This essay was originally published at ChinaFile on September 18, 2014.
It was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in recent Chinese history. On August 2, a massive metal dust explosion killed 75 workers and injured another 186 at a factory in Kunshan, in Jiangsu province, that supplied wheels to General Motors. Asphyxiation killed more than 40 people almost immediately as oxygen in the production facility was consumed in an instant. Many of those who escaped suffered severe burns across their entire bodies as the flames instantly ignited the dust that covered their clothes and skin.
The explosion, like many workplace safety incidents in China, was preventable, and much of the blame for it rests with the factory’s owners and clients. But Chinese Internet users, who spread news of the blast over social media, tended to direct their outrage at the Chinese government, treating the explosion as a symbol of their leaders’ failure to value human life as highly as economic growth, a sentiment mordantly expressed through the popularization of the Chinese phrase “More exploitation, more happiness.”
According to Chinese media reports aluminum dust concerns at the factory, which is owned by the Taiwanese-invested Zhongrong Metal Products, had been an issue since at least 2010, when workers protested at the front gate over pulmonary infections and other diseases caused by dust inhalation.
The production facility was full of aluminum dust. A worker named Liu Fuwen told a Beijing News reporter that every day before their meal breaks, each production line would fill a paint bucket with accumulated dust from their work stations. Another worker told Tecent’s InTouch Today, “When eating, each person’s body was covered in dust. It was like coming out of a brick kiln.” The factory’s managers would reduce production output on inspection day and wait until inspectors arrived to start up the machines, according to the South China Morning Post.
GM distanced itself quickly. “[Zhongrong] was a supplier to a supplier, as opposed to us, so we are a couple of steps removed,” said GM President Dan Ammann. But global corporations selling major brand products understand factory conditions in their supply chains. Perhaps more so for GM, given its recent troubles with the safety of its ignition switches.
The local government, for its part, failed to crack down on clear dust-related safety concerns at Zhongrong. Kunshan Fire Department official Wu Shenfei told The Beijing News that a fire broke out in June at the plant due to overheating of a dust removal machine. While factory workers put out the fire before it spread throughout the facility, firefighters learned what had caused it. One veteran factory worker told The Beijing News that Zhongrong was subsequently given a directive by the government to fix the dust-removal problem. That the factory’s management decided to ignore officials and continue production as usual is in part a failure of monitoring and enforcement bodies to compel compliance.
Indeed, the August explosion has become a symbol to many in China of a lack of will among officials to enforce safety regulations and protect the rights of citizens when business interests are at stake. On August 5, the finance magazine Caijing reported that in order to attract business and investment to the area, the Kunshan government had published promotional materials that read: “The Kunshan people welcome your investment. The more you exploit us, the happier we get.”
Within three days, that article had garnered over 7,600 comments from netizens, many including scathing criticism of the government.
The original version of the article was taken down between August 8 and August 10. Many reproductions of the article also quickly disappeared. But apparently censors were selective and did not delete every iteration of the exposé; it can still be found by using the original Caijing article’s title as a search term.
The comments from the article can still fortunately be viewed by going to the comment board’s direct web address. Some of the top opinions each garnered hundreds or thousands of “likes”:
“Who to blame! These are earnest business people who were turned rotten after they got here. The useless government is the real root of the sickness.”
“The economy of southern Jiangsu is an economy that sells its people.”
“Behind the neon lights are blood and tears.”
“In Taiwan, would they dare?”
“Don’t the textbooks say that black-hearted capitalists are the only ones who eat people [note: to “eat people” is an especially derogatory term for exploiting people]? But we are a socialist country! What is really going on here?”
While many of the news articles reporting on the Kunshan government’s advertisement language have been expunged from the Internet, many of the related posts and comments on Weibo have remained.
Between August 5 and August 8, there were more than 700 results on Weibo related to the slogan “More exploitation, more happiness,” with some of those posts being shared dozens sometimes hundreds of times.
One post from 21st Century Economic Reporting accumulated 520 shares and 234 comments. A netizen sharing the post wrote: “No boundaries! An absolute loss of purpose to serve the people, degenerating into service of capitalists.” Many people on Weibo contrasted the Kunshan government’s attitude with the official socialist stance of the Chinese government. One article, shared 93 times on Weibo, mentioned that in two separate places in China’s constitution it states: “socialist public ownership eliminates the exploitation of people by other people.”
On August 20, the Kunshan City Procuratorate (public prosecutor’s office) formally arrested the legal representative, the CEO, and the production safety director of Zhongrong for the crime of involvement in a serious labor safety accident. In response to one Weibo post of the news, comments primarily turned back to the question of government responsibility. One person wrote, “Who really must be arrested are officials who drummed up ‘The more you exploit, the happier we get.’”
Serious labor violations, almost a ubiquitous reality for China’s working class, rarely gather widespread attention and anger on Chinese social media. Most rights abuse cases are more or less confined to a small (yet growing) network of labor scholars and activists.
But the Zhongrong tragedy and its ensuing investigation hit a nerve among those in the general public who feel that the country’s economic prosperity has been delivered by the government at the cost of equality and fairness.
As the public discourse around blame for the Kunshan factory explosion turned from wanton companies and negligent local inspectors toward foundational issues of China’s constitution and governing principles, officials apparently took notice, taking down many news articles discussing the Kunshan government’s policy.
We can hope that attention from the government will translate into political will for reform. The Zhongrong case should clarify again the need for legitimate worker representation. Until workers have a union looking out for them in their own workplaces, unsafe conditions and other labor violations will persist.