China is now requiring all mines, construction firms and producers of hazardous chemicals, fireworks and civilian explosives to obtain a "safe production license," according to the Associated Press.

The new law went into effect this month. A "safe production license" is valid for three years and must be renewed three months before it expires.

To obtain licenses, enterprises must: 1) standardize operational procedures to ensure safe production; 2) establish administrative bodies to supervise production; 3) provide education and training on safe production to employees; 4) furnish the workplace; 5) add infrastructure and equipment to meet safety demands; and, 6) prepare emergency plans and rescue equipment.

Any enterprise that operates without a license or violates the regulations will be ordered to halt operation immediately, fined 50,000 yuan (U.S. $6,050) to 100,000 yuan, and possibly subject to criminal penalties if major accidents have occurred.

As in many developing industrialized nations, the key will be how committed the government is to enforcement. The licensing plan at least indicates a growing official recognition that China needs major safety reforms to win respect and show stability to foreign investors.

Still, the licensing law does not apparently cover manufacturing operations such as clothing, toy and electronics production, all major engines in China's rapid economic growth.

Recent workplace calamities have made safety issues in general hard to ignore. A horrifying gas leak in the western region of Chongqing killed 243 people last month. Nine people were killed and five more injured in a fireworks plant explosion on January 1 at a village factory in central China. Another fireworks factory explosion in northeastern China on December 30 killed 38 people and injured 33 others.

China has a worldwide reputation for unsafe workplaces. At least 4,200 people were killed in the country's coal mines last year. The official industrial accident death toll of 14,675 last year is widely considered to be under-reported.

But now the government, long known for burying bad news, has shown signs of wanting to confront safety lapses. Officials said in October that workplace deaths in 2003 jumped 9 percent from the same period the previous year, despite an official safety campaign. Senior leaders have encouraged the tightly leashed press to expose operators of unsafe mines.

The Chinese are saying all the right things. A recent front-page editorial in the Party's official newspaper, the People's Daily, said, "Industrial safety is connected with the well-being of people's lives and property as well as the overall situation of reform, development and stability." Safety precautions must be standardized in law, and safety efforts must be "pushed from passive prevention to management at the very beginning," the paper said. Also, post-accident investigations must be carried out quickly and efficiently — and without corruption, it said.