A week on from a series of explosions in the port area of Tianjin, the confirmed death toll stands at 114, including 53 firefighters and seven police. Sixty-four are still missing, including another 49 firefighters and four police, while 674 are in hospital, 56 of them in critical condition. Contamination by hazardous chemicals is a source of ongoing concern: though some have described the white foam appearing in the area as “a normal phenomenon” and “very common after rains in Tianjin,” the Tianjin Environmental Protection Bureau has warned that the water could produce dangerous hydrogen cyanide vapor.
In the immediate aftermath, propaganda officials issued several directives to domestic media ordering the exclusive use of “authoritative” news copy, and forbidding independent reporting, individual interpretation, live broadcasts, and private social media posts. But as CDT founder Xiao Qiang told NPR’s Robert Siegel, “those instructions, in this case, was only partially effective. There are – a large amount of Chinese media send their reporters to the site anyway even they know maybe at the end of the day they cannot publish some of those reporting.” China Media Project’s David Bandurski described on Medium how “Chinese media attempted, with qualified success (decent reports were in many cases short-lived), to push the envelope on Tianjin coverage. There are plenty of publications that deserve singling out, and the upshot is that we should feel somewhat encouraged — very cautiously optimistic — that Chinese media are still capable and professionally hungry, despite serious limitations in the past few years.” At the Global Investigative Journalism Network, Ying Chan and Karen Chang tracked various publications’ efforts to uncover the causes and culprits, laying bare zoning violations, murky corporate ownership structures, and an array of signs that corruption had set the stage for the disaster.
At ChinaFile, Maria Repnikova summed up these developments:
The state’s limited tolerance for these investigations suggests that amidst the increasing censorship, the openings for media supervision or yulun jiandu remain present under Xi. As in the past, some bottom-up feedback appears to be tolerated and maybe even encouraged so long as it doesn’t target the center or instigate public mobilization. In the case of these reports, thus far, they are looking at specific failures associated with the disaster, targeting primarily the company and local officials, though some reports also delved into Rui Hai’s connections with state-owned Sinochem, a topic that touches on central-level interests. The Tianjin disaster further demonstrates that China’s media landscape is becoming increasingly dynamic, with new media and official outlets brushing up against the boundaries of the permissible, previously the near-exclusive domain of news outlets such as Caixin and Southern Weekly. This leaves some hope for the state of investigative reporting, which many have argued has been in decline since the 1990s. [Source]
The Chublic Opinion blog also commented on the media’s determination, highlighting one journalist’s firsthand account of the blast zone that was translated into English by CDT:
Four years ago, the train tragedy defined Sina Weibo as the no.1 social media outlet that had the potential to replace traditional market-orientation media as China’s agenda-setter. The Tianjin blast seems to have catalyzed the re-invention of the traditional media. The perfect storm of media inquiry this time excites a veteran observer into saluting his former colleagues: “In the past few days, most of the first-hand media coverage with added value all came from the familiar bloc of Beijing News, Southern Metropolis Daily, Southern Weekly, Caixin and iNewsweek. Despite the increasingly suffocating and difficult environment, you guys are still charging ahead. Stay safe!” It indeed looks like a renaissance for which those news organizations have been saving up. Almost overnight, they unveiled to the world the formidable arsenal they have accumulated: WeChat live broadcasting, 360 degree panorama photography, and HTML5 aggregation of information. All of a sudden, drones seemed to have become a standard piece of equipment in a journalist’s backpack. And the images that they produced within hours of the incident stunned the world. Many of those news organizations probably have become substantially stronger after this battle: viewership of their materials on digital channels exploded, which almost certainly translates into a larger follower-base online.
