Views From the East: Calls for Accountability in Wake of Shanghai Fire

By Ruoji Tang
Published: 2010-11-18

The huge apartment fire in Shanghai that killed 53 and left many more wounded is the worst fire-related disaster the city has seen in the past decade. Public shock and outrage erupted at the enormous loss of life and the lackluster response of the fire department, especially in a city that has come to represent China's urban prosperity, wealth and modern infrastructure.
The finger pointing has begun and the culprits are widespread and numerous. Media reports have painted a colorful picture of flammable construction materials such as nylon netting and bamboo scaffolding, careless renovation work by illegally subcontracted construction crews, and complicated connections to high ranking Shanghai officials.

In the confusion, Chinese commentators have responded to the tragedy with a general call for accountability, greater attention to fire and construction safety, and pertinent reflections on the speed of China's urban development.
Commentator Wang Shichuan (王石川), in a piece for the Economic Observer Online, asked crucial questions about construction safety and why with the city's state-of-the-art firefighting equipment, the Shanghai Fire Department appeared utterly unprepared:
"Shanghai was still basking in the glory of the World Expo, and the celebrations were still carrying on. But the fire destroyed all that ... when the flames burned to ashes, it not only extinguished many lives but also revealed gaping holes in the system"
"Tennants had complained about fire hazards, why weren't the problems solved? Ms. Zhao, a proprietor of a business housed in the building, said that work to add insulation to the wiring began over a month ago. When renovations began, workers littered the corridors with cigarette butts that no one cleaned up. Ms. Zhao expressed concerns about safety repeatedly, but received no response from the crew."
" ... according to reports, the Shanghai Fire Department recently organized a simulation fire scenario that was 'the biggest, most dangerous fire scenario involving an unprecedented number of firefighters that had to negotiate the most comprehensive training exercise'... unfortunately, practice is practice."
" ... another incident worth noting is that on August 14, 2007, during the Shanghai World Financial Center drills, the Shanghai Fire Department put out a simulation fire in a tower over 400 meters high. Supposedly, the fire department brought in more than 40 German fire engines; the water reached an average height of 200 meters and as high as 375 meters. Why, then, did the water only reach 100 meters in the fight to put out the blaze on Jiaozhou Road?"
"—Behind every serious incident, there are 29 minor incidents, 300 close calls, and over 1,000 warning signs ... In the era of the skyscrapers, the consequences of a fire are disastrous."
Original article: [Chinese]

Shenlin (沈林), a reporter with China Youth Daily and former editor of Children's Literature Magazine, further deplores the lack of preventative measure taken in an opinion piece that appeared on the Hubei News Website:
"For fire and other accidents, we are used to retrospective investigations and learning lessons 'to avoid another tragedy,' but we take very few preventative measures." "Construction units should act responsibly, even under the temptation of huge profits, and relevant administrative departments should also do their part to investigate hidden dangers."
"Behind every fire, there is a human hand. In manmade disasters, someone must be held accountable. But accountability is not enough. The tragedy isn't the fire itself, but that the fire was preventable. Lives that could have been saved were instead lost."
Original article: [Chinese]

Commentator Qiu Zhihua (邱智华) infuriated readers in an editorial for Guangming Online titled "The Irony of the Shanghai Fire":
"We built so many high rises to boost GDP growth, but no one ever thought about what happens in case of a fire. I watched the live broadcast for a long time before they were able to put out the fire. Facing fierce flames, the firefighters did their job; there was nothing more they could have done, but it's certainly regrettable. When the expo ended, the engineering projects all started work. Projects suddenly had to be carried out and could not remain in the planning stage. Careless supervision is the cause of the fire. The fire is a bitter critique of the banners that say 'cities mean a better life!' (城市让生活更美好 chéngshì ràng shēnghuó gèng měihǎo)"
Original article: [Chinese]

Web commentator Cao Xugang (曹旭刚) provided a more philosophical response to the fire in a piece that appeared in the China Business News:  
"The Shanghai fire is not only a tragedy for the residents in that single building, but the defining affliction of the high rise era. Experts say that high-rise fires are a problem all over the world. Once the building is ablaze, outside help is impossible, and people are left to fend for themselves. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, if it is so difficult to control safety in high rises, then why are we still so obsessed with building them? Is a dense forest of reinforced concrete really the true symbol of the modern city? The fire has taught us one thing, when buildings are concerned, higher is not always better."
Original article: [Chinese]

Writer, reporter, and freelancer He Renyong (何仁勇) expressed his concerns about the eight "scapegoats" in custody in an article for
" ... 4 of the 8 suspects were unlicensed construction workers. On the day of the fire ... it was the nylon mesh, bamboo scaffolding, and other combustible construction material they left behind that caused the tragedy."
"In the Shanghai Jing'an district fire, the workers should bear some responsibility. But it is shameful to blame only them. Sparks from their equipment took 53 lives, but there were supposed to be security measures and safety standards, if any of them had held, the loss of life may have been kept to a minimum ... The workers are responsible for first few sparks, but who will take responsibility for the spread and size of the fire? Construction units? Supervisors?" 
"Hopefully, Shanghai has enough courage to undertake an impartial, independent, and transparent investigation into the incident and the surrounding circumstances. Under the scrutiny of the public, everyone involved, including engineers, contractors, and project managers will all be held accountable and prevent future carelessness."
Original article: [Chinese]

Lin Chufang (林楚方), former chief editor of Vista magazine and former senior editor of Southern Weekend, is wistful as he sums up in his blog the limits of the Shanghai mega metropolis:
"'Better City, Better Life,' was Shanghai's promise. But now, the lives of dozens of residents came to an abrupt end.
"In China's most efficient and modern city, the host of the World Expo, a great fire claimed the lives of 53 people, all of them lost their lives because the fire ladders were not high enough, the helicopter could not descend, and the water pressure in the hose fell short."
"We live in a paper thin social system that crumples when the smallest thing goes wrong. But when nothing is wrong, no one bothers to test the system."
Original article: [Chinese]