After Tianjin, Shandong Blast Underlines Safety Gaps

An explosion at a Shandong chemical plant on Saturday has further highlighted safety concerns in the wake of the deadly blasts that killed 129 in Tianjin earlier this month. The New York Times’ Dan Levin reports:

The explosion on Saturday, which tore through a chemical plant in Zibo, in Shandong Province, killed one person and injured at least nine others, according to the official Xinhua news agency. A microblog post by the Zibo Public Security Bureau late Saturday said the fire had been “basically controlled” and that the injured had been taken to a hospital. The explosion was caused when canisters containing a chemical used to produce nylon burst, the Shandong Fire Control Department said on its official microblog.

[…] Within minutes of the blast, photos and videos of a fire set off by the blast appeared on Chinese social media, with many people complaining about the chemical factories in their midst and the pollution such plants produce.

“There are too many chemical plants here, countless,” wrote a user who said he lived in Zibo. “The air is unbreathable and the water is undrinkable.” [Source]

South China Morning Post’s Kwong Man-ki wrote that, like the Rui Hai facility at the center of the , the Shandong factory was located illegally close to residential areas. A review of satellite imagery and public records by The New York Times revealed several other such violations around China, following similar findings from environmental NGO Greenpeace last week:

Highways and schools all over China are located near warehouses licensed to handle hazardous substances.

[…] Chinese regulations forbid facilities with hazardous chemicals to operate less than one kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) from public buildings and major roads.

[…] On Thursday, inspectors also visited a storage site in Dongguan, in southern Guangdong Province. The facility is licensed to store sodium cyanide, according to a man who answered the phone and said he was the operating company’s legal representative. The man, who gave only his surname, Lu, declined to say whether the site was currently storing the chemical, citing client confidentiality.

Mr. Lu said the company passed the inspection. Asked about the warehouse’s proximity to the nearby village of Jin’aosha, he said he was confident that the distance exceeded one kilometer. [An accompanying satellite image suggests that this is not nearly the case.] “We are definitely legal,” he said. “I have never done wrong to the Communist Party.” [Source]

At The Independent, Ben Chu wrote that the breaches in Tianjin show the continuation of “a wearily familiar cycle”:

[…] Whenever there’s a high-profile tragedy in China, tales of official and graft tend to ooze out from under the rubble. In 2008, just before China was due to host the Olympic Games, a massive earthquake struck the western Sichuan region. Many rural school buildings collapsed, crushing hundreds of children to death. It emerged that many of the schools had been built with substandard materials. Local officials had apparently cut costs when they commissioned the buildings, pocketing the saving from the public budget for themselves.

In 2011 two high-speed trains collided in the suburbs of the city of Wenzhou, killing 40 people and dealing a humiliating blow to the image of China’s transport infrastructure. The railways minister, Liu Zhijun, who had pushed through the massive expansion of China’s high-speed network, was already being prosecuted for corruption. After the crash a tidal wave of fresh details of Liu’s venality broke, including the allegations that he demanded a 4 per cent commission on railway construction deals and used his wealth to keep no fewer than 18 mistresses.

The Sichuan and Tianjin disasters illustrate how such corruption can turn out to be lethal. But the bigger point is that incidents like the Tianjin explosion pull back the curtain and reveal how China really functions. [Source]

NPR’s Frank Langfitt reflected similarly:

There’s a moment when you’re covering a disaster in China when you know what happened.

You know it wasn’t an accident, as the government initially says.

You know someone did something awful that put lives at risk to make money.

[…] That’s because — painful as it is to say — this is largely how China works.

Even in the middle of the biggest anti-corruption drive in many decades, it’s still a corrupt, authoritarian state, where things get done based on relationships and where there’s no rule of law or system of independent checks and balances.

It’s also a country where many people have spent the last two decades chasing fortune with few constraints, moral or otherwise. [Source]

At Quartz, Zheping Huang and Heather Timmons also argued that the Tianjin disaster has exposed the limits of the corruption campaign:

Xi Jinping’s far-reaching anti-corruption drive has ensnared top party officials, curbed massive bribes and reached deep into industries from oil to media to railways over the past two years. But as the Tianjin blasts show, in some places business in China is still being done exactly the same way it was before he took office—the powerfully-connected get special treatment that benefits them, and the rest of the country pays.