[…] Some were pessimistic. To them, there is little sign that the iron curtain shielding the corrupt politician-business bond, which is probably the real culprit of the explosion in the first place, is letting loose even a little bit, despite “almost half of Beijing’s best journalists concentrating their efforts on Tianjin.” But for other observers, the mushroom cloud over Tianjin might have changed something permanently: “After Tianjin, the Chinese public’s NYMBY (“not in my backyard”) protests against industrial facilities will almost certainly become unstoppable.” Be it a legacy or a spell, this sounds like the most plausible post-Tianjin scenario that the country needs to face. We may still be circling around our Ground Zero, but something is definitely growing out of it. At the moment, we can’t tell if it’s going to be beautiful or ugly. [Source]
The government’s grip on information was not entirely relaxed, as Dan Levin reported at The New York Times:
The nation has watched in real time as government censors deleted online investigative reports, erased microblog posts and abruptly cut off a nationally televised news conference after local officials appeared unwilling to answer even basic questions about which dangerous chemicals were at the blast zone and why they had been stored close to residential areas.
“They are definitely trying to cover it up,” Yuan Ping, 30, a telecommunications worker whose apartment was heavily damaged in the explosions, said in a telephone interview. Ms. Yuan said she and her family were so frustrated by a lack of official support that they were considering suing the government and the company that owned the facility, Rui Hai International Logistics. “I wouldn’t believe even a single word from them,” she said. “The government is doing everything on the surface.”
Protests erupted in Tianjin over the weekend, as residents who had been forced out of their damaged homes joined with relatives of missing firefighters to demand compensation [since promised] and information about their family members.
Suspicions of a cover-up are so widespread that the Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, published an explicit denial and promised a transparent investigation. “What need would there be to hold back and cover up a safety incident?” it said. “How could it be possible for government bureaucrats to shield each other?” [Source]
From the outset, obstruction of reporters was a contentious issue. CNN drew censure from state media and Chinese public after retracting claims that officials impeded its correspondent Will Ripley outside a local hospital. In fact, it later conceded, the people confronting him were angry relatives of the victims. A commentary at Xinhua accused the network of having “exerted negative influence on China’s image” by jumping to conclusions, betraying its “deep-rooted prejudice against China.”
CBS News, though, showed footage of uniformed officers interrupting a report by correspondent Seth Doane:
Chinese authorities attempt to block @sethdoane as he covers aftermath of #Tianjin blasts: http://t.co/0WHH819soh http://t.co/o4k3LCVAtu
— CBSN (@CBSNLive) August 14, 2015
While Xinhua claimed that foreign media had been allowed access to the disaster area, the BBC’s Xinyan Yu reported that this access had been unceremoniously revoked:
Police arrived on site to force out journos & workers. Followed us out after unpleasant conversations.#TianjinBlast pic.twitter.com/eRm01xm6h8
— Xinyan Yu (@xinyanyu) August 13, 2015
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) shared details of other reported incidents, including one in which uniformed police confiscated the memory card from a Taiwanese journalist’s camera “and demanded that he kneel and beg for it back.” A European video journalist described another confrontation:
Myself and our photographer went to shoot outside the hospital (I think it was the same one the CNN got roughed up at). As we approached, still outside, i pointed my camera towards triage tents, guys who dressed like soldiers but said they were doctors asked me nicely not to film them. As I turned my camera towards the building itself, an angry woman with a radio ran up to us and told us we cant shoot. We asked why, she said ‘because this is China!’ we asked who she was, she said she was a Chinese. So we said as journalists we can shoot outside freely, before we could keep walking, a young cop came over. He said we cant film, no one can film. Meanwhile there are at least 4 local video crews interviewing people in plain sight a dozen meters away. Right in front of the entrance. One of the crews was from Hong Kong. but all looked Chinese. We asked the woman, she said foreigners can’t shoot here. We asked the cop, he said no one can shoot here.
