Tea Leaf Nation

After Tianjin Explosion, Residents Lose the Battle for Justice

Chinese authorities thwarted attempts by both rich and poor to get a fair price for their ruined homes.

A resident injured by the explosions that hit a nearby chemical warehouse last week holds a photo of herself injured as she joins a protest outside the hotel where authorities are holding a press conferences in Tianjin on August 17, 2015. Rescuers at a Chinese industrial site where huge explosions killed at least 114 people combed through thousands of crushed shipping containers on August 17 in an effort to contain vast amounts of highly toxic cyanide, officials said, as state-run media lambasted authorities for their response to the tragedy.     CHINA OUT     AFP PHOTO        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A resident injured by the explosions that hit a nearby chemical warehouse last week holds a photo of herself injured as she joins a protest outside the hotel where authorities are holding a press conferences in Tianjin on August 17, 2015. Rescuers at a Chinese industrial site where huge explosions killed at least 114 people combed through thousands of crushed shipping containers on August 17 in an effort to contain vast amounts of highly toxic cyanide, officials said, as state-run media lambasted authorities for their response to the tragedy. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

On Aug. 12, a huge explosion at a hazardous chemical storage facility ripped through Binhai, a district in the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin. The warehouse had been built within 2,000 feet of residential complexes, in clear violation of safety codes and without the knowledge of local residents. More than 170 perished in the blast, and thousands were displaced, while others were evacuated after officials discovered highly toxic pollutants, including cyanide, at the site of the blast.

China’s information control apparatus immediately kicked in. Social media censorship skyrocketed, and the government blocked 50 websites for “spreading rumors” about the disaster. A raw personal account from a severely injured young survivor went viral but was then deleted. But information has continued to trickle out, and complaints have surfaced about the government’s handling of the disaster — especially financial remuneration for nearby residents who lost everything in the blast.

The article below first appeared in Chinese on Sept. 14 on Daguo Xiaomin, meaning “Big Country Small People,” a blog run by Chinese news outlet NetEase that features articles shedding light on individual experiences in China. The article has been widely read, attracting hundreds of comments, the most up-voted of which reads, “Finally, someone is daring to speak honestly.” Foreign Policy translates with permission, with edits for brevity and clarity. FP was unable to independently verify the personal narratives contained within.

Kitchen worker Liu Li and white-collar employee Li Yaqing lived in the same building in Binhai. Liu’s abode was a postage stamp at 65 square feet, with a monthly rent of $71; Li, on the other hand, owned her own single-bedroom apartment.

Each morning, they both rode the same elevator. One crossed several streets to a local eatery, where she made steamed buns. The other wore a business suit and high heels, swiping in at her company promptly each morning. The two lived in different worlds and did not interact with each other.

Just across a bridge from them, in an exclusive high-end community, lived Fu Yong. He’s well-placed in the shipping business, and he often worked until late at night, driving his Volkswagen Touareg home.

But the deadly explosion on Aug. 12, powerful enough to shatter windows and overturn coffee tables and dressers in nearby residential developments, and its aftermath, thrust Liu, Li, and Fu into a battle of wills against the local government which, in the end, all three would lose.

* * *

Liu Li leaves home at 5 a.m. every morning. Her landlord had used simple plywood to divide a two-bedroom apartment into eight separate rooms; it was in one of these rooms that Liu and her husband lived. In a development such as this, where each square foot sells for $130 to $145, tiny sublets such as this are not uncommon.

Liu lived on the 24th floor, and that evening, as she fled her apartment, the hallways and stairs were littered with broken glass. Her cheap plastic slippers gave way when she was only halfway down, and shards of glass pierced the soles of her feet. By the time she finally made it out of the building, her feet were covered in blood. When she was finally able to get a phone call through to her husband, who was at work, his first words to her were, “Did you bring our money with you?” She had not. When they were finally able to return to their tiny room a week later, all of their savings — cash, three silver bracelets, a silver ring, and a golden pig — had been stolen.

