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Tianjin blast: Shock turns to anger and distrust after massive explosions
Sydney Morning Herald - August 21, 2015
The ferocious blasts, captured in its terrifying entirety by amateur videos, sent a huge fireball raging tens of metres into the night sky. As day broke, it became apparent from the scale of devastation that this was one of China's worst industrial accidents. A nation mourned the loss of more than 100 lives, including scores of firefighters first on the scene – many were only in their late teens.
More than a week on, the emergency response is now being met with open distrust and contempt, directly challenging both the government's credibility and its desire to manage the narrative. In a rare nod to the widespread public scepticism, officials from the top down have all but resorted to pleading with residents to, quite simply, trust them.
But despite official assurances that a transparent investigation will hold those responsible to account, anger is rife. Pristine air and water quality readings in the city have been met with disbelief and ridicule. A belated admission from authorities that more than 700 tonnes of highly toxic sodium cyanide was being stored at the blast site has sparked deep anxiety over the potential for chemical contamination.
"It's an accumulation of wisdom," is how Zhang Rong, a 36-year-old lifelong resident of Tianjin, puts it, when I ask him to describe the reasons behind the rampant mistrust. Too often, there has been the belief that authorities prioritise efforts to control the narrative, maintain stability and suppress negative coverage when it comes to previous disasters – from the tainted milk scandal, the Sichuan earthquake, or even the more recent Flight MH370 disappearance and Yangtze River ferry tragedy.
A lack of answers have driven hundreds of residents to the streets with loud hailers and banners, gathering outside hotels where government officials have held daily press conferences. In one instance, the protesters clogged the hotel car park exit, hoping to confront officials leaving in their chauffeured Great Wall sedans.
Zhang, whose new apartment was destroyed a month before the developers were due to hand over the keys, has not joined in. An employee of a state-owned oil company, he says he's more trusting of the government than most. His assessment come across as lucid, even relaxed, as he watches the protesters yell slogans demanding compensation.
"If you want the people's trust, you have to have the track record to back it up," Zhang says. "When you go overseas, the people actually believe their governments. Then here, when they say the air is good, no one believes it. There is no credibility. This is the scariest problem and the biggest problem that the government has."
It took eight days after the blasts for Huang Xingguo, the city's mayor and acting Communist Party chief, to front his first press conference on Wednesday. The Chinese reporters present, like a red rag to a bull, appeared more emboldened than usual.
"Is the environmental data really true?" asked one reporter from the Communist Party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily.
"Will any officials from the Tianjin municipal government admit responsibility and resign?" was another from Caixin, a magazine with a track record of hard-hitting investigative journalism. It was the last question taken.
As Huang was swept away into the bowels of the hotel by an entourage of security personnel and government officials, a pair of local officials, including Zong Guoying, the party chief of the Binhai New Area, were sent out to address the baying crowd outside.
After days of protesting, the sight of government officials coming out to talk drew an emotional response from the crowd. "First of all, you have to trust the government," was Zong's opening gambit, delivered through the crackle of a faltering loud hailer.
"The actions of your government has left me bitterly disappointed, do you understand?" one woman, wearing a surgical mask, said, staring him right in the eye. "You say the air is good, that there's no problem. I want to ask you. When it's spring festival and we let off fireworks [you say] it pollutes the air. Outdoor barbecues pollute the air. Why then, when there's such a huge explosion the air can be good?"
"Was it an air purifier that exploded?" another man heckled in the background. "We have no home to return to!" yelled another.
Just as it was the shaky hands of those wielding smartphones that sent the incredible footage of the explosions pinging around the world within minutes, Chinese netizens are largely relying on their personal feeds on social media for news in the wake of the blasts.
Many details since confirmed by state media, including the presence of sodium cyanide, first surfaced on WeChat, a messaging app with about 450 million users in China, and the Twitter-like Weibo.
Affected residents in Tianjin have formed messaging groups on WeChat, often according to which apartment complex they lived in, to share information.
This includes disturbing personal accounts of nasty skin rashes, sore throats and migraines among those who have returned home to collect their belongings. One woman found traces of white powder on a handbag she left in her apartment. As she used water to wash it off, it sparked and fizzled with smoke.
Photos of large amounts of dead fish floating in a waterway six kilometres from the blast were shared widely. So too were reports of white foam being washed onto city streets after rain fell on Tuesday.
"These toxic chemicals, only a few milligrams can kill people," says Liu Wei, a 32-year-old manager at company which imports iron ore, including from Australia. "They say it's all been cleaned but how can we take our kids out for a walk any more? The environment has become [unliveable] now. Cleaning won't make it safe enough."
The greatest outrage may well prove to be over the reports of cosy deals and murky connections which existed between the local government and the company at the centre of the disaster.
The explosions took place in a chemical storage facility operated by Rui Hai International Logistics. State broadcaster CCTV said the company had only obtained the licence to handle dangerous chemicals like sodium cyanide two months earlier, and there was evidence that it had previously been operating with expired permits.
There are also questions why the company was allowed to handle dangerous goods within two years of the company being registered in late 2012, when other companies typically have to demonstrate its track record over more than five years before being granted similar permits.
The warehouse contained 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide – a compound used in gold mining. This was 70 times than the amount it had formally registered.
It was only announced a week after the blast that 10 senior Rui Hai executives were taken into custody. Among them were a son of a former head of security at the port of Tianjin and a former Sinochem senior executive.
The connections to senior executives sparked pre-emptive outrage that the party would seek to protect its own, prompting the People's Daily to exhort that there would be no cover-up.
"What need would there be to hold back and cover up a safety incident?" it argued, citing the senior officials ensnared in Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign. "How could it be possible for government bureaucrats to shield each other?"
Someone to blame
The catastrophic scale and likely lingering legacy of the Tianjin disaster means it is almost guaranteed that Rui Hai executives will be prosecuted; it is likely too that certain local government officials will be instructed to fall on their sword.
The goal of the Communist Party leadership now is to ensure the damage is quarantined at the local level. Mayor Huang's press conference performance, appears to reinforce the view that Tianjin officials have been left to fend for themselves.
"For a major tragedy of this scale to occur so close to the capital city of Beijing, and so near to a military parade planned to commemorate the anniversary of the end of the Second World War, is most surely a shock for leaders in Zhongnanhai," says Qian Gang at Hong Kong University's China Media Project, which has closely followed mainland Chinese media coverage of the disaster.
"Already, the accident has exposed serious institutional shortcomings and vulnerabilities at a time when China is preparing to showcase its strength before the world."
Chinese reporters appear to have been granted, whether explicitly or otherwise, greater freedom than usual to prosecute the story. But it is not open season; criticism of the central leadership is still strictly off-limits.
Much positive emphasis has been given to the seven "instructions" handed down by President Xi Jinping, and the on-scene visit by Premier Li Keqiang last Sunday.
But their concern is that the people have long connected the dots. Corruption and the lax enforcement of safety and environmental standards go hand in hand. Industrial accidents remain too commonplace across China, and the vast majority are not big enough to attract the media scrutiny which helps ensure some accountability.
Tianjin has demonstrated a trust deficit in the government that has taken years to accumulate, and one that is likely to take even longer to reverse.