Many readers had probably never seen a photo of Tianjin, China, until a huge warehouse explosion and fire decimated a portion of that city last week. The images then were startling: Apartment buildings with their facades blown out. Row upon row of charred skeletons of what had once been new cars, destined for China’s burgeoning middle class. Tianjin isn’t on any tourist itinerary, but Beijing has always considered Tianjin vital – it is essentially Beijing’s seaport, since the capital itself is landlocked.
After the two Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, foreign powers forced Peking to sign a treaty, opening Tianjin to foreign trade and allowing western countries to create protected foreign-controlled zones in the city. The presence of foreigners in China was part of the reason for the Boxer Uprising (1898 to 1901) led by rebellious peasants skilled in a form of martial arts that supposedly protected them from foreign bullets. These peasants, who called themselves Boxers, were the first Chinese nationalistic movement acting against Western exploiters and Christian missionaries; the latter were suspected of working hand in hand with imperialist intruders. The Qing court manipulated the uprising with the aim of cleaning the country of the “foreign devils.” Boxers and imperial troops laid siege on the International Legation in Beijing – a diplomatic compound, the site of luxurious buildings and about thousand of foreigners – for 55 days before 20,000 international troops arrived in the city, rescued the foreigners, 3.000 Chinese Christians and subdued the uprising. The soldiers – a combination of American, British, Russian, French, Italian and Japanese forces – came straight from Tianjin. The defeat of the Boxers was the beginning of the end of the Imperial order. A tradition of Emperors that persisted for many hundreds of years was finished a mere decade later.
Tianjin, as everybody in China knows (especially the authorities in Beijing), has always been strategically important for the survival of the Chinese capital. This was true then and it’s true now, in the modern and nationally united People’s Republic of China. Modern Shanghai was built to balance – or better, to take financial and trading power away from – Hong Kong. And now Beijing, while competing against and resisting the increasing influence of Shanghai, has launched the project of Tianjin development.
In addition to the highways, Beijing and Tianjin are now connected by a high-speed underground railway that is opening soon. The two cities, which were about 160 kilometers apart in the time of the Boxer Rebellion, are becoming one enormous megalopolis with a population of 40 million. These Chinese Twin Cities are also sharing a high degree of corruption, which has risen along with the booming development of the megalopolis. It is thought that these high levels of corruption contributed to the poor storage conditions of dangerous chemicals in a Tianjin warehouse, resulting in two huge explosions on August 12 that killed 147 people and wounded thousands more. An unknown number of people are still missing. Two huge blasts occurred in the warehouse, which apparently stored 7,000 tons of dangerous chemical substances. Among them were 700 tons of sodium cyanide, which created a fireball that devastated the entire area – a conglomerate of residences, foreign plants, highway traffic, chemical warehouses, and parking lots filled with thousands of imported cars. Who could be so ignorant as to store toxic substances so close to new residential areas? And who would buy apartments that are not only next to the highway, but that have a view of an industrial zone?
Most likely, the residents are people who work nearby. They, the descendants of peasants, were considered lucky to find a job after companies like Ruihai Logistics, the firm who owned the dangerous warehouse, expropriated the land on which their fathers were working as peasants in Maoist China. This first generation of industrial workers managed – probably with the help of the whole family – to buy apartments of dubious quality that may one day collapse in much the same way as the warehouse exploded.
This is the story of modern China, where in 2008, during an earthquake in Sichuan, thousands of kids died in the classrooms of newly built schools, which crumbled because of the lousy, cheap construction materials that were used. And where a super modern Chinese bullet train crashed into another stalled train and derailed, falling from the bridge and killing 37 passengers. These two are the most widely known cases, but there are many more, not to mention thousands of coal miners dying every year due to avoidable accidents. This is the scariest part of modern China: the corruption and complete lack of safety and quality control that allows for these accidents that have killed and maimed who knows how many people.
And then there is silence. The regime hushes up and even persecutes anyone wants to know about or investigate a crime that is possibly linked to the State. People are ending up in prison just because they wanted to know why their child, relative or friend died. Because they want the government to acknowledge the wrongdoing, not to protect the criminal. They want some sort of explanation for their loss, not silence. They do not want to overturn the government. They just want their bit of truth, so they can continue with their lives.
The authorities are silent. Why? Because from the bottom to the top of Chinese business, people are interlinked with favors and extra protections. Six degrees of separation, only likely far fewer. In the old, poor China, with its ideological terror, the reason for corruption was access to information; in exchange for keeping an eye on your neighbor you might get extra food or be assigned a better apartment. But in today’s China, the corruption talks money. Previously, ideology, class struggle, Maoist thought and political righteousness were the standards of life and death, a password to power. Now it is about commercial transactions. Give the brother of and official some stock in your business and you’ll get to build the factory a lot faster and with less worry about permits.
With that shift, repression has changed its face and clothes. For everyday people, at least. Today, there are riot police, internet police, body guards and other forms of repression money can buy. This is the state of things in Chinese society after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the day when political discourse died in China.
