A rapidly rising percentage of the Chinese population is living in high-rise apartment buildings in hundreds of cities around the country. There is concern, however, about the quality and effectiveness of fire-safety regulation and enforcement for these buildings (as well as factories, warehouses, ports, and other structures). This means that high-rise fires represent a growing risk in urban China. Here is a news commentary from CGTN (link) in 2010 describing a particularly tragic high-rise fire that engulfed a 28-story building in Shanghai, killing 58 people. This piece serves to identify the parameters of the problem of fire safety more generally.
It is of course true that high-rise fires have occurred in many cities around the world, including the notorious Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017. And many of those fires also reflect underlying problems of safety regulation in the jurisdictions in which they occurred. But the problems underlying infrastructure safety seem to converge with particular seriousness in urban China. And, crucially, major fire disasters in other countries are carefully scrutinized in public reports, providing accurate and detailed information about the causes of the disaster. This scrutiny creates the political incentive to improve building codes, inspection regimes, and enforcement mechanisms of safety regulations. This open and public scrutiny is not permitted in China today, leaving the public largely ignorant of the background causes of fires, railway crashes, and other large accidents.
It is axiomatic that modern buildings require effective and professionally grounded building codes and construction requirements, adequate fire safety system requirements, and rigorous inspection and enforcement regimes that ensure a high level of compliance with fire safety regulations. Regrettably, it appears that no part of this prescription for fire safety is well developed in China.
The CGTN article mentioned above refers to the "effective" high-level fire safety legislation that the central government adopted in 1998, the Fire Control Law of the People's Republic of China (link), and this legislation warrants close study. However, close examination suggests that this guiding legislation lacks crucial elements that are needed in order to ensure compliance with safety regulations -- especially when compliance is highly costly for the owners/managers of buildings and other facilities. Previous disasters in China suggest a pattern: poor inspection and enforcement prior to an accident or fire, followed by prosecution and punishment of individuals involved in the occurrence of the disaster in the aftermath. But this is not an effective mechanism for ensuring safety. Owners, managers, and officials are more than ready to run the small risk of future prosecution for the sake of gains in the costs of present operations of various facilities.
The systemic factors that act against fire safety in China include at least these pervasive social and political conditions: ineffective and corrupt inspection offices, powerful property managers who are able to ignore safety violations, pressure from the central government to avoid interfering with rapid economic growth, government secrecy about disasters when they occur, and lack of independent journalism capable of freely gathering and publishing information about disasters.
In particular, the fact that the news media (and now social media as well) are tightly controlled in China is a very serious obstacle to improving safety when it comes to accidents, explosions, train wrecks, and fires. The Chinese news media do not publish detailed accounts of disasters as they occur, and they usually are unable to carry out the investigative journalism needed to uncover background conditions that have created the circumstances in which these catastrophes arise (ineffective or corrupt inspection regimes; enforcement agencies that are hampered in their work by the political requirements of the state; corrupt practices by private owners/managers of high-rise properties, factories, and ports; and so on). It is only when the public can become aware of the deficiencies in government and business that have led to a disaster, that reforms can be designed and implemented that make those disasters less likely in the future. But the lack of independent journalism means leaving the public in the dark about these important details of their contemporary lives.
The story quoted above is from CGTN, a Chinese news agency, and this story is unusual for its honesty in addressing some of the deficiencies of safety management and regulation in Shanghai. CGTN is an English-language Chinese news service, owned and operated by Chinese state-owned media organization China Central Television (CCTV). As such it is under full editorial control by offices of the Chinese central government. And the government is rarely willing to have open and honest reporting of major disasters, and the organizational, governmental, and private dysfunctions that led to them. It is noteworthy, therefore, that the story is somewhat explicit about the dysfunctions and corruption that led to the Shanghai disaster. The article quotes an article in China Daily (owned by the publicity department of the CCP) that refers to poor enforcement and corruption:
However, a 2015 article by China Daily called for the Fire Control Law to be more strictly enforced, saying that the Chinese public now “gradually takes it for granted that when a big fire happens there must be a heavy loss of life.”
While saying “China has a good fire protection law,” the newspaper warned that it was frequently violated, with fire engine access blocked by private cars, escape routes often blocked and flammable materials still being “widely used in high buildings.”
The article also pointed at corruption within fire departments, saying inspections have “become a cash cow,” with businesses and construction companies paying bribes in return for lax safety standards being ignored.
So -- weak inspections, poor compliance with regulations, and corruption. Both the CCTV report and the China Daily story it quotes are reasonably explicit about unpalatable truths. But note -- the CGTN story was prepared for an English-speaking audience, and is not available to ordinary Chinese readers in China. And this appears to be the case for the China Daily article that was quoted as well. And most importantly -- the political climate surrounding the journalistic practices of China Daily has tightened very significantly since 2015.
