Shanghai Fire Casts Pall on Officials

The Associated Press reports on the apportioning of blame in the aftermath of the Shanghai apartment blaze:

Investigators looking into a fire that ravaged a central Shanghai high-rise apartment, killing at least 53 people, said an energy-saving project that used illegal contracts, unsafe materials and unqualified workers was mainly to blame. “The accident should not have happened and was completely avoidable,” Luo Lin, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, said in a statement posted Thursday on the agency’s Web site. He listed a litany of problems with the government-sponsored energy-saving project, including the illegal use of unlicensed subcontractors, poor construction site management, lax local safety supervision and the use of highly flammable materials.

Eight people have since been detained in connection with the fire. Wu Zhong writes more about the official responses from both central and municipal authorities. From Asia Times:

During the more than four-hour battle against Monday’s fire, neither Yu [Zhengsheng, Communist Party chief] nor Han [Zheng, mayor] were at the scene. Yu was reportedly on his way back to Shanghai after a five-day visit to Xinjiang. Han was attending a meeting in Beijing. Only vice mayor of Shanghai Shen Jun and municipal public security chief Zhang Xuebin were spotted at the scene. For whatever reason, Yu and Han’s absence from the crisis disappointed the Shanghai public.

The central leadership in Beijing seemed to be more sensitive and quicker to react. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao promptly ordered a special task force headed by Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu to rush to Shanghai to deal with the aftermath of the fire and conduct an investigation.

Meng and his team arrived in Shanghai on Monday night and immediately took control of the investigation and in dealing with the aftermath. Yu is a politburo member, and thus is more senior in rank than Meng, who is just a member of the party’s central committee. However, in meetings convened to deal with accident, Meng was seen to sit in the middle with Yu and Han on his left and right. This is unusual and quite telling in terms of China’s protocol.

Beijing-based analyst and professor Russell Leigh Moses writes his thoughts on the government’s response with a piece at Wall Street Journal‘s China Real Time Report:

Indeed, the usual tightening has now taken hold to make sure such criticism does not emerge. Journalists have clearly been instructed to stay well back; even the usually-outspoken Southern Weekend was left to largely summarize (Chinese) the reports of other outlets. Renmin Ribao has been almost coy in its reportage, urging cadres to draw lessons from this tragedy and a fire in Jilin earlier in the month but also urging no recriminations (Chinese).

Some officials will find solace in this silence, but others may well question the point of this squelching. A growing number of local cadres notice that transparency and accountability in local affairs are more important to this public than democratic reform. These same cadres argue for more of an open conversation with the public about political matters. They cannot be satisfied by the effort to insulate the government.

Good governance in China would do well to recognize that it’s far better to prevent fires than fight them.


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