The founders of Ruihai are the son of a former police officer and a former state company executive, state-run Xinhua news agency reported on Aug. 19, based on interviews with the founders. These men are also the only two shareholders of the company, the founders told Xinhua, but they own their stakes in it through other people.

[…] The two founders told Xinhua that they used their political connections to win benefits for Ruihai, though neither admitted to paying a bribe. In particular, they say their connections have helped Ruihai to pass government inspections on handling dangerous chemicals business, including to obtaining various fire safety, land, environmental and safety certifications, Xinhua reported.

[…] “The first company said it was too close to residential buildings and violated the regulations, so we wouldn’t pass,” Dong told Xinhua.“Then we found another company who got us the documents we needed.” So far the safety assessment report hasn’t been made public by authorities, Xinhua reported in a more detailed article in Chinese on August 19. [Source]

Laura Zhou reported on this second company’s flawed safety assessment at South China Morning Post:

A safety assessment that gave the green light to the hazardous goods warehouse at the centre of the Tianjin explosions concluded it conformed to government standards, despite acknowledging the location of nearby flats that have since been shown to be contravene such regulations.

The assessment, by consultancy Zhongbin Haisheng, came despite its acknowledgment that a residential area was 970 metres from the warehouse and a highway about 310 metres away. Both distances are within the government’s technical guidelines that require medium to large hazardous warehouses to be at least 1km from other public facilities.

[…] Zhongbin Haisheng released its assessment quietly late last week on its reopened website. It had identified 40 safety issues and 24 potential hazards that it said the warehouse operator, Ruihai International Logistics, had corrected after its report.

But none of the problems flagged by the consultancy involved concerns that residential areas were too close, China Youth Daily reported yesterday. [Source]

The Associated Press’ Erika Kinetz, meanwhile, highlighted the other cofounder Yu Xuewei’s ties to the very state apparatus responsible for investigating the disaster:

Corporate filings show that Yu Xuewei, the silent majority shareholder of Ruihai International Logistics, sits on the board of directors of a subsidiary of China Sinochem, one of the country’s most influential conglomerates. Like other large state companies, Sinochem is controlled by the State Council, the central authority overseeing the investigation into last week’s explosions at Ruihai’s chemical warehouses that killed at least 114 people and displaced thousands.

Yu’s connections hint at the extent of his political network and showcase the complexity of China’s political system, in which the entity running an investigation can be linked to the company it is investigating. Major state-owned Chinese companies often are accused of ignoring safety and other regulations, especially Cabinet-level enterprises whose chief executives have a higher status in the ruling Communist Party hierarchy than the regulators who are supposed to oversee them. [A 2012 study found that worker fatalities were five times higher at firms with strong political connections.]

[…] Despite such stark revelations in China’s official media, the full web of interlocking interests and ownership behind Ruihai remains murky. The scope of published investigations has been largely restricted to Ruihai’s local power network. Reports in Chinese media exploring Ruihai’s connection with Sinochem have been censored. [Source]

In an op-ed at The New York Times on Saturday, journalist Xiao Shu commented that after the blasts, “the government clearly saw the media as more hazardous than the chemicals,” despite (or because of) the role that it could play in helping to root out corruption. directives swiftly forbade independent reporting and commentary. But the BBC’s Outside Source talked to one journalist who traveled to Tianjin anyway, like others including He Xiaoxin, whose account was translated by CDT.

I went to Tianjin in my own name, because I was never asked to cover this story. I just, out of my own curiosity and sense of responsibility to know what’s going on there, I went there on my own. And I borrowed my company’s name to cover me up.

[…] Because if they really questioned … I mean, if the officials really don’t believe I’m a student, I would show my ID card saying I come from a state-owned media company, which means I know the rules, I know the bottom line to cover these kind of things, and they will be relieved. I had to use my state-owned media identity to cover me up to discover the real story there.

[But] even though I told them I am from the official media agency, they would … I mean, I wasn’t … allowed to approach to the victims’ relatives in the hotel, I had to slip a note to the victim’s family and call them outside the hotel and to ask one of them to come out and talk to me privately. In the internal meeting, we were told that the government doesn’t want to have that much coverage over the Tianjin blast especially the government doesn’t want so many questions over who is responsible for this thing and who should be … what’s going on, like, what’s the chemical, why so close to the residents’ area …? Such questions are not allowed to be asked on the radio or on the TV or on state-owned media. Any type of [media].