The cop said he’d get the others to stop shooting, and made a lame attempt to get them to stop, then told us to point out who’s filming to him and he would stop them. Of course we didn’t. Once crew was interviewing people right next to us. We asked the cop why he let them shoot and he said they were filming ‘for fun’. [Source]
Fergus Ryan, reporting from Tianjin for The Guardian, described a similar encounter:
I'd put money on it this was the same woman who yelled at me. https://t.co/QAniJZ1iit
— ?Fergus Ryan (@fryan) August 15, 2015
She may also have been present during the CNN incident: according to the FCCC, “police did not try to stop the group of people from disrupting Ripley’s work. One woman in the group was carrying a walkie-talkie, raising questions about whether she was indeed a family member or perhaps a plainclothes officer.” On Saturday, Ripley reported further obstruction by military personnel even as he and his crew were pushed away by firefighters. A plain-clothed man with a radio then told him that they had to leave the area because of toxic fumes, though neither he nor any of the firefighters was wearing protection.
In an op-ed in the state-owned Global Times, Beijing-based reporter Wen Jia acknowledged but played down these incidents:
[… W]e cannot deny that reporters’ rights to access have not been secured as ideally as expected in Tianjin.
[…] But these small individual accidents can hardly demonstrate that the Chinese government still sticks to heavy censorship on news reporting.
When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Tianjin to inspect the rescue work, he said, in a meaningful way, that without the timely and authoritative release of information, rumors will run wild.
Those who are familiar with how Chinese politics works will understand how a constructive and significant policy from the top is misled and misused by some incompetent and indecisive authorities at the bottom.
It is necessary to clarify that despite many foreign media’s accusations, censorship is not a major obstacle for people in knowing what is going on before and after the tragic blasts. [Source]
The Internet regulator seems to be the only functioning government agency at the moment. https://t.co/mH1BuGFdpD
— Li Yuan (@LiYuan6) August 16, 2015
Online, post deletions on Sina Weibo leapt tenfold. Rumors, expansively defined, were a particular focus: the Cyberspace Administration of China ordered the deletion or suspension of more than 360 “rumormongering” social media accounts, Xinhua reported, while dozens of websites were suspended or closed:
Following the blast, certain accounts on microblogging site Sina Weibo and the instant messaging service WeChat began posting rumors like “toxic gas blown to Beijing”, “malls and markets looted”, and “no one survived within one kilometers of the blast site”.
In addition, the CAC said, some accounts masquerading as relatives of the victims, attempted to swindle money through fraudulent charity fund raising.
Some “big Vs”, or star bloggers, had also posted “irresponsible” comments about the blast, according to the CAC. It said some star bloggers had caused their followers to panic by comparing the blast to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during WWII. [Source]
In a statement released on late Saturday, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) accused 50 websites for creating panic by publishing unverified information or letting users spread groundless rumors.
Rumors circulated on the websites included “the blasts killed at least 1,000 people,” “shopping malls in Tianjin got looted” and “leadership change in Tianjin government.”
The CAC said such rumors caused negative influences. It shut down and revoked licenses of 18 websites, and suspended operation of another 32 websites.
The CAC said it would take a zero-tolerance attitude towards websites spreading rumors after major disasters. [Source]
In one reported scam, a Guangxi woman is believed to have received over $15,000 after claiming to be a teenager orphaned in the disaster.
Comparisons with Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have arisen less from malice than from confusion over the second Tianjin explosion’s estimated strength. This was reckoned at equivalent to 21 tons of TNT, but the figure of 21 kilotons, equal to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, spread widely. According to rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Anhui democracy activist Shen Liangqing was placed under nine-day administrative detention for claiming online that the death toll was over 1,400.
While the rumor control may appear largely political, they do hold genuine potential to spark panic, and can cloud already murky waters still further, as Haining Liu lamented at The Financial Times:
While information is now easier to come by, hard facts are not. The fragmented sources on social media are bewildering; some offer solid reporting, but others can be subjective and inaccurate. It is difficult to tell which are which. Advanced technology has provided an escape from the censorship. But we are at risk of replacing silence with indecipherable noise. It is sometimes difficult to believe anything unless you see it with your own eyes or hear it from someone you trust. [Source]
If the authorities’ attempts to control other voices met with mixed success, its efforts to articulate its own message enjoyed less, a failure which only made the rumor problem worse. A series of press conferences held by local officials went badly enough to prompt strident criticism even from state media. Alex Linder described one early conference at Shanghaiist:
In yesterday morning’s press conference, a government spokesperson tried to reassure journalists that the wind was blowing dangerous pollutants away from Tianjin. After that he tried to leave but was hit by questions from angry reporters. After one journalist asked how far away hazardous material should be stored from residential areas, the official was stunned to silence. Dumbfounded, he gave a brief response “There’s a standard” before the live feed cut back the news studio.