She didn’t seem concerned about potential chemical hazards, saying that she would salvage what she could from their little room; she would just dip their bedsheets in boiling water and continue sleeping on them. Liu may have come from a small village in the far northern forest of Heilongjiang province, but it wasn’t her country ways that had kept her ignorant of the danger; no one had bothered to tell her what cyanide was or even that the mere size of airborne particulates, much less any inherent toxicity, is enough to kill someone.

Since the explosion, renters have not received a penny of financial assistance. On Aug. 17, the Binhai district government announced that it would give $941 to each affected household to pay for temporary housing, but specified that this money should go only to homeowners.

Liu sought out her landlord, who was only subletting the room to her. The landlord then directed her to seek the actual apartment owner, who told her that this money was specially set aside by the country just for homeowners and that renters’ claims would be addressed separately. So Liu went to the temporary resettlement site, where those affected could receive emergency care and shelter. But the management there said they knew nothing of the matter and could not help her.

Each government representative she spoke to was polite, expressing sympathy for her plight; but none were able to help her. One policeman who accompanied her to survey her ruined neighborhood told her that the country would certainly not ignore renters. A Tianjin government official, upon visiting the area, told her that he had not known of the predicament that renters had found themselves in and that he would take it upon himself to rectify the situation. But nothing happened.

Government policy is always good; anything bad that happens comes from the black hearts of irresponsible officials. Liu had long ago absorbed this simple logic, commonly believed in China. She believed that the problem here lay with the landlords, who had taken all the government subsidies.

In the end, the kitchen worker found herself out of options. “I’ll just have to accept it and count myself unfortunate,” Liu remarked. “We’re not locals in this city; who can we look to for help?”

* * *

Li Yaqing never stepped foot in temples. But during the national holiday on Sept. 3, she visited Wutai Mountain Temple to give thanks for her escape from death — and to pray that she would receive a reasonable buyback price for her recently purchased apartment home.

A single woman, Li had worked hard, scrimped and saved, until at the age of 30 she had finally been able to make the down payment for the new apartment, with a 30-year repayment period for the loan.

Li loved the lit fountain in this small neighborhood, its movie theater and fitness center, and she looked forward to the rise in property value that would accompany the completion of the light rail line and the local elementary school.

Many of the residents of this new development were near Li’s age, and many of them, like her, had dumped all their savings and that of their parents into buying their first home, with a long road of loan repayment ahead of them. Many had just begun to enjoy a new modern life of coffee, movies, and taxis, with just enough money left over for one or two nice home appliances.

But as the news of the chemical pollution in the wake of the explosion gradually came to light, Li learned that all along she had been living just 2,000 feet away from dangerous chemical stores, containing more than 70 times the legal limit of the highly toxic chemical cyanide. A light dusting of an unidentified white powder settled over her windowsill, her door frame, and on the top of her television set. In its early press conferences, however, the Tianjin municipal government merely dodged questions about the potential toxic hazard.

What had been happiness turned to anger, and Li and the other young residents were no longer willing to return to what they suspected were chemical-drenched apartments. But what they really wanted was to know which official had been the one to sign off on the construction of a chemical storage facility so close to their homes.

This group of young homeowners had already demonstrated a proclivity for small-time organizing. Previously, when poster ads had begun proliferating in the corridors of their building, they had formed the only homeowners association in the area and forced the company that managed their building to find a new manager.

Three days after the blast, the homeowners association came together once again to plan a protest at the upcoming government press conference, demanding that authorities foot the bill to buy back the damaged homes. From the beginning, they had believed that compensation wouldn’t simply fall from the sky. The logic was, “If we put pressure on the government, we will force them to have a dialogue with us.”

On the other hand, they knew they had to watch their words carefully to avoid misunderstandings with the government. [Chinese authorities readily crack down on grassroots organizing and dissent.] They made “Love the [Communist] Party, Love the Country” their mantra, adding it to the top of their petition. As they planned their demonstration, they agreed to forbid the shouting of slogans, and they avoided impassioned language when chatting online. “We are addressing a major issue,” they knew. “We can’t cause our country to lose face.”

But the group of homeowners quickly learned that their only experience, pushing back against the real estate management company, had not prepared them. Property companies can be dismissed, but not a government. And the local, low-level officials with whom they were dealing were essentially powerless anyway.

