The tragedy of the village that built Kunshan Zhongrong

20 August 2014

A week after the massive explosion at a factory in Kunshan that eventually killed at least 146 workers, a reporter from China Youth Daily travelled to Songxiaozhuang, a small village in the heartland of China that was intimately connected with the factory.

Almost 80 percent of the young men and women from this village had at some point worked at Kunshan Zhongrong Metal Products: Many were still employed there when the blast hit early on the morning of 2 August. The explosion not only destroyed the factory, it devastated the village of Songxiaozhuang as well.

The China Youth Daily report opens with a picture of Song Changxing, stricken with pneumoconiosis after working nine years in the dust filled workshops of Zhongrong. Many people felt sorry for him but, after the explosion, Song now describes himself as the “luckiest unfortunate” in the village.

Song’s neighbour, Liu Shiping, was not so lucky. Unlike many villagers who had quit the appalling conditions at Zhongrong, Liu had elected to stay on in the hope of making enough money for his son’s wedding. That decision cost him his life.

China Labour Bulletin has translated and edited the China Youth Daily report below. The original article “冲击波里的村庄” can be found on the newspaper’s website.

A village caught in the shock wave

By Zhang Yingwen, China Youth Daily, 13 August 2014

In a mud hut with peeling walls Song Changxing lies perfectly still under a discoloured red cotton quilt. The only sign that this 1.75m tall man who now weighs just 55kg is actually still alive is his shallow sigh-like breath.

It is two years and five months since 47-year-old Song Changxing was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis. Everyone in the village feels sorry for him but on 2 August he suddenly became the village’s “luckiest unfortunate.”

At, when Song was lying on his bed far away in Henan, an explosion ripped through the wheel hub polishing workshop at Kunshan Zhongrong Metal Products Co., Ltd. Song had worked there for nine years before falling ill and being dismissed.

On hearing the news, Song opens his mouth and swallows. He refuses to believe what he hears.

Song’s younger brother, niece and neighbours had all worked in that workshop 900 kilometres away in Jiangsu. As a matter of fact, about 80 percent of the young labourers in Songxiaozhuang, near Nanyang in Henan, have at some point worked at Zhongrong.

The first villagers went to Zhongrong more than a decade ago, before the factory was even completed. It is not unreasonable to say that it was the workers from Songxiaozhuang who helped build the factory. There was a regular flow of villagers to the factory, all introduced by and looked after by their countrymen.

The ginger, potato and corn fields that used dominate the lives of the villagers here can no longer keep them. “The price of spring onions is only one cent per half kilo, only 22 cents for half a kilo of potatoes,” explained one villager. Drought has blighted this area. Villagers have to pull long plastic hoses across the land in order to water their crops. “When the wells become dry, we cannot make any money from selling vegetables,” one villager says.

Song Changxing’s family also used to sell vegetables. He was one of the first villagers to work at Zhongrong. Four members of Song’s family lived in a tiny room near the factory for over two years. Later they were joined by their neighbour Liu Shiping and later by a wave of other villagers. Many villagers chose to leave after a while because they could not stand the hard work at Zhongrong. But they did not go far because it was easy for these young workers to find other jobs in the Kunshan Development Zone, where hundreds of factories had sprung up.

A vllage street in rural Henan. Photograph by Remko Tanis

When the shockwave from the Kunshan explosion hit Songxiaozhuang, everyone stepped outside and stood on the narrow cement road that runs through the village. Thoughts immediately turned to Liu Shiping.

Liu Shiping’s home is less than ten minutes’ walk from Song’s place, along a twisting muddy dirt road. It has a small, quite picturesque yard with white tile walls and black gate. Right now the gate is locked. The family has gone to Kunshan to collect his body.

It was Liu Shiping’s younger brother, Shi’an, who first realised that something was wrong. He was working at a furniture factory in Kunshan, a couple of kilometres away from Zhongrong, when he heard a loud bang: “The window frames rattled under the force of the explosion. It was like an earthquake.”

When he heard that the site of the explosion was Zhongrong, he immediately called his brother only to get an engaged signal over and over again. He feared the worst but still hoped that Shiping was alright. He got on his bike and sped to Zhongrong.

Song Changxing says he can imagine the scene when the explosion occurred. The 2,000 square metre polishing workshop has 29 production lines on two floors, he said. Both he and Liu Shiping did pressure grinding, using abrasive papers on grinding machines to polish the surface of the wheel hubs. This process is at the end of the production line and is not far from the exit.

Song can feel Shiping’s suffering is just like his own. As he speaks, he is hooked up to drip and boxes of medicine are scattered in a mess on the bedside cabinet.

It was said that Liu Shiping was still conscious when he was taken to hospital, and that he could tell the doctor his name. Six days later, he died of a pulmonary infection.

