A Chinese factory boss has been sentenced to death for illegally producing fireworks in a workshop where 36 people were killed in an explosion last year, the government said Thursday.

Chen Jicheng set up the unlicensed factory late last year in the northeastern city of Tieling in Liaoning province, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The factory had only been open for three days when an explosion on Dec. 30, 2003, tore apart its two workshops, killing 36 people. Earlier reports put the death toll at 38.

The Tieling People's Court sentenced Chen to death Wednesday for producing illegal fireworks and also for cheating banks out of 2.6 million yuan (US$310,000;euro240,000) in loans, Xinhua said.

Death sentences in China (search) are automatically appealed but rarely reversed.

The factory's manager, You Tao, was sentenced to 7 years in prison for producing illegal fireworks, it said.

China's fireworks industry suffers hundreds of deaths every year in fires and explosions. The industry employs thousands of people, often in poor rural areas, who do much of the work by hand.

The fatality rate usually surges as producers rush to fill orders for the Lunar New Year, which comes in January or February. Chinese celebrate by setting off billions of firecrackers.