The $941 that Binhai authorities issued on Aug. 17 quickly became another sore point. “It costs $314 to rent a one-bedroom apartment for one month,” complained Li, “and that doesn’t even count the deposit.”

On Aug. 27, Li and 300 of her neighbors converged upon the district government’s main gate, blocking it. Abandoning their previous goal of remaining calm and not shouting slogans, they shouted the name of the district government head.

Their main goal was simply that the government’s policy on this matter be open and transparent.

Two days later, the government provided homeowners with details of a home compensation plan. Affected homeowners could choose compensation for renovations worth up to 16 percent of the value of their home; or they could opt for a buyback price of 1.3 times the pre-accident contract value of their dwelling. The government also announced that those who signed this agreement before Sept. 3 would receive a $3,139 bonus.

Li’s group quickly reach a consensus: Do not sign. Home prices in the area had been rapidly appreciating; the proffered compensation would now be insufficient to buy another comparable home in the same area. Li also resented the rushed signing bonus, which she felt was a ploy to break the unity of the group.

But the homeowners association wasn’t nearly as strong as they had all believed. By the second day, those who held government positions or worked for state-owned companies were under pressure from their supervisors and told they would face disciplinary action if they did not sign before Sept. 3. Even Li, who worked for a foreign company, was approached by her supervisor, who told her that a related government department had given them a call. The higher-up told Li that she needed to keep her homeowners association activities low-key.

Li was shocked and humiliated. “We are not troublemakers; we are not pests,” said Li. “All we did was reasonably and legally make our appeal.”

By Sept. 3, the Binhai government announced that of the 17,000 affected by the blast, 9,420 had already signed the agreement.

* * *

Besides Liu’s hopeless acceptance and Li’s fruitless petition, however, there was still another path to be tried.

Fu Yong, 44, has always believed that he chose the right direction to make his way in the world. In his 27 years of adulthood, he has become close friends with many government officials and knows how to communicate with them in as short a time frame as possible, while protecting his own interests.

“I would never do something like that,” he said, referring to the protests he had read about online. “It’s meaningless.”

The high-end development in which Fu lived faced the one where Li and Liu resided, divided only by a bridge. But his boasted a high concentration of all kinds of social resources. Most of his neighbors were upper-level management of state-owned companies and government departments, people all on the top of the social pyramid.

On Aug. 27, when others in the area were petitioning in front of the district government, the district government came looking for Fu Yong and his neighbors, asking what they hoped for as the buyback price for their now ruined apartments. The homeowners’ representative put it at $437 per square foot; the government officials promised to look into it diligently. So, two days later when the rate of 1.3 times the contract value was announced, Fu and his neighbors were taken by surprise: “They didn’t reply to our recommendation, and they didn’t consult us on the final plan.” So the bosses began frantically pulling strings, trying to bring the authorities back into dialogue with their community. It worked. On Sept. 4, the Binhai party secretary personally visited Fu’s neighborhood, promising to establish a platform for dialogue between the government and the community’s homeowner representative. This was the first such official platform created in the district.

Subsequent discussion with Binhai authorities established compensation related to car damage, schooling costs for children, certain medical costs, and even a vague flexibility in the announced repurchase amount for the apartments. In order to demonstrate their sincerity to the authorities, the residents of the high-end development agreed not to speak to media and not to send petitions to higher levels of government “The government has zero tolerance for petitions,” commented homeowner Wang Tao. “It doesn’t matter the reason.”

But even these bosses, with their fancy homes and government connections, were in the end unable to sway the powers that be to offer more compensation for apartment resale. On Sept. 9, state news agency Xinhua published the news that homes damaged in the blast would be bought back at a rate of 1.3 times the contract value — the same rate as before.

Fu and his neighbors were incensed. They considered abandoning their original strategy of working directly with government officials and keeping a low profile. Some suggested they file a lawsuit and use media attention to make their cause known; but that idea was quickly refuted, since they didn’t know where to find lawyers brave enough to take on such a case. In the end, remarked one, “all that we can do now is wait.”

Translated by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Contributors at Chinese news outlet NetEase.