But the actual press conference didn’t just stop there. Here’s our translation of the extended cut:
[In response to a question about the incident where a CNN reporter was asked to delete footage by grieving relatives]
“Family members at the hospital were very emotional, but we [officials] are always trying to create conditions that are conducive for reporters to conduct legal reporting.”
[Immediately, a female reporter shot back] “Then why are you asking us to delete pictures at the site?”
“I don’t know what you’re referring to.”
[Uncomfortable laugh] [Source]
Caixin reported that subsequent events showed little improvement, with even basic questions going unanswered:
While victims of the Tianjin explosions are still waiting to be told why their loved ones died or, how safe it is to go outside, officials remained evasive in the sixth press conference regarding the disaster.
In response to a question from a Caixin reporter, Gong Jiansheng, deputy head of the Publicity Department of Tianjin’s party committee said he would do his best to find out who was in charge of leading search and rescue operations, at a press conference on August 16.
[…] Calls by some reporters to have officials from the city’s port authority participate in ensuing news conferences have been ignored.
[…] Reporters and some observers were also angered by state-owned broadcaster China Central Television and local Tianjin TV when each live broadcast was cut off for each of the press conference as soon as the session moved to the questions and answers format.
“In an age of information technology and social media, such actions fail to contain discussion and instead, fuel public distrust,” wrote Wei Yaoben, an analyst with a media watch unit of People’s Daily. [Source]
During the first dozens of hours after the blasts, there was scant information offered by Tianjin authorities. In the two or three days after the first post-blast press conference, the efficiency of information release was not sufficient either. Until Sunday, no officials above deputy mayor-level showed up once at news conferences.
[… I]n the Internet era, successfully handling major events depends not only on the facts, but also on the satisfaction from public opinion. In China, it can affect local governments’ credibility and the image of authorities as well.
Therefore, making some efforts to respond to reporters should become routine if local governments encounter a major event in the future. Answering every question that society cares about should become a duty for every level of officials and it should be implemented as far as possible.
A single slow reaction can lead to rumors running riot. And in turn, public confidence in the government will continue to fall. [Source]
The newspaper later published comments from deputy mayor He Shushan, who addressed criticisms of the authorities’ information disclosure:
Questions had been raised about why He did not attend any of the official press conferences until Monday; He explained that he had been too busy dealing with the aftermath of the explosion. He noted that his team had been working both days and nights to develop and implement corrective measures to a tight schedule and in tough circumstances, as the nature of the blast made the situation very complicated.
[…] Some have asked why information about the event was not disclosed sooner. He said that the disclosure of information should be both timely and accurate. “I promise that all information will be released to the public at the first available opportunity, once its accuracy has been confirmed,” said He.
A total of eight press conferences were held in the five days since August 13 to listen to and answer questions from concerned parties.
He emphasized that time was need to double-check the information, and said that some remaining fires and the risk of further explosions in the area has made rescue work even more difficult, while DNA tests are time-consuming due to their complexity.
[…] Global Times reporters noticed that work in and out of the core blast area was well-organized and effectively managed. [Source]
Even amid fierce opposition to Western influence in other spheres, a commentary in People’s Daily suggested that it might have something to offer here:
For example, 15 days after the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, the U.S. government announced that 6,398 people were missing. On November 11 of that year, two months after the attacks, the authorities changed the number to 3,748 based on newly acquired data. Then on September 11, 2002, exactly one year after, the U.S. Department of Defense said that the total number of the people killed and missing was 3,025. And eventually, the total number of deaths was confirmed to be 2,996.
