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Poultry Plant In Deadly Fire Won Plaudits From Chinese

Firefighters do rescue works after a fire at a poultry slaughterhouse in Dehui, Jilin Province of China.
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Firefighters do rescue works after a fire at a poultry slaughterhouse in Dehui, Jilin Province of China.

A local Communist Party official called it an "inspiring" factory three years ago. Local officials later gave it the "leading enterprise" label for its innovation in processing chickens. But the official homages to the Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Plant, where at least 120 people died this week in a fast-moving fire, now serve as little more than stark reminders of the dangerous conditions facing many workers in China.

The factory fire, which state media reports said an ammonia gas leak might have caused, was China's worst workplace fire in many years, according to state media. It underscored how government regulation in China is weakened by a system that bases the promotion of local officials on economic growth above all else. How well companies expand the local economy trumps workplace conditions, product safety and pollution — top concerns for many Chinese and growing sources of unrest.

On Tuesday, some relatives and friends of victims briefly took to the streets of Dehui, the factory's location in northeast China, to demand justice, prompting the police to fan out around the area, wire services reported. It was clear that the tragedy worried Chinese leaders, as Prime Minister Li Keqiang met with provincial officials at the emergency command center of the State Council, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

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Accounts in the news media from a handful of survivors painted a picture of mad attempts to escape an inferno consuming a warren of rooms and hallways. "Everyone was falling over in the corridors," said Wang Xiujuan, according to a Xinhua report. "You tread on me, I tread on you. It was very chaotic. Everyone was crawling out, using all their might to crawl out."

Tencent, a popular Internet portal, published comments by two survivors. One man, Guan Zhiguo, said the workers had not been warned about workplace hazards, including the ammonia.

"I am filled with hatred, but I don't know toward what," Mr. Guan said. "When I was running out, I saw a few women workers stuck behind a locked door. They were screaming their lungs out. It sounded so gruesome. The screaming lasted for about 10 minutes. The fire was too big for me to get close. Now, thinking back, my heart hurts for them."

Chai Jinfeng, another survivor, said veteran workers had told her that the factory kept several doors locked to prevent workers from stealing. "The less doors, the easier it is to patrol," she said.

The tragedy raised questions about whether government regulation was rigorous enough.

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The previous official statements of support for the company, including recognition as a "top 100" agricultural firm in Jilin Province, are typical of the symbiotic ties between Communist Party officials and the businesses they regulate. Such close working relationships have been a key to China's successful transition from a socialist planned economy, but have also made industrial accidents, labor abuses and environmental hazards common.

"They're really driven and focused on G.D.P. growth and bringing in companies that can help economic growth," said Alex L. Wang, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles,who has studied the cadre evaluation system by which officials are promoted in China. "So regarding any measures that would increase the costs of doing business for these companies, the government will tend to remain more hands off."

In October 2010, the head of the local anticorruption body of the Communist Party visited the Baoyuanfeng factory to research conditions, according to a statement from Dehui propaganda officials on the municipal Web site. The official, Zhao Wenbo, found the company's "progress into becoming a nationally known enterprise and the growth of its production inspiring," the post said.

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A different post from the same year on the Dehui site asserted that "through an advanced management concept and business model, the company quickly entered into healthy development." It said the Jilin provincial government had called the company one of the "top 100 agricultural processing companies," while the provincial capital of Changchun labeled it a "leading enterprise" in agricultural industrialization, a title that it also held in 2011.

Despite such accolades, surviving workers from the factory said safety measures were poor or nonexistent, Chinese state news media reported Tuesday.

The pattern of officials' turning a blind eye to safety problems at businesses they support can be found throughout China. Coal mines are among the most dangerous places to work, yet for years local officials tolerated the hazardous operations of small mining companies because coal is a huge moneymaker. The central government has been pushing in recent years to shut down many of the small mines.

Local officials often ignore lead leaks from battery makers and metal smelters, which poison residents; in Mengxi Village in Zhejiang Province, 233 adults and 99 children were found in 2011 to have high concentrations of lead in their blood because of runoff from a factory. Over six years, officials had ignored flagrant environmental violations there.

State-owned enterprises, like the big milk producers involved in the deadly 2008 melamine scandal, have even cozier ties to local officials and can push further on what is permissible.

Officials in Denhui have avoided granting interviews, but some details of conditions at the factory began to emerge in state media. Xinhua reported that Changchun officials had concluded that working conditions were too crowded, fire escape routes and procedures poor, and inspections substandard. Much of the factory had been built from flammable materials, so "the risk of fire was very large," Xinhua reported.

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Medical workers at the site found that a main cause of death was ammonia poisoning, Xinhua reported Tuesday; many victims had swollen respiratory tracts. Witnesses had said Monday that they heard one or more explosions. A leak of ammonia might have caused the initial explosion, and then more gas leaked, according to state media reports.

Several survivors said in online reports that 300 to 400 workers were in the factory when the fire broke out.

Officials had not released details of the investigation or who might be under scrutiny. The 21st Century Business Herald reported that Baoyuanfeng's legal representative was Jia Yushan, and that the company was founded in September 2009. Its net worth was 62 million renminbi, or more than $10 million.

A job advertisement that Baoyuanfeng posted online in April said the company had grown to $58.7 million in sales in 2011 from $31.4 million the previous year. The ad said the company was hiring 200 processing workers and offering a monthly salary of $320 to $600. Applicants had to have a junior high school education.

A posting on the Dehui Web site said the company was adding two automatic slaughtering and processing lines that could handle 100,000 chickens a day, or 67,000 tons annually, for distribution nationwide. The company did not export.

The post said that over its first year, the plant had generated $3.4 million in income for 1,500 chicken farms, supporting the equivalent of 3,000 jobs.

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