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Twin fires spark China safety call

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam, CNN Senior China Analyst

Firefighters and military police stand outside the entrance to a burned out department store in Jilin.
Firefighters and military police stand outside the entrance to a burned out department store in Jilin.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Beijing has ordered a nation-wide emergency safety check after two fires in Jilin and Zhejiang Provinces killed nearly 100 people earlier this week.

The blazes -- one tore through a temple in Wufeng, the other razed a parts of a Jilin shopping mall -- dealt another blow to official central government promises to improve public safety and emergency responses in the wake of a string of deadly accidents.

A State Council meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday said inspection of safety and fire-prevention measures would be carried out in enterprises, department stories, government offices, schools, hospitals, and entertainment facilities.

A statement by the cabinet issued on Tuesday said "the focus of the inspection is to ensure [that all units] have work-safety systems and mechanisms, and that a personnel responsibility system has been implemented."

Premier Wen pointed out that as remedial measures, officials and other persons responsible for major fires and other mishaps must be penalized, and that "the right lesson must be drawn from the disasters."

Political sources in Beijing said the leadership under President Hu Jintao was very nervous about outbreaks of disorders that could ensue from major incidents such as industrial accidents or fires with large numbers of casualties.

For the past six months, provinces and cities have been told to set up a "rapid response emergency office" whose goal is to ensure rescue teams arrive at the scene of an accident without delay -- and measures be immediately taken to pacify the relatives of the dead and injured.

Moreover, governors and mayors of regions hit with a particularly atrocious accident have to take political responsibility.

While inspecting the charred ruins of the Jilin department store where at least 53 perished on Sunday, Jilin Governor Hong Hu admitted his staff had failed to do an adequate job of ensuring fire-safety regulations in public places.

"I have not done my job well," Hong said on national TV. "The lesson [from this accident] is very severe."

While Hong, deemed a reformist official, may not need to resign over the fire, his chances for promotion in the coming few years will be adversely affected.

Despite pledges to tighten and increase regulations, China's poor safety record has failed to show any signs of improvement. Fires, mining accidents, bus and other transport disasters kill scores of people each week.

The most major incident in recent months left over 200 people dead when a gas well blew out in the country's southwest in December, spewing toxic fumes across nearby villages.

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