By Maxim Duncan
DEHUI, China (Reuters) - Relatives of workers killed when fire engulfed a chicken processing plant in rural northeast China blocked traffic and scuffled with police on Tuesday, demanding answers to one of China's worst industrial disasters in recent years. At least 120 people died, and more than 70 were injured.
A handful of men and woman knelt in the middle of the road in Dehui in Jilin province to stop cars, while a crowd of more than 100 people gathered around them. Police dispersed the protesters after about an hour.
Zhao Zhenchun, who lost his wife and sister in the fire, said human error was to blame for the death toll. "I don't think safety was being managed properly. This should never happen again. They paid the price with their blood. So many of these big disasters in China are caused by lax supervision," he said.
The world's second-largest economy has a poor record on workplace safety. Fire exits in factories are often locked to prevent workers taking time off or stealing things, or blocked entirely.
"The rationale behind the locked doors boils down to efficiency. With the doors locked, workers cannot wander about freely, and therefore concentrate on their work," the official Xinhua news agency said.
It added that ammonia gas leaks could have caused the explosions at the plant.
Flammable construction materials, poor design of exits and insufficient fire prevention equipment contributed to the fire, Xinhua cited Gao Guangbin, Communist Party chief of the provincial capital Changchun, as saying.
"All construction materials used to build the workshop were flammable, creating an enormous fire hazard," Gao said.
Safety regulations are easily skirted by bribing corrupt officials, and in any case China has relatively few fire safety inspectors.
"Tragically, most of the inspections usually come after a disaster like this," said Geoffrey Crothall, a China labor expert with Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin.
"There's very little proactive or routine inspections of factories to make sure everybody's up to code and that's largely because there are too many factories and too few inspectors."
China's safety record is likely to prompt concerns overseas as its companies buy stakes in or take over foreign food producers, such as Shuanghui International Holdings' $4.7 billion offer last week to buy leading U.S. pork producer Smithfield Foods.
Premier Li Keqiang has ordered a thorough probe into the disaster and promised the authorities will "earnestly investigate to find out who was responsible", the central government said in a statement on its website (www.gov.cn).
"This was an incident which caused disastrous losses and the lessons to be drawn are profound," it paraphrased him as telling investigators and provincial officials.
Zhang Guijuan, 48, had been working in a room next to the one that caught fire, and ran out when she heard an explosion. From her hospital bed, Zhang said she had never been given any advice or instruction on health and safety issues during her two years at the slaughterhouse.
"We never had (safety) training. Whenever the director holds a meeting with us, he only talks about how to work ... how to work hard. There's never anything else," she said.
LOSS OF FACE
The disaster is a major loss of face for a country which seeks to project a global image of a modern, rising power, different from developing countries like Bangladesh, where such industrial disasters are frequent.
It is especially embarrassing as it comes just days ahead of an informal summit between President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama at which China would very much like to be viewed as an equal to the world's sole superpower.
Ironically, Monday's fire in a building that was just four years old coincided with China announcing its latest manned space mission, a multi-billion dollar scheme designed to showcase the nation's technological prowess and arrival on the world stage after decades of isolation and poverty.
"Many countries have the basic ability to avoid one-time disasters in which more than 100 people die ... China has reached this point," the Global Times, a widely read and influential tabloid, said in an editorial about the fire.
"It is ... a blow to China's modernization and the latest proof that Chinese society is unable to balance development and safety risks."
Fearful of further unrest - Tuesday marks the sensitive 24th anniversary of China's bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators - Beijing has ordered tight reporting controls.
"Strengthen guidance of public opinion ... strengthen management of the Internet and other new media, resolutely prevent the malicious stirring up or spreading of rumors and gossip," Xinhua said, citing a government meeting.
The government has moved quickly to detain those believed responsible for the fire. While state media has not released details on them, they will likely face long jail sentences, judging from how previous disasters have been handled.
Prosecutors from Beijing have been sent to Jilin to investigate whether dereliction of duty played a role in the fire, Xinhua said.
The plant is owned by Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co, a small local feed and poultry producer employing 1,200 people. It has the capacity to kill 100,000 chickens a day, and its products are only sold to the domestic market.
Calls to the company seeking comment would not connect.
Jilin is a largely agricultural province and an important producer of corn and soybeans.
Despite a series of food safety scandals in recent years, there have been relatively few large-scale fatal disasters in China's fast-growing but fragmented food processing sector. Twenty-one people died in 2003 at a meat processing plant in Qingdao, and the China Labour Bulletin said in a report then that management prevented some staff from fleeing until they had "moved the stock to a safe place".
More than 300 workers were in the plant at Dehui on Monday, with employees saying they heard a bang and then saw smoke, Xinhua reported. Around 100 managed to escape from the plant, whose gate was locked when the fire broke out, it added. Nearby houses were evacuated.
On Tuesday, Yang Xiuya sat cross-legged in front of a car and shouted angrily at police, insisting the doors of the slaughterhouse had been locked at the time of the fire. "My daughter worked there. They haven't given us any explanation. It was time for my daughter to leave work, but the door was locked, so they all burned to death," she shouted.
Another relative screamed at a line of dozens of unarmed SWAT police officers and tried to attack them before women pulled him back. "We can't see our family members and there's no information. We can't see the survivors or the bodies of the dead. They need to let us see the bodies," he shouted, wiping away angry tears.
Many of China's deadly industrial accidents happen in the huge coal mining industry, in which more than 1,300 people died last year from explosions, mine collapses and floods. China's worst fire disaster in recent times was in 1994 when 325 died in a theatre blaze in the far western region of Xinjiang.
(Additional reporting by Terril Yue Jones and Hui Li, and James Pomfret in HONG KONG; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ian Geoghegan, Ron Popeski and Mark Trevelyan)
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