Exploding Bikes


汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2021年4期

Why do so many e-bikes start fires in China?

Around 3:30 a.m. on June 23, flames lit up surrounding high-rises in Chengdu, Sichuan province—forming “mushroom clouds” of fumes hovering in the air, according to news reports. Allegedly started by a single electric bike which ignited around 200 bikes in a communal shed, the conflagration was finally put out by local firefighters after half an hour, fortunately with no casualties.

However, five residents in another Chengdu housing compound had not been so lucky six weeks earlier: Flames and smoke engulfed the elevator in two seconds, when the electric bike a resident had carried in exploded. All of them were hospitalized. The flames burned 75 percent of the skin of one woman and 40 percent of the skin of the 5-month-old granddaughter in her arms.

Such tragedies have been an almost daily occurrence in China for the last decade. According to a report released by the Fire and Rescue Department (FRD), of the Ministry of Emergency Management (MEM) in 2018, 10,000 reported fires were caused by electric bikes between 2013 and 2017, making over 2,000 cases per year, or five cases per day.

One major safety risk lies in improper charging of electric bikes, sometimes with a mismatched adapter or unstable power supply that can result in a short circuit. As indicated in the FRDs report, 80 percent of the 10,000 fires had been caused by bikes being charged up, mostly during the night. Overnight charging may allow bikes to be fresh for the following days rides, but can lead to overcharging.

Bike owners often charge their vehicles indoors for the sake of convenience, and because of a lack of public facilities for bike-charging and battery-sharing. Around three years ago, for instance, only half of the 13,000 residential communities in Shanghai were equipped with parking and charging spaces, according to The Paper.

Modified batteries are another smoking gun. Many riders (especially courier drivers and others who work in private logistics), dissatisfied with the average mileage of 30 to 40 kilometers for electric bikes, have repair shops replace their battery with double or even triple storage capacities, often without appropriate safety mechanisms.

Moreover, manufacturers favor lithium batteries—lighter and with higher capacity than traditional lead batteries, but much more flammable. Standards for these batteries are lax, leaving out tests that show the batterys limits, like piercing or submerging in water.

In the face of rising incidents relevant public and private bodies have strengthened protection efforts. The MEM issued new regulations this June, to take effect on August 1, forbidding parking and charging in the public areas of high-rise buildings.

Local governments have also weighed in. Shanghais municipal government implemented new safety regulations on non-motorized vehicles on May 1, providing detailed rules on batteries, charging, parking, and vehicle management. The local government also set up over 1,600 parking and charging areas, and installed over 4,600 control systems, which automatically keep elevator doors open and send warnings to compound guards if they identify an electric bike placed in elevators.

Meanwhile, just seven days after the Chengdu elevator case, two more charging bikes exploded in Beijing and Shenzhen. And less than two months after Shanghais non-motorized vehicle regulations came into force, local police handled over 170 illegal charging cases, identified over 240 bikes with dodgy batteries, and found 6,300 spots where bikes blocked emergency exits and passageways. It may take time and effort for electric bike owners to realize safety matters more than (in)convenience.

– Tan Yunfei (譚云飞)

Abusive internship

On June 25, a 17-year-old student identified under the surname Yu jumped to his death from a dormitory balcony, after two weeks of exploitative conditions at an internship arranged by his vocational school at a Shenzhen electronics factory.

A final-year computer student from Hubei province, Yu was asked to do repetitive manual labor on assembly lines for 11 hours a day at 14 RMB an hour. Yu complained of exhaustion, and missed work mostly due to health reasons and with permission from his supervisor. However, he was still marked “truant,” and threatened with expulsion from school on the morning of his death.

According to national regulations, vocational school internships must be relevant to the students major. Students under 18 cannot be assigned overtime work and night shifts, and cannot earn less than 80 percent of regular workers probation-period salary. But “it is common for vocational schools to violate the regulations,” wrote Yuan Yayang, a lawyer specializing in labor cases on social media platform Zhihu. – Yang Tingting (杨婷婷)

After-school Training Trim

Fifteen after-school training institutions have been fined a total of 36.5 million RMB for false advertising, price gouging, and other illegal business practices under Chinas newly revised Law on the Protection of Minors, which took effect on June 1.

The fines are the highest of their kind so far in China, and affected publicly listed companies such as New Oriental Education & Technology Group and online education platforms Yuanfudao and Zuoyebang.

The same month, the Ministry of Education set up a supervising department to regulate the booming after-school training industry. New Oriental alone earned 151 million USD in net profit in the first half of the year.

Along with ongoing measures to tackle pressure on students, such as forbidding extra courses during holidays and vacations, those moves are meant to avoid “transferring the burden outside school” and improve the quality of education, commentator Ding Yasong from Peoples Daily pointed out this June. – T.Y.

Elephant Exodus

Since March, 15 wild Asian elephants have left their habitat in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in Yunnan province and trekked 600 kilometers northward to the provincial capital, Kunming.

In order to keep elephants away from densely populated areas, 675 police and emergency workers were deployed on June 3 to block roads into villages and lure the herd away by dropping 10 tons of corn, pineapples, and other food with trucks and drones. Nevertheless, the herd has raided farmhouses and foraged for food in villages. As of June 28, the elephants were estimated to have caused over 6.3 million RMB in financial losses, which the provincial government has promised to recompense.

It is unclear why the elephants embarked on their journey. Some experts suggested it might be due to an inexperienced leader leading the herd astray, or else habitat loss. The herd was last reported in central Yunnan, having headed south again. – Y.T.