Tianjin and China’s Industrial Calamities

Tianjin is an important industrial port in northern China, about a half-hour ride from Beijing on the new high-speed rail line. The government’s recently announced plan for a northern megacity to better coordinate trade and growth has Beijing and Tianjin at its core. About 100 Fortune 500 companies have investments in the city. Tianjin is seen as the shape of things to come in the new China.

Then on the night of Aug. 12, a series of huge blasts at a hazardous-materials warehouse owned by Rui Hai International Logistics killed more than 100 people and shattered that dream. The explosions reduced the surrounding area to ruins, displacing thousands of local residents, many of whom remain angry at the government’s poor handling of the disaster.

The Tianjin accident is the latest in a series of chemical explosions around the country. On Aug. 5, a blast ripped through a chemical factory in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province. In July, a petrochemical factory in Rizhao, Shandong Province, went up in flames. By my count, from various media reports, in the first half of this year there were 13 explosions related to chemicals in which at least 10 people died and 92 people were injured or hospitalized.

The accident rate is not much lower in industries that don’t deal in hazardous chemicals. The China Labor Bulletin has recorded more than 300 industrial accidents in the last seven months. The construction, manufacturing and mining sectors suffered a combined total of at least 750 deaths in that time period.

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.

Endemic corruption makes matters worse. Businesses skirt safety and environmental regulations by bribing officials. The Tianjin story illustrates this perfectly. The Chinese media reported this week that two major shareholders in Rui Hai used their family ties to secure approval for storing dangerous materials at the Tianjin warehouse, in clear violation of regulations that prohibit the storage of hazardous chemicals within 3,200 feet of residences.

When the Sichuan earthquake struck in 2008, killing more than 70,000 people, reporters were able to conduct interviews in the quake zone. Journalists raised questions about shoddy construction and lax enforcement of building codes after many hospitals and schools collapsed in the quake. It appears the authorities learned a lesson: Such latitude for reporters is now rare.

In a recent example, 442 people died in June when a cruise ship sank in the Yangtze River near Wuhan. The government immediately set up a news blockade that kept all the reporters at bay. The propaganda machine hid the truth from the public in the name of “maintaining stability.”

Following the Tianjin blasts last week, the government clearly saw the media as more hazardous than the chemicals. Local media were told to keep silent about the explosions for more than 10 hours. Web censors stifled social media reports of the accident and closed hundreds of accounts on Weibo, a popular social media platform. This action spread panic and stimulated even more online comment and criticism of the government.

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.

Huang Xingguo, the mayor of Tianjin, appeared at a press conference Wednesday and took the significant step of apologizing. “I bear unshirkable responsibility for this accident as head of the city,” he said, admitting that the city had done a poor job communicating with the media.

But such a public display of remorse is meaningless if the government continues to hide the truth about the investigation and fails to punish those who are truly responsible, instead of convenient fall guys.

It’s not quite fair to say that the government has no system of accountability. Under the so-called one-ticket veto system, an official could be removed from office without due process if he fails to meet a single performance target. Such summary justice, although effective in assigning blame, is really about the central authority ensuring local officials take ownership of policies like national “stability” and family planning out of fear of being dismissed. The result is officials go all-out to cover up accidents or cook up statistics to protect their jobs.

All this adds up to one overarching failure of the Chinese system: the lack of concern for ordinary human lives.

With a government that takes ordinary people’s well being so lightly, it is hardly a surprise that prevention of industrial disasters is a low priority. The government’s resolve to serve the public good falls behind the country’s high-speed economic development and the protection of one-party rule.

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.

Xiao Shu, the pen name of Chen Min, is a former columnist for the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly, and a visiting scholar at Columbia University. This essay was translated by The New York Times from the Chinese.

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