Another major institutional obstacle to safety in China is the lack of genuinely independent regulatory safety agencies. The 1998 Fire Control Law of the People's Republic of China is indicative. The legislation refers to the responsibility of local authorities (provincial, municipal) to establish fire safety organizations; but it is silent about the nature, resources, and independence of inspection authorities. Here is the language of the first several articles of the Fire Control Law:
Article 2 Fire control work shall follow the policy of devoting major efforts into prevention and combining fire prevention with fire fighting, and shall adhere to the principle of combining the efforts of both specialized organizations and the masses and carry out responsibility system on fire prevention and safety.
Note that this article immediately creates a confusion of responsibility concerning the detailed tasks of establishing fire safety: "specialized organizations" and "the masses" carry out responsibility.
Article 3 The State Council shall lead and the people's governments at all levels be responsible for fire control work. The people's government at all levels shall bring fire control work in line with the national economy and social development plan, and ensure that fire control work fit in with the economic construction and social development.
Here too is a harmful diffusion of responsibility: "the people's governments at all levels [shall] be responsible ...". In addition a new priority is introduced: consistency with the "national economy and social development plan". This implies that fire safety regulations and agencies at the provincial and municipal level must balance economic needs with the needs of ensuring safety -- a potentially fatal division of priorities. If substituting a non-flammable cladding to an 80-story residential building will add one billion yuan to the total cost of the building -- does this requirement impede the "national economy and development plan"? Can the owner/managers resist the new regulation on the grounds that it is too costly?
Article 4 The public security department of the State Council shall monitor and administer the nationwide fire control work; the public security organs of local people's governments above county level shall monitor and administer the fire control work within their administrative region and the fire control institutions of public security organs of the people's government at the same level shall be responsible for the implementation. Fire control work for military facilities, underground parts of mines and nuclear power plant shall be monitored and administered by their competent units. For fire control work on forest and grassland, in case there are separate regulations, the separate regulations shall be followed.
Here we find specific institutional details about oversight of "nationwide fire control work": it is the public security organs that are tasked to "monitor and administer" fire control institutions. Plainly, the public security organs have no independence from the political authorities at provincial and national levels; so their conduct is suspect when it comes to the task of "independent, rigorous enforcement of safety regulations".
Article 5 Any unit and individual shall have the obligation of keeping fire control safety, protecting fire control facilities, preventing fire disaster and reporting fire alarm. Any unit and adult shall have the obligation to take part in organized fire fighting work.
Here we are back to the theme of diffusion of responsibility. "Any unit and individual shall have the obligation of keeping fire control safety" -- this statement implies that there should not be free-standing, independent, and well-resourced agencies dedicated to ensuring compliance with fire codes, conducting inspections, and enforcing compliance by reluctant owners.
It seems, then, that the 1998 Fire Control Law is largely lacking in what should have been its primary purpose: specification of the priority of fire safety, establishment of independent safety agencies at various levels of government with independent power of enforcement, and with adequate resources to carry out their fire safety missions, and a clear statement that there should be no interference with the proper inspection and enforcement activities of these agencies -- whether by other organs of government or by large owner/operators.
The 1998 Fire Control Law was extended in 2009, and a chapter was added entitled "Supervision and Inspection". Clauses in this chapter offer somewhat greater specificity about inspections and enforcement of fire-safety regulation. Departments of local and regional government are charged to "conduct targeted fire safety inspections" and "promptly urge the rectification of hidden fire hazards" (Article 52). (Notice that the verb "urge" is used rather than "require".) Article 53 specifies that the police station (public security) is responsible for "supervising and inspecting the compliance of fire protection laws and regulations". Article 54 addresses the issue of possible discovery of "hidden fire hazards" during fire inspection; this requires notification of the responsible unit of the necessity of eliminating the hazard. Article 55 specifies that if a fire safety agency discovers that fire protection facilities do not meet safety requirements, it must report to the emergency management department of higher-level government in writing. Article 56 provides specifications aimed at preventing corrupt collaboration between fire departments and units: "Fire rescue agencies ... shall not charge fees, shall not use their positions to seek benefits". And, finally, Article 57 specifies that "all units and individuals have the right to report and sue the illegal activities of the authorities" if necessary. Notice, however, that, first, all of this inspection and enforcement activity occurs within a network of offices and departments dependent ultimately on central government; and second, the legislation remains very unspecific about how this set of expectations about regulation, inspection, and enforcement is to be implemented at the local and provincial levels. There is nothing in this chapter that gives the observer confidence that effective regulations will be written; effective inspection processes will be carried out; and failed inspections will lead to prompt remediation of hazardous conditions.
