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China’s safety officer calls for whistle blowers

China's senior safety inspector urged the public and the media Tuesday to expose workplace accidents in a bid to end corruption and official misdeeds pushing the country's high rate of work deaths.
China Work Safety
Chinese firefighters try to rescue a man who survived the collapse of a privately owned workshop in Xialin village of Wenzhou, in eastern China's Zhejiang province on Sunday. Seven workers were found dead, and 12 others were injured. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

China's senior safety inspector urged the public and the media Tuesday to expose workplace accidents in a bid to end corruption and official misdeeds aggravating the country's high rate of work deaths.

Li Yizhong, the head of the State Administration of Work Safety, said public whistle-blowing provides crucial clues for investigators often hobbled by cover-ups by local officials, especially on coal mine accidents.

"We welcome the public's supervision. We welcome the reports made by people to expose corruption," Li said at a news conference. "According to some tips, for example, we have found government officials who made unlawful investments in coal mines."

Appeals for public and media intervention are an increasingly common tactic for the usually closed, authoritarian communist government as it tries to rein in local officials eager to protect industries and businesses flourishing under capitalist reforms.

"The central government finds it hard to get its orders carried out by local governments," said Gao Chuanzhi, an expert on media with the China Institute of Industrial Relations, a school run by the state-backed labor trade union federation. "That's why Li Yizhong hopes the media can help strengthen his powers of supervision."

At his news conference, he released the results of investigations into five headline-grabbing accidents. Two of the accidents — a coal mine explosion that killed 28 miners and a bridge collapse in Hunan that killed 64 people — resulted from a series of lapses, from lax inspections to bribing officials to alter plans and safety checks, he said.

"In publicizing the results of these five investigations, we wish to subject them to public and media scrutiny," Li said.

Public support becomes useful prod
Such calls from Beijing, however, are not invitations for untrammeled meddling by the public or media. Authorities still retain control over what appears in the media, and whistle-blowers who challenge powerful interests are often subjected to intimidation or arrest.

Authorities last year ordered investigative reporter Pang Jiaoming fired and banned from journalism after The China Economic Times ran his expose on the use of substandard ash in concrete on a high-profile railway project, potentially creating a safety hazard.

Government agencies that fight corruption and enforce environmental and labor rules, as well as worker safety, have found public support as an important tool. Corruption watchdogs have set up hot lines to receive tips. A series of reports by state-run China Central Television on pollution in a major river, the Huai, generated a public outcry, thereby helping environmental regulators levy fines and shut down chronic polluters.

Li, the safety official, has gained a reputation as a tireless advocate in trying to improve China's poor workplace safety, frequently appearing on TV overseeing rescues after major accidents. He has tried to use this popularity to cow local authorities into following rules and break the often corrupt networks between officials and businesses.

Last year, 101,480 Chinese died in accidents. In the troublesome coal mines, the world's deadliest, 3,786 miners were killed — a figure that marks a 20 percent improvement from 2006 but is believed by experts to understate casualties as mine owners and officials hide accidents to avoid costly investigations and penalties.

Exposing Olympic projects
An explosion killed at least 20 miners Sunday in a mine in Shanxi province that Li said inspectors dynamited shut but that its owner secretly reopened over the weekend under cover of a snowfall.

"In terms of our work, there are many weak links, and the power of the government has been weakened from the central to local levels," Li said. "It's true there are still officials who break the law for selfish ends and trade power for money."

When asked by reporters, Li said he could not confirm a report in The Sunday Times that at least 10 workers have died building the showpiece National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest because of its steel lattice frame, for the Aug. 8-24 Olympics.

A spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organizing committee said the British report was false.

But Li again called for public help in exposing problems on Olympic projects and said he would order an investigation and if true punish those responsible. "I do not know whether there have been any cover-ups, so we welcome the public to report any violations to authorities," he said.