President Hu Jintao and prime minister Wen Jiabao are embarrassed, and rightly so, by the progress of 100 tonnes of nitrobenzene down the Songhua towards Russia, following a chemical plant explosion in Jilin Province.

After the disaster, the head of China’s environmental protection agency and senior executives at China’s National Petroleum Corporation resigned. But larger sacrifices must be made to assuage public anger and protect against future catastrophes.

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Growing international pressure may give the new head of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), Zhou Shengxian, former director of the State Forestry Administration, more clout to make changes than his predecessors had.

Even before this disaster, the government had been promising change. Campaign groups have repeatedly criticised China for the reckless exploitation of labour, land and natural resources that threatens to turn the country into an ecological wasteland.

One Australian newspaper recently reported: “Seventy per cent of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted. Of the seven biggest rivers, only the Pearl and the Yangtze are rated good for water quality; the others are rated poor or dangerous and 400 of 668 big cities suffer from water shortages.”

China’s mining industry alone kills 6000 workers a year but campaigners say companies have little incentive to enforce regulations when the demand for raw materials is so high. Political leaders have repeatedly vowed to bring order and more stringent safety controls into the country’s chaotic industries, particularly in environmentally damaging sectors such as mining and chemicals.

As China’s industrial base grows, accidents will occur more frequently unless there is the political will to enforce more drastic environmental rules.

Would sacrificing a percentage point of GDP to create more sustainable long-term growth be so absurd? Greater regulation would slow economic growth – but establishing effective protection measures might convince campaigners that economic growth can be economic development. Meanwhile, China’s labour movement can only get stronger, reflecting growing unrest among workers.