The Tianjin port explosion in 2015 is a case in point (link, link). Poor regulations, inadequate and ineffective inspections, corruption, and bad behavior by large private and governmental actors culminated in a gigantic pair of explosions of 800 tons of ammonium nitrate. This was one of the worst industrial and environmental disasters in China's recent history, and resulted in the loss of 173 lives, including 104 poorly equipped fire fighters. Prosecutions ensued after the disaster, including the conviction and suspended death sentence of Ruihai International Logistics Chairman Yu Xuewei for bribery, and the conviction of 48 other individuals for a variety of crimes (link). But punishment after the fact is no substitute for effective, prompt inspection and enforcement of safety requirements.
It is not difficult to identify the organizational dysfunctions in China that make fire safety, railway safety, food safety, and perhaps nuclear safety difficult to attain. What is genuinely difficult is to see how these dysfunctions can be corrected in a single-party state. Censorship, subordination of all agencies to central control, the omnipresence of temptations to corrupt cooperation -- all of these factors seem to be systemic within a one-party state. The party state wants to control public opinion; therefore censorship. The party state wants to control all political units; therefore a lack of independence for safety agencies. And positions of decision-making that create lucrative "rent-seeking" opportunities for office holders -- therefore corruption, from small payments to local inspectors to massive gifts of wealth to senior officials. A pluralistic, liberal society embodying multiple centers of power and freedom of press and association is almost surely a safer society. Ironically, this was essentially Amartya Sen's argument in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, his classic analysis of famine and malnutrition: a society embodying a free press and reasonably free political institutions is much more likely to respond quickly to conditions of famine. His comparison was between India in the Bengal famine (1943) and China in the Great Leap Forward famine (1959-61).
Here is a Google translation of the 2009 Chapter V of the 2009 revision of the Fire Protection Law of the People's Republic of China mentioned above.
Chapter V Supervision and Inspection
Article 52 Local people's governments at all levels shall implement a fire protection responsibility system and supervise and inspect the performance of fire safety duties by relevant departments of the people's government at the same level.
The relevant departments of the local people's government at or above the county level shall, based on the characteristics of the system, conduct targeted fire safety inspections, and promptly urge the rectification of hidden fire hazards.
Article 53 Fire and rescue agencies shall supervise and inspect the compliance of fire protection laws and regulations by agencies, organizations, enterprises, institutions and other entities in accordance with the law. The police station may be responsible for daily fire control supervision and inspection, and conduct fire protection publicity and education. The specific measures shall be formulated by the public security department of the State Council.
The staff of fire rescue agencies and public security police stations shall present their certificates when conducting fire supervision and inspection.
Article 54: Fire rescue agencies that discover hidden fire hazards during fire supervision and inspection shall notify relevant units or individuals to take immediate measures to eliminate the hidden hazards; if the hidden hazards are not eliminated in time and may seriously threaten public safety, the fire rescue agency shall deal with the dangerous parts in accordance with regulations. Or the place adopts temporary sealing measures.
Article 55: If the fire rescue agency discovers that the urban and rural fire safety layout and public fire protection facilities do not meet the fire safety requirements during the fire supervision and inspection, or finds that there is a major fire hazard affecting public safety in the area, it shall report to the emergency management department in writing. Level People’s Government.
The people's government that receives the report shall verify the situation in a timely manner, organize or instruct relevant departments and units to take measures to make corrections.
Article 56 The competent department of housing and urban-rural construction, fire rescue agencies and their staff shall conduct fire protection design review, fire protection acceptance, random inspections and fire safety inspections in accordance with statutory powers and procedures, so as to be fair, strict, civilized and efficient.
Housing and urban-rural construction authorities, fire rescue agencies and their staff shall conduct fire protection design review, fire inspection and acceptance, record and spot checks and fire safety inspections, etc., shall not charge fees, shall not use their positions to seek benefits; they shall not use their positions to designate or appoint users, construction units, or Disguisedly designate the brand, sales unit or fire-fighting technical service organization or construction unit of fire-fighting equipment for fire-fighting products.
Article 57 The competent housing and urban-rural construction departments, fire and rescue agencies and their staff perform their duties, should consciously accept the supervision of society and citizens.
All units and individuals have the right to report and sue the illegal activities of the housing and urban-rural construction authorities, fire and rescue agencies and their staff in law enforcement. The agency that receives the report or accusation shall investigate and deal with it in a timely manner in accordance with its duties.
(Here is a detailed technical fire code for China from 2014 (link).)