alive, I’m alive! I am deeply sorry to any loved ones I had worried. The fire, while close to my workplace, was nowhere near close enough to directly impact me, so breathe easy. I did see the smoke, though, out the window of my office building when it was happening. The whole city saw those black billowing clouds.

So, the fire: obviously a horrible tragedy for anyone who was killed or hurt in the fire, and for their families. I in no way mean to imply by my argument that those deaths and injuries are a good thing. They are horrible, and my heart goes out to everyone who suffered a loss.

However, I think the fire was ultimately a good thing for China. Here’s why:

The eyes of the world are on this fire. Not only do I see nonstop coverage of the fire every time I’m in a Subway station (with everyone waiting for the train staring at the screens, just like in the above photo), but my family in California was worried that I had been hurt in the accident. That’s how much international press it’s getting.

There’s no doubt the Chinese government is extremely embarrassed about the ineptitude demonstrated in dealing with this fire – it took hours to extinguish, and the first few hours of effort did almost nothing to extinguish the fire on the upper floors; over 50 people died! But even worse, the cause, it has now been revealed, were unlicensed welders.

In other words, someone who was supposed to enforce a safety regulation looked the other way.

China has a long track record of very unsafe construction. Although over 50 people died in this fire, many, many more have died in unsafe construction past. However, the state media and international media have largely ignored these disasters because they took place out in the boondocks, and the people who died were just poor migrant laborers. Who cares about them?

For example, when a blast killed 76 miners last year, the world hardly blinked. The cause: corrupt management ordered gas sensors to be disabled. The management is finally being punished, but what about the government that is supposed to be there to oversee this kind of safety violation? Where were the safety checks?

Cutting corners with safety is one of the easiest ways to cut costs (unskilled labor is cheaper), so despite the risk, many construction companies have a large incentive to continue with unsafe practices, especially when there is little risk of being caught.  Even if they are caught, my suspicion is that officials, who all want to grow and modernize their cities, just ignore these violations in favor of economic profit.

For the first time, a disaster caused by poor enforcement of safety regulations has  captivated the Chinese people is very promising to me. State media has not been able to quash the reports of htis one. It took place in the middle of Shanghai, the biggest, most modern city in China! Look at all the eyewitnesses just in the picture above, many of whom have blogs and microblogs. No hiding this mistake. Finally, the government will be held accountable by the people for the consequences of corruption in law enforcement.

This fire is the first globally high-profile case of a disaster caused by poor enforcement of safety regulations, and I hope that it fire forces the Chinese government to get its act together and protect people. Now that Beijing’s domestic international reputation is on the line, I expect to see them take real action.

I hope with all my heart that there is a silver lining to this black, ugly cloud.

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