INDUSTRIAL safety has failed to keep up with China's fast-paced economy, Western and Chinese experts say.
Last week, the New China News Agency reported that a series of nine blasts at a hazardous chemicals depot in the southern boom town of Shenzhen killed about 80 people and injured about 150 others in a city that has become a showcase of China's new fiscal and economic reforms.
The succession of blasts at the Anmao Dangerous Goods Shipping and Storage Company in an industrial zone was believed to have been triggered by a release of ammonium nitrate. Eventually 8 of 10 warehouses in the area ignited.
The English-language China Daily reported only nine killed in the Shenzhen blasts which caused tremors and a huge fireball witnessed in Hong Kong just across the border.
The Communist Party People's Daily gave only one paragraph about the explosion. Western observers say that the official Chinese press downplayed the disaster and casualty figures out of fear of affecting the country's booming image in the eyes of overseas investors.
"This explosion is a reminder that industrial growth overrides safety concerns in this boom economy," says a Western diplomat in Beijing. "The possibility of this kind of accident happening in other cities is high."
Last month, 29 people died and 32 were injured in a blast at a chemical factory in Zhengzhou in central China.
Western observers say China has an appalling safety record in industries run with obsolete technology, low wages, and little attention to working conditions. The Chinese Ministry of Labor does not publicize the exact figures of industrial casualties in the country, although news reports insist that "effective measures" for ensuring industrial safety are being drafted. Mining accidents widespread
The most dangerous industry is mining in which nearly 10,000 Chinese died in accidents in 1991, according to official government figures released for the first time. In 1992, the Ministry of Labor said more than 1,000 workers died in 51 major disasters but failed to report deaths from minor coal-mining accidents with less than 10 fatalities.
In May of this year, the government reported a continuing run of serious accidents which rose by one-third this year and caused twice as many fatalities, according to the Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily. The publication said that until May, 300 people had died in 19 major accidents.
Small rural mines, where impoverished rural workers mine in terrible safety conditions account for more than two-thirds of mine fatalities yearly, according to reports in the official press.
The main causes of the mine disasters are gas explosions, flooding, and fire and pit collapses. The accidents get scant, if any, coverage in the Chinese press, and full details of the mine explosions are rarely issued.
The last reported colliery explosion was in April when 22 miners were killed in a gas blast in Shenyang in northeastern China.
Seventy people died in Shanxi province, China's largest coal producing area, in November 1992, and 45 miners were killed in the same area last September. Vital coal supplies
China is one of the world's mining powerhouses, employing more than 7 million people in 230,000 mines and producing more than 1 billion tons of coal annually. Coal accounts for 75 percent of China's energy consumption.
The increase in mining disasters has prompted repeated official calls to improve safety. Last year, the government implemented a new mine safety law requiring mine operators to use modern safety equipment and setting a seven-year prison penalty for violators of mine safety laws.
But Chinese and Western observers predict the law will have limited impact at a time when China faces a painful industrial restructuring to make mines and state-run enterprises more efficient in a market-oriented economy.
China National Coal Corporation, a state-owned conglomerate that employs 3 million people, is closing 30 inefficient mines and laying off 100,000 miners and workers in related jobs, according to China Daily. By the end of the current five-year plan in 1995, the company plans to cut the number of coal workers by 400,000, the newspaper said.
Fearing worker unrest, China has moved slowly in streamlining industries and laying off employees. While the overall economy boomed last year at almost 13 percent growth, most of the benefits came to private and collective enterprises.
State-run companies, accounting for half of industrial output but of which only a third are profitable, are a conundrum for the government.
Western analysts say the problems of troubled state enterprises, particularly smaller factories operated by counties and townships, are intensifying as the government has tightened credit in recent weeks. Many of these operations have only stayed afloat with new government loans.
This summer, a series of financial scandals, farmer unrest over lack of grain payments, rising inflation, and a government cash squeeze have prompted Beijing to move to slow runaway economic growth.