You’re fired

Questions at grain giant after blaze mirrors historical case


One way of wrongfooting the anti-graft inspectors

In 1735 the Emperor Qianlong ordered a national audit of his grain reserves. One of his largest granaries then burnt to the ground before his audit team could visit. The intrigue surrounding the fire was so rich with drama that it became the subject of a 2002 soap opera on CCTV entitled The Big Barn. Historians have blamed corrupt officials for the fire, saying it was arranged to obscure previous theft of grain.

Few would have thought that eighteenth century China could have such close parallels with contemporary events. But last week there was nationwide discussion of the television show and its similarities to a fire in Heilongjiang province. In the blaze a storage centre belonging to Sinograin was destroyed as flames engulfed 78 barns and 47,000 tonnes of grain.

The conflagration broke out just four days after central authorities had ordered an inspection team to look into allegations of administrative irregularity, triggering speculation that the blaze was started on purpose.

Local officials blamed a short circuit for sparking the inferno, saying the fire then spreading quickly because of unusually dry and windy weather. But fire prevention is a top priority in granary design, so many were left unconvinced by the initial explanation. Instead the suspicion was that the 20-hour blaze was a result of “deliberate ignorance or dereliction of duty”, an unnamed electrical engineer told the South China Morning Post. Nine Sinograin executives have already been punished for negligence.

Critics have been quick to pour scorn on state-run Sinograin, which operates 338 granaries across China. Established in 2000, its primary mandate is to ensure sufficient grain reserves. To this end it stores as much as 35% of China’s annual consumption. The idea is to help cushion farmer incomes during bumper harvests, but keep retail prices stable when yields fall.

Like many of the other state heavyweights enjoying subsidies and policy favours, Sinograin’s performance is increasingly in the spotlight. The fire has invited fresh rebukes that it has been hoarding excessive reserves at its depots and trading them for speculative gain. “Is Sinograin a big barn or simply a grain trader?” China Business News asked, suggesting that the organisation should be relieved of its commercial activities and retain only a policy role (in 2011 Sinograin made around $618 million of profit).

“The fire has been put out but scepticism about Sinograin is now burning wildly,” the Century Weekly observed. Sinograin has been caught out before in two embezzlement scandals in 2010 and 2011, reports Xinhua. This time the inspection team was sent to Heilongjiang after the National Audit Office announced it suspected further irregularities at the grain firm.

Disastrous fires seem to have become a common story in recent days. The burning of a bus in Xiamen has drawn much of the media attention (see World of Weibo column). But another disaster at a poultry factory in Jilin province also made headline news, when at least 120 people were killed in China’s deadliest workplace fire in 30 years. Again, the electrical system has been blamed for igniting the plant. But the death toll was so high because the factory’s management had locked all but one of the exits, according to media reports.

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