[…] This is how they work it. The release the “worst possible” news, and in this way they gain the initiative. We always want to play down the disaster, with the motivation to not arouse panic, whereas in fact, with the death toll rising, the public’s fear and tension will be inevitably upgraded. There is rationale of information psychology behind it, which requires a reflecting heart to find out.
[…] When something big takes place, people instinctively want to know exactly what has happened. If they cannot get the information from official channels, they easily turn to hearsay. They may even rely on their own guesses, and they tell others their guesses and spread the word. The demands to know the truth becomes more urgent when the breaking news is directly relevant to them. When such demands are not met, panic and anxiety would be cultivated, and further inquiry and doubts ensue. Generally speaking, these mindset and actions are not malicious, and they can be easily assuaged by acquisition of demanded information, such as a detailed description of the disaster, rebuttals of rumor, or timely rescue and shelters. [Source]
One central element of the official narrative was the sacrifices of the dozens of first responders who lost their lives. Many of the firefighters, however, were inexperienced contract workers, some still in their teens. Their efforts, with poor training and incomplete information, to fight the earlier chemical fire with water may have helped trigger the explosions, and their deaths at first went unacknowledged. Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin commented that “the lack of a trade union in China that is dedicated to the protection of firefighters has led to an under-staffed, poorly-trained and poorly paid workforce that has now suffered what is probably the worst tragedy in its history.”
Posts about the contract firefighters’ training and their families grief and anger at their initial marginalization were deleted. Such questions were presented in state media as criticisms of the firefighters themselves, rather than of their superiors: deputy mayor He Shushan told Global Times that “it’s the duty of firefighters to put out fire without hesitation. As no surveillance video is available and most of the [early responding] firefighters are dead, no reckless speculations on their professionalism should be made.”
In a post translated at China Change, Beijing-based journalist Jia Jia suggested that the firefighters were being exploited as a distraction:
Today, Tianjin Daily (《天津日报》) used ten full pages to show that “Tianjin isn’t a city with no news.” But what were the ten pages? It was all emotionalism, about “being touched,” and nothing else. Thanking the government for directing the relief effort, thanking the firefighters, thanking the doctors and nurses. Indeed, their sacrifice should be appreciated. But they didn’t need to make these exertions in the first place. They didn’t need to do all that. Screw your “being touched”! Why is it that tragedies are always turned into occasions to praise the government? […]
Both Song Zhibiao (宋志标) and Wu Qiang (吴强) [whom China Change has translated frequently] believed there has been a shift in linguistic paradigm between the 2008 earthquake and the current disaster, where the discourse of “being touched” replaced the discourse of seeking accountability. After so many years of attempting to hold officials to account, to the point of being thrown in jail, all that’s left to do is to “be touched,” where there is room only for cynicism or affected self-righteousness to ease the anxiety and shame that comes naturally to the heart. Lighting candles is easy. Or, put another way, all that is allowed us is to light candles. Apart from the right to “be touched” (or being forced to be touched), we have no other right. When the Great Savior needs you to act as an idiot, then you must be an idiot, and you don’t have a choice. [Source]
Some of the government’s muddled messaging may have arisen from indecision. Beijing-based political commentator Laurence Brahm told the South China Morning Post that “the leadership is apparently deliberating on the bigger picture of the political – rather than the chemical – fallout before establishing what should be reported as fact and what not.” AFP’s Benjamin Haas reported similar impressions of uncertainty in Beijing:
“There is a feeling that the authorities are stalling and not being forthright with the people because they are still trying to determine what the next step is,” said Joseph Cheng, a former political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong.
[… Premier Li Keqiang] only arrived in Tianjin on Sunday afternoon, several days after the Wednesday night disaster.
[…] The delay was “very strange” said Willy Lam, a political science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “especially since Tianjin is just a short train ride from Beijing.
[…] “This suggests there is a division among the leadership on who should be the fall guy,” Lam said.
