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31/08/2011 | Is China's economic miracle built on sand or cement?

Peter Foster

It won’t exactly make world headlines, but in the Chinese port city of Dalian there was another accident today in the city’s sprawling petrochemicals development zone. This time a fuel tank caught fire in an oil refinery belonging to state major PetroChina.


This is same city, you’ll remember, that was hit by serious protests a fortnight back after a paraxylene chemical plant was nearly breached by a storm surge caused by a passing typhoon. In that case, the local government caved in and agreed to shut down the plant.

What’s amazing – and disconcerting for many living in Dalian – is that this is the FOURTH major safety alert in the petrochemicals complex in the last 12 months or so. No wonder the Weibo (Chinese Twitter) is hot with anger on the subject.

PetroChina had fires in Dalian last month (July 16) and October last year, while in July 2010 an explosion in a nearby fuel storage depot caused China’s biggest oil leak, spilling 1,500 tons of oil in the Yellow Sea. To have one accident may be regarded as a misfortune, but four in twelve months? That looks like carelessness to the point of institutional recklessness. No doubt a thorough inquiry will be held to find out – just like on the last three occasions.

Certainly, it seems as if the Chinese media have been told not to dwell on these matters too heavily: the official Xinhua newswire reports today’s fire, but can’t find space to mention the three other incidents, lest people start to join the dots. On days like these, you wonder how much of the rest of China’s much-vaunted infrastructure, built pell-mell this last decade or so, is on the verge of falling to bits.

That sinking feeling is what angered people during the Wenzhou rail disaster; it’s what put people onto the streets of Dalian two weeks ago and it is what is, like all the rotten concrete itself, is eating away at the bond of trust between China’s governors and the governed. Every night when I go home to my Beijing apartment, I have the same feeling. The place was built just seven years ago by a reputable (US) developer and, as I have written before, is quietly crumbling.

It all looks quite swish on the surface, but look carefully and you’ll see the flagstones in the public areas are subsiding drunkenly, the access road to the rear is shot to pieces, the bathroom fittings are corroding and the façades are starting to peel. With an apartments that hardly matters, but when it comes to railways, bridges, petrochemical complexes, 40,000 dams (as my colleague Malcolm Moore reported this week) and even nuclear power stations, we’ll have to pray higher standards have been enforced.

Perhaps there’s growth and money to be made repairing all this stuff, but as Michael Pettis, the bearish China economist writes in his China Financial Markets blog this week, the China investment binge just can’t go on forever.

I defer to Prof Pettis on the laws of economics (while acknowledging there are, of course, those who don’t agree with him) but like the ‘tofu’ schools of Sichuan that collapsed in the 2008 earthquake, events in Dalian do make you pause to wonder exactly what China’s economic “miracle” is founded upon.

Telegraph (Reino Unido)


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