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.
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.