November 26, 2005

Another chemical explosion in China -

An explosion at a chemical plant in southwest China killed one worker and forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes, Agence France-Presse reported.

The explosion happened yesterday at Yingte chemical plant at a town near Chongqing, AFP said. A female worker died and more than 10,000 residents were evacuated.

An initial explosion went off near barrels of benzene, sparking a second one which created a yellow cloud. Officials ordered people to stop using water from taps and started gathering water and air samples.

A previous explosion on November 13th at a chemical plant in the northeast of the country spilled nitrobenzene into the Songhua River, leading to reports of contamination of the drinking water of Harbin, a city of 3 million.

These kinds of accidents are to be expected in a vast country, growing rapidly, populated by millions on low incomes who are struggling to survive economically, and for whom short cuts may bring promise of higher productivity and wages.

Accidents can happen in any country and any industry and it is easy for smaller nations to point the finger, when the main reason they have fewer accidents is the relative size of their industries - together witht the fact that they have had the benefit of relative wealth for some decades.

It is hard for the government when accidents happen because the lines of authority may be long, information may not always be available and when announcements are made, they may not always be believed by citizens who suspect local officials are playing down the situation. The result can be rumour and panic.

One way to deal with this problem would be to allow greater freedom in the media to investigate and criticise. A free media might be more trusted at such times - for example over whether local drinking water is safe. However, freedom in the media may bring other challenges, making it easier for organised protest movements to develop, perhaps leading to destabilisation. These are the dilemmas facing government leaders as they seek to lead the country along the delicate path of rapid growth, job creation, digital revolution, internet access and mobile telephone on the one hand, and secure, stable party rule on the other.