When China’s Disasters Remind Us of America

Will Doig
August 20, 2015

In Brockton, Massachusetts, you can purchase a car at Shoe City Auto Sales, drive it to the Shoe City Tavern, and afterward, recycle your bottle at the Shoe City Redemption Center.

What you can’t do is manufacture a shoe—not since 2009, when workers at Brockton’s last remaining shoe factory, FootJoy, threaded their final eyelets and locked the doors. In the early 20th century, Brockton was the self-proclaimed “shoe capital of the world.” Today China holds that title—60 percent of the shoes walking around right now are made there.

China’s manufacturing dominance extends across all manner of industries, from solar panels to air conditioners. But its ascent has come with a human toll. This was thrown into sharp relief last week when a hazardous-chemical warehouse operated by Ruihai International Logistics exploded in the major port city of Tianjin, claiming more than 100 lives and injuring over 700 people, with still many more missing. A towering fireball swallowed nearby apartment buildings, leaving a surreal crater in its wake. Footage of the apocalyptic scene was online within minutes.

The scale of the horrific images—miles of cars and buildings reduced to charred skeletons—bolstered a narrative that’s become conventional wisdom: that China is a mass-production dystopia where factories collapse, bullet trains derail, and workers toil for starvation wages until they drop dead from exhaustion.

It’s a narrative that might appeal to the bruised ego of a laid-off FootJoy employee: sure, China might have dethroned the U.S., but only by sacrificing its humanity to industrialization. If that’s the case, however, China is only calling the shots from a playbook written by American companies a century prior, when the U.S. was industrializing with China-like speed.

LittleRice_TinyBy the turn of the 20th century, American manufacturing was on a rampage. Between 1860 and 1900 the U.S. economy expanded by 400 percent. Its factories, by then electrically powered, were producing bicycles, typewriters, and sheep shearers at a rate the world had never seen. At the same time, these factories were churning out dead and injured workers with relative impunity. By 1900, U.S. industrial accidents were claiming up to 35,000 lives per year.

Brockton was the site of one of these accidents. In 1905, its footwear companies were locked in cutthroat competition, and the R.B. Grover shoe factory was operating at full tilt. R.B. Grover wasn’t Brockton’s biggest shoe company, but it was a major player, and had recently started making a shoe called the Emerson that was surging in popularity. To keep up with demand, the factory increased its capacity by adding a fourth floor. Unfortunately, its original pressure boiler was designed for a three-story structure. When it exploded in the early hours of March 20, 58 people perished in the blaze.

Like Brockton’s blast, disasters like last week’s explosion in China are entirely preventable. The Tianjin warehouse was filled well beyond capacity with toxic sodium cyanide. It was also located twice as close to an apartment complex as it was supposed to be. The Ruihai company had reportedly let its documentation to work with such volatile chemicals lapse. And now, the head of China’s work safety agency is under investigation for corruption. Cutting corners like this is part of what’s helped drive China’s spectacular growth. Just last month, a shoe factory near Shanghai collapsed, killing 14 people. It was in the world’s new Brockton—the coastal city of Wenling, known in the industry as “the shoe capital of China.” There’s a calculated risk that underpins the current industrialization of the developing world, and it’s not that dissimilar from the risk that drove the growth of cities like Brockton a hundred odd years ago.

China bears the brunt of our current alarm about this perilous strategy, but take a stroll through Manila, Kolkata, or Lima and the story is roughly the same: workers tolerating sweatshops to escape impoverishment; a vast informal economy that chugs along on a knife’s edge; and governments allowing dangerous practices for the sake of growth. Regimes themselves make far-reaching policies that not only allow, but actively contribute to their countries’ reckless expansion. Just last week China devalued the yuan to boost exports, sparking fears of a global currency war (yesterday Vietnam followed China’s lead) and feeding rumors that the country’s economy isn’t as robust as Beijing insists it is.

Where this kind of volatile growth will lead is uncertain. During the West’s Industrial Revolution, accidents rose with industry’s expansion, then fell with better technology and regulation. Around the time of the R.B. Grover disaster, boiler explosions were frighteningly common—2,000 blew their tops between 1880 and 1890, often with fatal results. But incidents like the one in Brockton prompted change: In 1909 the state of Massachusetts introduced a set of regulations for boiler construction and operation. Two years later, Ohio followed suit. By March 1915, ten years after the R.B. Grover catastrophe, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers drew up a “boiler code,” and accidents plummeted.

Today’s emerging economies find themselves in a pickle. With each passing disaster, they may (or may not) take baby steps toward better and safer working conditions. But for now, the growing pains of modernization are visible for all the world to see on tweeted videos with trending hashtags—something the U.S. never had to worry about. Foxconn laborers assembling Apple products in China kill themselves after grueling 16-hour shifts and the blogosphere responds with immediate outrage. A garment factory in Bangladesh collapses, killing over a thousand, and the wreckage is uploaded to YouTube before the end of the day. The Tianjin explosion itself made headlines because of the viral videos.

Whether the visibility of these incidents spurs real change is far from certain—the Ruihai company’s top executives have been detained, but bad apples aren’t really the root of the problem. And the fact that many of these products are being manufactured for Western consumers is an uncomfortable irony. For better or worse, however, workers in these countries can clearly see the West’s better working conditions and higher wages—and if they can’t, people raise the point directly. “If you’re to go into the U.S.,” the senior director of a Singaporean chemical company told CNN shortly after the Tianjin blast, “the U.S. doesn’t allow a single pile to be driven into the ground unless all the environmental regulations have been met, and you have to have approvals for everything.”

Depending on your viewpoint, you could read that as critical not of China, but of America, where strict regulations, labor laws, and “approvals for everything” make China-sized growth impossible. But China-sized growth is losing the PR battle, and preventable disasters like the one in Tianjin could serve as a wakeup call that breakneck economic gains aren’t worth the human costs.

Will Doig is a freelance writer in New York City.

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