[…] While in Tianjin, Li himself told Hong Kong’s i-Cable TV: “We must investigate the accident, find the cause of the blasts and anyone who acted illegally will be severely punished.” [Source]
The relevant decisions appear to have been made. On Tuesday, the Party’s internal anti-corruption investigators announced an investigation into Yang Dongliang, director of the State Administration of Work Safety. Until 2012, Yang was based in Tianjin, where he rose to the level of senior vice-mayor, and he was involved in relief efforts there as late as Monday. His son, a deputy general manager at a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation, has also reportedly been detained while on a business trip to the city. According to some reports he had been under scrutiny for several months regarding unrelated issues, but given its timing, the announcement may be intended to come across as a swift and decisive response to the explosions.
(3/3) Definitely seems China's anti-corruption committee fast becoming Beijing's go-to-organ for resolving all kinds of governance problems.
— Carl Minzner (@CarlMinzner) August 19, 2015
Less ambiguously, state media have joined their more independent counterparts in scrutinizing Rui Hai Logistics. It has gradually emerged that the facility at which the explosions occurred was illegally located within 1 kilometer of a residential area; that it operated without a license between October 2014 and June 2015; and that its 3,000 ton stores of hazardous chemicals included 700 tons of “extremely toxic” sodium cyanide, seventy times the legal limit.
As the official state news agency, Xinhua was able to interview some of the ten Rui Hai executives currently in detention, unraveling some of the stubborn mystery of the company’s ownership and political connections:
Li Liang is listed as the major shareholder of the company. But Yu Xuewei, a 41-year-old former executive at a state-run chemical company, confirmed he was the actual owner and holds 55 percent of the shares through his cousin Li.
Dong Shexuan, a 34-year-old man, holds 45 percent of the shares through his schoolmate Shu Zheng.
Dong is the son of Dong Peijun, a former police chief for Tianjin Port who died in 2014.
“I had my schoolmate hold shares for me because of my father. If the news of me investing in a business leaked, it could have brought bad influence,” Dong told Xinhua.
[…] Yu said he and Dong planned to capitalize on their connections by establishing a logistics company, which they did on November 28, 2012.
These connections are thought to have facilitated their business by helping them obtain various fire safety, land, environmental and safety certifications.
“My guanxi (translated as connections) is in police and fire. When we needed a fire inspection, I went to meet with officials at the Tianjin port fire squad. I gave them the files and soon they gave me the appraisal,” said Dong.
Dong did not specify whether there was a bribe or official misconduct.
[…] Suspicion also surrounds other documents from the company, which are very likely to have been skewed.
“The first safety appraisal company said our warehouses were too close to the apartment building. Then we found another company who got us the documents we needed,” Dong said. [Source]
Several academics involved in a favorable evaluation of the facility’s impact have been summoned for questioning, while—although no link to Rui Hai has been officially confirmed—two local officials have been conspicuously placed under investigation for accepting bribes. There is an established and unfortunate relationship between political guanxi and industrial safety issues: in 2012, researchers found that the rate of fatal accidents at politically connected companies was five times that observed elsewhere.
Rui Hai’s bending of the rules was apparently not exceptional, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips reports:
Now claims have emerged that at least two other companies, handling seven different types of flammable and toxic chemicals, were operating in the same area, in apparent violation of the same rules. The companies’ facilities are less than 1km from a nursery, a primary school, a motorway and a large residential area, Greenpeace claimed.
Both companies are linked to the state-owned Sinochem Corporation, according to the group’s Beijing-based activists.
“We were shocked to find out that these three companies were able to store extremely dangerous chemicals so close to public areas including kindergartens, primary schools and middle schools,” Wu Yixiu, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia, told the Guardian.