Other villagers did survive. Song Chengqiang, for example, normally worked in the same workshop as Shiping but had been assigned on that day to a new production line. Another villager had stepped out to deliver some materials but the sound of the explosion was still loud enough to cause permanent damage to the hearing in one of his ears.

People light candles for the victims of the Zhongrong factoy blast. Photograph ChinaFotoPress

Song Chengqiang considers himself to be lucky but even he cannot bring himself to recall the events of that day. “I cannot sleep if I think about it” he says. His brother-in-law, a 32-year-old father to two, has burns over 95 percent of his body. Many colleagues he worked closely with were injured. One villager had 100 percent burns and another was blinded by the blast.

News of the explosion came in waves, breaking the usual peace and quiet of this remote village. Liu Shiping’s wife cried out: “My God! I have to go now!” His 70-year-old mother cried and fainted when told of her son’s fate.

“It is hard for people in the cities to imagine what the loss of a young worker means to a rural family,” says one villager.

Even after Liu Shiping’s wife got to Kunshan, she was not allowed to see her husband. The hospital barred visitors because of the risk of infection. Only on one occasion, did she manage to catch a glimpse of her husband, covered in bandages, and whispered his name. It was only after Shiping died that she could finally “talk” to him in the mortuary.

Song Changxing’s wife understands her suffering. It was in 2012, that her husband, a middle-aged man who rarely caught “fever or cough” suddenly had chest pains and felt nauseous. As he rushed to the toilet, he abruptly vomited and collapsed on to the ground. When his wife arrived in Kunshan, Song Changxing was still in a coma, hooked up to an oxygen tank. He had pneumoconiosis.

She had previously worked at Zhongrong herself and knew what conditions were like. She had to use a “small beer bottle-like tool” to grind the wheel hubs. “That tool is really heavy. After a ten hour shift your arms ache and your hands get deformed. Your fingers swell up like carrots,” she said.

“After just two hours, it will generate a layer of black aluminium powder on the workbench about this thick,” she measured about two centimetres with her fingers.

The factory gave the workers thin cotton masks but these were useless so many workers bought their own masks or wore two masks together at the same time. Even so, their nostrils were still filled with black aluminium powder after work and black water flowed from their head down toward to their feet when taking a shower. They had to use laundry powder to clean the black dust from their faces. The aluminium powder even got into the workers’ shoes and rotted their feet.

When Song Changxing was sent to hospital, his work uniform was covered in aluminium powder.

The doctors said his lungs were so badly damaged by the dust that he could no longer work. Eventually, Zhongrong agreed to pay Song 70,000 yuan in compensation and terminated his employment contract. But, within one year, he had spent more than 100,000 yuan on medical fees. As of today, he has already spent 300,000 yuan and is 100,000 yuan in debt.

All the villagers knew that their bodies were being consumed at Zhongrong, yet the relatively high wages there made it hard for Liu Shiping and many others to leave. Like most people in the village, he planned to make enough money for his son’s wedding.

Song Changxing, in fact, had made enough money to build a new house back in 2006. He built a splendid new house which was the object of envy throughout the village. In order to pay his medical bills, however, Song’s wife sold this property back in 2012.

Song Changxing rarely speaks. He lies alone in this old dark house and sighs. He has to take seven different kinds of medicines, and gets intravenous transfusions three to four times a week. Although he can go out in the summer, it is harder for him to breathe during the winter, so he has to stay in his house all day.

But it is not like he has not experienced this “canned” existence before. Like everyone else, he hardly ever went downtown while working at Zhongrong. In fact, his time in hospital was the only time he spent any extended period in central Kunshan. At the time he smoked, but only bought the cheapest domestic brand at 2.50 yuan a pack.

Liu Shiping was equally frugal. His cell phone was so worn out that the back cover was replaced by a piece of hardboard. The company gave employees a 500 yuan shopping card but Liu only spent about 100 yuan in half a year.

Before the explosion, Liu Shiping could earn 5,000 yuan per month, with a 10,000 yuan bonus at the end of the year. However, he had to work for more than ten hours per day and his younger brother always saw him with medicated plasters on his arms to ease his muscle pain.

The villagers know that it is not far from Kunshan to the modern metropolis of Shanghai. In the early days, it cost just a few yuan to get there by train, today you can even get there in just 19 minutes by high-speed train. However, few villagers have ever been to Shanghai. In their world, the big city may be close geographically but it is a long way from the reality of their lives.

Just two days before the explosion, however, Liu Shiping did something that for him was quite extravagant: He spent 1,400 yuan on his first ever smart phone. He excitedly bombarded his brother with questions about the phone and its various functions. Shi’an taught him how to make free calls and helped him register his first QQ account. That night the brothers shared a big watermelon.

Liu Shi’an never imagined at that time that his brother’s QQ icon would never again be illuminated.

Liu Shi’an and Liu Shiping are pseudonyms.

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