Can Chinese Industry Be Made Safe?

After a massive gas well explosion killed 243 people in southwest China last December, China's State Council and National People's Congress have announced new rules for industrial safety. The authorities' response follows a now-familiar pattern: high-profile pronouncements in the wake of workplace disaster give way to neglect of basic safety standards. But if Western experience is any guide, ad hoc responses to high rates of work accidents won't reduce the risks to Chinese workers. Only the development of basic legal institutions will help make Chinese workplaces safer.

China and other developing Asian economies are experiencing an industrial accident crisis of world-historical proportions. Official sources report 14,675 industrial-accident deaths in China in 2003, but statistics on workplace accidents are notoriously unreliable, and some observers suggest that the number may be closer to 120,000.

China's coalmines are among the most dangerous places to work in the world. Chinese garment factories have repeatedly experienced disasters on a par with the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City a century ago, which killed 146 workers, all young women.

Conditions may well get worse before they get better. Even though China instituted new initiatives in industrial safety at the beginning of 2003, official estimates indicate that industrial accident deaths increased by almost 10% last year.