[…] The revelation raises further questions about how companies were able to flout government rules and whether government officials were complicit in those violations. [Source]
Read more on these other companies at The Wall Street Journal. At the WSJ’s China Real Time blog, Berkeley law professor Stanley Lubman suggested that the underlying problems are broader still:
Following the deadly explosions in Tianjin late last week, serious questions are being raised: Why were warehouses for dangerous chemicals located too close to residential areas? Were there corrupt relations between the local government and Ruihai International Logistics, the company that owned the warehouses? Were potential dangers to the community inadequately considered before permission was first given to license the warehouses? Some officials will certainly be removed or charged.
However, inquiry should go beyond Tianjin and probe deeper into the reasons for widespread inadequate enforcement of safety regulations involving dangerous products and activities.
[…] Because the disaster occurred in one of China’s largest cities, with a population of 15 million, it should provoke a necessary deeper consideration of subpar worker safety conditions throughout Chinese industry. At the root of the problem is a defect in China’s governance that has long been evident – namely, the disconnect between central laws and regulations and their inadequate local enforcement, a circumstance common throughout Chinese industry and society.
The reasons for this stem not only from China’s size but also from the continuing weakness of its legal culture due to localism and the strength of ties among local elites, which must be addressed by the Party-state now. [Source]
This much, at least, might be addressed within the Party’s idiosyncratic vision of strengthened rule of law. At ChinaFile, on the other hand, the Open Society Foundations’ Thomas Kellogg argued that the problem is not only dysfunction in government, but the absence of an effective civil society to hold it to account:
[…] One reason why Rui Hai was allowed to operate as it has, seemingly in violation of Chinese laws that forbid the storage of hazardous chemicals near densely-populated residential areas, is because there are no civil society organizations representing the people of Tianjin that could have pushed back against actors like Rui Hai, and who could have forced local officials to ensure that Rui Hai was following the law. Think about it: In China’s third-largest city, with a population of more than 14 million, there are only a handful of environmental groups. If my experience meeting with environmental NGOs in other Chinese mega-cities is any guide, (and this impression is reflected in the systematic research of sociologist Anthony Spires) the few groups that do exist are tiny, most likely with no more than three or four full time staff. They were unable to push their government to keep a close eye on companies like Rui Hai, despite the fact that some citizens were apparently worried that chemical storage warehouses in Binhai district presented a public health and safety risk.
[…] In other words, this tragedy shows the shortcomings of China’s governance model, a key component of which is regular trimming of civil society organizations and activists. From the Party’s perspective, regular repression of civil society does have its benefits: as many experts have pointed out, there is no meaningful organized opposition to the Party anywhere in China. But the refusal to allow civil society to develop also has its costs: better governance comes through regular and engaged dialogue with the public. […] [Source]
However willing the leadership may be to find and punish culprits and to strengthen central power in the wake of the Tianjin disaster, the idea that underlying problems are inherent to China’s political system will remain out of bounds, as David Bandurski wrote at Medium:
The primary objective of China’s leadership can be summed up in a single phrase that will most probably make its way (or already has) into propaganda directives: “Do not do reports of a reflective nature” (不做反思性报道). “Reflecting back,” or fansi, refers to any reporting of a probing or profound nature — anything, essentially, that asks the deeper questions of who, why and how (leaving us with a hobbled half of the basic 5Ws-1H of journalism 101).
[…] Fansi is what happens when human beings who feel a shared misfortune — those, for example, placing virtual candles on social media to honour victims in Tianjin — begin to grope for sense. For China’s leaders, making sense of the senseless is a disruptive and dangerous act, because it nudges the mythically infallible foundations of legitimacy and power.
[…] It is never the right or the proper time, according to official China, to seek the sense of tragedy. The focus, during the earliest days, must be on urgent rescue. And once the rubble is cleared away? Officials will say now is the time to move on. Why dwell on unpleasantries?
Expect to see many candles of mourning this week, shared across social media in China — perhaps even burning darkly on the front pages of a few commercial newspapers. But the time will have passed to ask the harder questions. Those will be expunged as quickly as they appear.
Mourn this tragedy, the Chinese people will be told by their solemn leaders. But do not try to make sense of it. [Source]