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Sihanoukville tragedy and China: Time for a serious discussion

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Rescue workers search for victims in the rubble of an under-construction building in Sihanoukville on Sunday, a day after it collapsed. CMAC VIA Facebook

Sihanoukville tragedy and China: Time for a serious discussion

The recent, tragic building collapse in Sihanoukville that claimed the lives of 28 workers has sparked significant attention to the question of Cambodia’s booming construction sector and growing Sino-Cambodian economic relations.

Various commentators have made important and vital insights as to serious issues within Cambodia itself as regards to regulatory and governance challenges related to the building sector.

However, this disaster requires the inclusion of an additional variable – China’s long-standing issues regarding construction standards.

Ignoring this issue would result in an incomplete grasp of the realities at hand. Attention to the approach taken by Chinese construction firms is essential.

It is certainly too early to assign blame and serious, independent investigation is required in order to better understand the precise dynamics that led to one of the worst tragedies in contemporary Cambodian history.

Fortunately, the government appears to be prioritising this issue, with the prime minister himself taking the lead in responding to the Sihanoukville collapse.

Hopefully, an independent inquiry, led by recognised experts, will be launched in order to fully determine the realities of the situation.

A step back from rhetoric is necessary at present to provide time to gather sufficient information in order to determine the causes behind the collapse and the policy reforms necessary in order to avoid a repeat of such a horrific catastrophe.

A data-driven rather than emotive response is required if such tragedies are to be avoided in future.

Chinese construction realities

At the same time, in light of the sheer scale of Chinese investment in Cambodia and its outsized role in the construction industry, any discussion of this issue must be informed by an understanding of the realities of the construction industry in China itself and the practices to which it abides (or ignores).

In short, the Chinese construction industry in the Kingdom requires a more thorough analysis as to its practices, standards and worker protections – in light of its enormous footprint in that field and the real impacts on the Cambodian population.

Some recent history is useful here.

In May of this year, a building in the process of refurbishment in Shanghai’s Changning district collapsed, killing five and injuring 14 others.

If we scroll back even further, to the beginning of the decade, the list of building collapses becomes even more disconcerting, with deaths owing to building collapse reported across China – in Yunnan, Heilongjiang, Henan, Jiangxi, Shaanxi and other provinces.

Beijing, to its credit, has implemented a more stringent regulatory framework governing the construction sector and has recognised the seriousness of the issue.

Ranging from the “Regulations on the Administration of Work Safety of Construction Projects 2004” to a more recent series of directives from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development gover-ning worker safety, to potential criminal prosecution under China’s Construction Law.

Noting the scale of the problem, as reported by Xinhua last year, China’s Ministry of Emergency Management declared in 2018 that it would strengthen safety supervision to improve site management in order to toughen safety supervision.

This included better on-site management and stronger efforts to eliminate safety hazards, in response to increasing construction-related fatalities and public anger.

However, the same report noted that the construction sector still had the highest number of workplace accidents of all industries for nine years running – with an increase of 4.3 per cent in 2018 – with building collapses highlighted as a particular area of concern.

While laudable, these efforts are cold comfort to the families of those who died in Shanghai earlier this year.

Foreign and local analysts of the Chinese construction sector have over the years consistently raised strong concerns as to worker safety issues, irrational construction management structures and the desire for “quick profits” on the part of developers who regularly use sub-standard materials and cut corners in order to take advantage of the country’s booming economy before the inevitable, expected slowdown in Chinese growth.

Questions to be asked

For Cambodia, as more data becomes available and further analysis can be completed, certain questions must be asked – what regulatory framework should be implemented to ensure that top tier, responsible Chinese firms adhering to industry best practices are those building the new Sihanoukville, the new Phnom Penh and other cities so rapidly taking shape around us?

Additionally, how can this sector be diversified to incentivise increased construction investment from Japan, South Korea and the US – facilitating the diffusion of industry best practices throughout the Kingdom?

Chinese investment in the construction sector has provided some significant benefits for Cambodia.

But at the same time, the Kingdom should not allow itself to become a “dumping ground” for Chinese firms and developers simply looking for a quick profit and seeking to take advantage of Cambodia’s booming real estate sector in light of slowing growth back home.

As China’s growth continues to slow, the incentives will only increase for low quality, “quick profit” developers to set up shop in Cambodia.

Recognising the government’s serious attention to the recent disaster, it is time the realities of China’s construction industry are made central in determining real policy solutions and are integral in future discussions of these issues.

If Cambodians are to be able to work and live in confidence and safety in their homes and businesses, these questions should be seriously and appropriately addressed.

Dr Bradley J Murg is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies and Director of Global Development Studies at Seattle Pacific University, and Affiliate Professor at the Henry M Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is also Director of Research at Future Forum, an independent think tank based in Phnom Penh.

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