Massive Tianjin Blast Highlights Flaws in China’s Governance Model

Endemic corruption and a weak civil society breed industrial safety violations, experts say.

TIANJIN, CHINA - AUGUST 13: (CHINA OUT) A screenshot of a video showing the aftermath of the Tianjin's warehouse explosion site on August 13, 2015 in Tianjin, China. The death toll from Wednesday warehouse explosions in Tianjin rose to 50 Thursday evening, 17 of whom were firemen, local authorities said.  (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
TIANJIN, CHINA - AUGUST 13: (CHINA OUT) A screenshot of a video showing the aftermath of the Tianjin's warehouse explosion site on August 13, 2015 in Tianjin, China. The death toll from Wednesday warehouse explosions in Tianjin rose to 50 Thursday evening, 17 of whom were firemen, local authorities said. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

Late in the evening on Aug. 12, a deadly chemical explosion shook the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, claiming more than 100 lives, including dozens of firefighters, and injuring over 700. State media outlets initially provided only barebones coverage, a common Chinese government approach to disasters. But an Aug. 19 report in state news agency Xinhua indicated that major shareholders in Rui Hai International Logistics, the company that owns the destroyed chemical storage facilities, had leveraged their political connections to circumvent safety regulations. In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss how corruption and a repressed civil society may have contributed to the blast and its high casualty count – and what lessons the Chinese government may take from it.

Thomas Kellogg, director of the East Asia Program at the Open Society Foundations:

As the New York Times noted in an Aug. 14 story on the blast, questions persist about why the authorities had allowed a company that handled dangerous chemicals to operate so close to residential areas. Xinhua’s recent account of the political connections between Rui Hai and powerful state-owned enterprises, and the means through which the company allegedly evaded full implementation of relevant government regulations, provide details that sketch out at least in part the story behind the explosion.

But there is also a more general story to be told: 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 non-governmental organizations (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.

Going forward, local groups may well be afraid to marshal public anger over the explosion to push for change. One expert on Chinese environmental civil society I spoke with noted that the responses that she had seen from environmental groups in Tianjin had been “weak.” She predicted that groups in Tianjin would be hesitant to speak out on the tragedy, for fear of attracting unwanted government scrutiny.

Of course, the weaknesses in Chinese civil society are not limited to the environmental sector. There are likely few if any local civic organizations representing the residents of Vanke Port City, the residential neighborhood close to the explosion site that has now been evacuated, and of course we know that the workers at Rui Hai have no independent union representing them to ensure that management follows all health and safety regulations to the letter. Sadly, Tianjin firefighters have no independent union to represent them, to ensure that those injured have their health care costs fully covered, and to offer various forms of assistance and support to families whose loved ones died in the blaze.

Even if such groups did exist, they would be unable to get word out on allegedly lawbreaking companies like Rui Hai, given that local officials would likely not allow a big employer like Rui Hai to be subject to negative news coverage. Indeed, the local Tianjin television station was widely pilloried for broadcasting Korean soap operas on the morning after the explosion, even as smoke was still rising from the blast site. And the lack of democratic checks on state power means that the political leadership of Tianjin can’t be voted out over its failure to fully and rigorously enforce relevant health and safety laws.

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. For better or worse, NGOs are the most effective vehicle for that dialogue, and those groups simply don’t exist, either in Tianjin or almost anywhere else in China.

Surveying the blast site the day after the explosions, Guo Shengkun, the minister of public security, stated that “deep lessons must be learned” from the tragedy. Guo is right: there are indeed many lessons to be learned. Perhaps the Tianjin explosions will lead party leadership in Beijing to rethink its approach to civil society, and to allow groups to form, to grow and develop, to seek funding from outside China, and, most importantly, to form links with like-minded groups in other Chinese cities.

Kevin Slaten, program coordinator at China Labor Watch:

Five days before the terrifying and deadly Tianjin explosion was the first anniversary of the Kunshan Zhongrong Metal Products incident, where a massive metal dust explosion and fire killed at least 146 workers. In a ChinaFile report I wrote about a month after the Kunshan tragedy, I cited the latest casualty figure: 75. I also explained how the government apparently had deemed the incident a sensitive topic, censoring conversation and reporting. It was only in December 2014, four months after the explosion and after the immediate shock had subsided, that the State Administration of Work and Safety revised the death toll in Kunshan to 146 people.

In Tianjin, we see the same story playing out in a nightmarish fashion. Commensurate with the visibility of the explosion, destruction, and intense international coverage, censorship has gone into overdrive, up tenfold according to Weiboscope, a censorship-tracking project at the University of Hong Kong. Within a day after the event, the government had issued directives for permitted news reporting. A top Weibo comment on August 13 was from an assistant director at state broadcaster China Central Television who said, “[I] hope everyone resists believing or spreading rumors. Wait for official information.” Just as the official death toll in Kunshan doubled suddenly four months after the explosion occurred, we should not be surprised if key facts surrounding the Tianjin disaster materialize only after Tianjin has dropped from headlines.

Could robust civil society have, as Tom suggests, prevented the Tianjin chemical explosion? Yes. Muckrakers, grassroots advocates, and whistle blowers can mitigate disasters. These are features of a robust civil society that share two critical common values: oversight and participation. But these are also two forces that directly countervail the overall trend of party leadership, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping came into power in 2012.

Chinese leadership has sought to centralize power and shrink space for independent civil society actors, not expand it. In July, over 250 human rights lawyers and activists were rounded up in a nationwide coordinated wave of suppression. Later this year an already cool environment for NGOs is likely to get frigid when a new set of regulations unleash unprecedented scrutiny and restrictions on overseas money connected to Chinese NGOs.

The contraction of operating space for non-government actors is well-documented in Freedom House’s recent report, “The Politburo’s Predicament.” Carl Minzer’s recent journal article, China After the Reform Era, which puts these trends into a broader historical political context, concludes that the party is reversing previous liberalization of legal and political institutions for the sake of self-preservation.

The larger socio-political context in China is pointing toward more restriction of non-government entities in China. It is with this in mind that I have little optimism for Tom’s hoped outcome: that the party will come away from the Tianjin disaster with a greater appreciation for the value of public oversight and participation. Instead, we are seeing a repeat of the official response to the Kunshan tragedy one year ago. Control the dominant narrative through directives. Suppress influential inquisitive voices. Focus attention on assistance and support for survivors and families. Deliver swift and resolute justice unto business owners and local officials. Let other news stories dilute the toxic subject until it becomes another disaster among many in the annals of China’s industrial era.

These are the tried and true self-preservation measures that the party has utilized in the face of those industrial disasters, with potentially dangerous political repercussions. As much as it saddens me to write it, the tragedy in Tianjin (or those in Kunshan, Fuwa, Wenling, Foshan, or Mishazi) is not going push the rulers in Beijing to liberalize their governance model. Conversely, it will embolden them to grip more tightly.

ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Thomas Kellogg is Executive Director of Georgetown Law Asia.

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