“I understood there was risk, but I didn’t think it would be this bad”
Explosions and fires- a short reflection on the culture of risk and safety in China
In the 21st of August there were still 4 fires active in Tianjin,. There are more than 110 deaths counted, still more than 50 people missing, 700 people dislocated. The economic costs of the disaster are estimated to be more than 1, 5 billion euro. (BBC world news).
Incomplete registration of chemicals-
Effect 1 This week the government started placing livestock around the disaster area to monitor the quality of the air in the area. The government doesn’t know for sure what kinds of chemicals have been transported through the air in the area, because the registration of the (toxic) chemicals in the harbor was flawed. And now they are looking at the end of the ‘pipeline’ to see what mess is coming out.
Effect 2 The fire brigade started hosing water on the fire that preceded the explosion, which caused a reaction with some of the substances in the fire. The fire brigade did not check whether they should use fire. It would have been no use, as the registration was flawed anyway..
Effect 3 The explosion at the chemical warehouse also show cased that the warehouse was not permitted to have those chemicals and in those amounts in the warehouse.
The solution: more regulations?
Now sometimes explosions like these happen in other, Western countries as well. In May 2000 a warehouse full of fireworks exploded in the middle of a residential area in Enschede, the Netherlands. My uncle, who lived nearby, saw his windows shattered by the blast and wrote about what happened on the internet. A few days later the mayor of Enschede and other local politicians were scrambling over each other the say that what were needed was more regulations and stricter rules. But the regulations had been clear, strict….. and violated. Not the rules were soft, the inspection and governance (by the government) had been lacking.
China culture and safety risks
“I understood there was risk, but I didn’t think it would be this bad”. For a nice first look on culture in China, have a go at the culture compare meter (as I call it) on http://www.geerthofsteede.com . Here you can see that the Chinese are less motivated to in calculate risks in the future (although at the same time do long term planning!). One look at the traffic in the big cities in China and you can confirm…Another reason things went terribly wrong in Tianjin was the lack of support of governance by the local authorities. This is a reoccurring problem in China, where the national government makes some fine and strict environmental and safety laws, but as the Chinese say “The Mountain is high and the emperor far away.” Local governments often have economic ties to companies and are less strict in inspection and regulations for their own reasons. And this brings us to the last and third reason; the value of a human life, the value of our environment. In traditional Chinese Culture a human life young and old, had value as an individual. Since the communist ideas, the state, the mass, was more important than a single life. Mao was even proud of the fact that if someone would nuke China and kill a million Chinese, another million Chinese would be born the next year. He could lose some. This is not what the residents surrounding the disaster area in Tianjin were thinking: immediately they started buying water, clothes, and towels from their own money and gave it away to the victims of the blast. Their altruistic behavior is also Chinese Culture.