BEIJING — A local Communist Party official called it an “inspiring” factory three years ago. Local officials later gave it the “leading enterprise” label for its innovation in processing chickens. But the official homages to the Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Plant, where at least 120 people perished this week in a fast-moving fire, now serve as little more than stark reminders of the dangerous conditions facing many workers in China.
The factory fire, which officials attributed to an ammonia gas leak, was China’s worst workplace fire in many years, according to state media. It underscored how government regulation in China is weakened by a system that bases the promotion of local officials on economic growth above all else. How well companies expand the local economy trumps workplace conditions, product safety, and pollution — top concerns for many Chinese and growing sources of unrest.
On Tuesday, some relatives and friends of victims briefly took to the streets of Dehui, the factory’s municipality in northeast China, to demand justice, prompting the police to fan out around the area, wire services reported. It was clear that the tragedy worried Chinese leaders, as Prime Minister Li Keqiang met with provincial officials at the emergency command center of the State Council, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Accounts in the media from a handful of survivors painted a picture of mad attempts to escape an inferno consuming a warren of rooms and hallways.
“Everyone was falling over in the corridors,” said Wang Xiujuan, according to a Xinhua report. “You tread on me, I tread on you. It was very chaotic. Everyone was crawling out, using all their might to crawl out.”
Tencent, a popular Internet portal, published comments by two survivors. One man, Guan Zhiguo, said the workers had not been warned about workplace hazards, including the ammonia.
“I am filled with hatred, but I don’t know toward what,” Guan said. “When I was running out, I saw a few women workers stuck behind a locked door. They were screaming their lungs out. It sounded so gruesome. The screaming lasted for about 10 minutes. The fire was too big for me to get close. Now, thinking back, my heart hurts for them.”
Chai Jinfeng, another survivor, said veteran workers had told her that the factory kept several doors locked to prevent workers from stealing.
The tragedy raised questions about whether government regulation was rigorous enough.
The previous official statements of support for the company, including recognition as a “top 100” agricultural firm in Jilin Province, are typical of the symbiotic ties between Communist Party officials and the businesses they regulate. Such close working relationships have been key to China’s successful transition from a socialist planned economy, but have also made industrial accidents, labor abuses, and environmental hazards common.
The pattern of officials’ turning a blind eye to safety problems at businesses they support can be found throughout China.
Officials in the city have avoided granting interviews, but some details of conditions at the factory began to emerge in state media. Xinhua reported that Changchun officials had concluded that working conditions were too crowded, fire escape routes and procedures poor, and inspections substandard. Much of the factory had been built from flammable materials, so “the risk of fire was very large,” Xinhua reported.
Medical workers at the site found that a main cause of death was ammonia poisoning, Xinhua reported Tuesday; many victims had swollen respiratory tracts. Witnesses had said Monday that they heard one or more explosions. A leak of ammonia might have caused the initial explosion, and then more gas leaked, according to state media reports.
Several survivors said in online reports that 300 to 400 workers were in the factory when the fire broke out.