[…] I believe journalists should raise questions, even though it’s against the government, that what a real journalist should do. But apparently you are just a speaker for the government mouth, so it’s kind of pathetic and kind of depressing to work in a state-owned media company. [Source]

As noted at CDT last week, the role of China’s more independent media on Tianjin has widely been seen in a much more positive light. China Media Project’s Han Xiao assessed their performance, and the limited effectiveness of restrictions upon them:

In sudden-breaking stories in the past, such as the high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou, domestic Chinese media have done strong reporting despite strong and directed media controls. This generally means taking advantage of confusing situations and gaps in the government response, leaping into action before coverage of the story can be fully constrained.

There is no doubt, however, that in recent years media have been under intensified pressure across the board, and hard-won space for good reporting — even of a fleeting nature — has diminished. In the case of two major stories this year, the January stampede on the Bund in Shanghai and the capsizing in June of a cruise ship on the Yangtze River, the Chinese media were subjected to controls to an extent perhaps not seen in the past two decades of media under transition.

But soon after the explosions in Tianjin, we heard one Chinese journalist saying: “The restrictions will come sooner or later, so we have to get a move on! Let the bans race against the truth!”

[…] In handling information surrounding major disasters, Chinese authorities do their utmost to emphasise natural or inevitable causes, restraining discussions of human error that might touch on the question of the government’s own responsibility or negligence. By August 15, however, Chinese media were probing more deeply into the people and decisions behind the Tianjin explosions.

[…] All of these reports made it painfully clear that in the case of the Tianjin explosions it was more than fair to apply those two words Chinese officials least like to see in cases such as this. This was most certainly a “human disaster,” or renhuo (人祸). [Source]

In his Times op-ed, Xiao Shu laid the blame squarely at the feet of the government, pointing also to at least 760 other deaths in industrial in the first half of 2015.

This calamitous cycle of man-made disasters is the direct result of a dysfunctional government.

China has industrial safety regulations but toothless enforcement. Local governments, filled with unscrupulous profit-seekers, act like ruthless corporations, aiming to maximize gain with reckless disregard for environmental safety.

[…] One of the key characteristics of the Chinese system is that leaders grasp for unlimited power but are unwilling to take full responsibility for the social and political consequences. The government suppresses truth to deter independent thought and deflect awkward questions about accountability. Industrial accidents are the result.

[…] The solution is clear: Return power to the people. Only then can we supervise the government and hold it to account. With the people in charge, government is less likely to value life so cheaply, and the risks that come with high-speed economic development could be lessened. [Source]

Instead, the ongoing anti-corruption drive has forcefully excluded public participation.

Cartoonist Rebel Pepper commented soon after the Tianjin blasts that “more and more netizens feel China is entering a ‘random death’ survival mode, and in such an environment no one can feel any guarantee of personal safety.” An online essay by Weibo user Yuanliuqingnian, translated by CDT, added that money brings no sure security: “One explosion later, and the homeowners in Qihang Jiayuan and Harbor City discovered they’re the same as those petitioners they look down on.” With many of these homeowners now desperate for compensation, The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong wrote that the explosions “put a deep dent in the compact between China’s government and its middle class.”

The hundreds of millions of Chinese who have ridden the country’s breakneck growth into comfortable middle-class lives have traditionally shied away from direct challenges to the Communist Party, accepting little say in the government’s workings as long as their living standards continued to improve.

But the blasts at a dockside warehouse hit directly at owners of high-rise homes, dashing the perception held among many upwardly mobile Chinese that they were exempt from the ill effects of runaway growth.

[…] In Tianjin, entrepreneur Yan Hongmei did something she had never imagined: She joined a protest.

[…] “Never once had I thought I would go onto the streets, hold banners in protest,” said Ms. Yan, who lived in an eighth-floor apartment just under a mile from the Tianjin blast site. “We’ve seen these things on television, but they’ve always seemed so distant from us.”

[…] “Every accident gives people another reason to emigrate,” said one social media user. “People enjoy a rich material life, delicious food, beautiful scenery and feel like they are the same as other developed countries, or even better, when there is no accident. But once something bad happens, the deception and carelessness of the ruling party is exposed.” [Source]