Not so among the rich and wealthy party leaders and functionaries. Ironically, these powerful people have to pay attention to many of the old rules. Among those who are rich and corrupt, ideology is still a weapon for power struggles. For them, there are no police investigations, no court cases, no laws but the good old party discipline. Above a certain level of government officials and party members, the supreme judge is the Communist Party’s disciplinary commission, which acts behind closed doors.
But there is also another reason why the litany of human catastrophes, explosions and collapsed buildings in China are hushed: to cover up the country’s lack of quality control. Hiding the fraud seems to be in the interests of modern Chinese business. It is not good for a country that aspires to sell its fast trains all over the world to have images of those fast trains falling off bridges spreading around the world.
China is the world’s biggest manufacturer to the extent that every country – even every western household – is full of “made in” or “assembled in China” products.
If I look in my house, I can go straight to our most recent purchase, a simple couch that decorates our living room. After having used an Italian couch for ten years, we needed new one. We went to a prestigious furniture store in Manhattan. We sat down on various couches; we discussed the styles, materials and measures. After we paid for it, we had to wait three months to get it from China. When it arrived, we had to take our door off to get it in apartment. Once unpacked, I sat on it and hit the wood frame with my butt. Then I started to look at it and we called the shop.
“No problem, no discussion, keep the couch till we’ll deliver you the new one,” they told us. “It will be another three months.” That is exactly what happened. Now we have a great couch, which looks good and feels comfortable to sit on. So I keep wondering if, in making the couch’s price – pretty high – the company had already calculated for one replacement. Is this the prevailing business model in China? Was I, with the first couch, just like one of the unhappy Chinese customers who are paying for one thing and getting something else? But while I am finally sitting on a comfortable couch, the Chinese are not. It is a sad fact that today’s wealthy Chinese go to Hong Kong to purchase foreign baby formula, because they don’t trust the products made at home.
So they are protesting. Rightly so. And, with the latest conflagration in Tianjin, people are protesting more than ever. The blast was huge, and the eyewitnesses compared it with the explosion of a nuclear bomb. Perhaps not. But it was bigger than any other blast for many years, leaving behind long-lasting consequences.
The Economist describes how the whole tragedy evolved: at first the government tried its old tricks of silencing or whitewashing coverage. Only a few dozen dead despite huge swaths of the city destroyed? The authorities had no idea who owned the warehouse? Really? But this time, social media users quickly became fed up with these games. A man-caused catastrophe like this was so big that they could not hold back anymore. Angry public requests started to circulate. “‘Either we see them alive or see their bodies,’ reads one of the message on social media.
“Anger emerged in hashtags calling the situation ‘A real life Pinocchio’ and demanding ‘Tanggu explosion truth,’ a reference to the Tianjin neighbourhood where the blasts left a gaping crater.
“‘We demand the truth, and strict punishment to comfort the victims!’ wrote one person on China’s Facebook-like Weibo,” reported the Globe.
Four days after the blast, I received a message through my friends from China. I was told it was a warning, sent out by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Judging by the language, I immediately knew that it was a hoax, not from the Embassy. But the way I see it now, pretending to be foreign diplomats was the only way to get the correct information out:
“For your information and consideration for action. First rain expected today or tonight. Avoid ALL contact with skin. If on clothing, remove and wash as soon as possible, and also shower yourself. Avoid pets coming into contact with rains, or wet ground, and wash them immediately if they do. Rinse umbrellas thoroughly in your bath or shower once inside, following contact with rain. Exercise caution for any rains until all fires in Tianjin are extinguished and for the period 10 days following. These steps are for you to be as safe as possible, since we are not completely sure what might be in the air. Remember the brave firefighters and their families along with all those suffering from the accident in Tianjin. Stand strong together China!”
The American Embassy immediately denied responsibility for the message, of course, though the truth of the message’s contents was confirmed only a few hours later when it started to rain. This caused even more anger among the population. At this point the authorities could no longer be silent. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post first, then Beijing’s propaganda paper, the Global Times, and finally the official news agency, Xinhua, started to give correct information on the cause of the blast and its dangerous consequences, promising a thorough investigation and punishment. In other words, the government had to step in and take over the initiative if it wanted to avoid even stronger social uproar. What will actually be done is another question.
During my time in China, there was constant discussion about corruption, a new wave prompted by each new disaster. I heard government officials and people responsible for state security essentially saying, “Ah, well – what can you do? It is so deep rooted in the system that a profound change would be needed.” Even Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the ’60s included attempts to uproot the country’s corruption. As we know, it ended badly – very badly. There is no one in China who wants to repeat that horrible experiment.
Does this mean that China will be forced to live with this corruption? Rather than disappearing the catastrophe in Tianjin suggests it is just taking on new forms. The future will tell, but judging by the number of accidents and the levels of pollution and episodes of mass food poisoning, the sun no longer seems to be rising in the East. I hope I’m wrong, because I’m fond of the country and its culture.
A few years ago, an uncannily similar event occurred in the U.S., the aftermath of which might shed some light on what is happening in Tianjin. On April 17, 2013, a West Fertilizer Company plant in a small town of 20,000 called West – 18 miles north of Waco, Texas – caught fire. When the firefighters arrived and tried to put down the fire, the whole plant exploded and wound up destroying the entire street. West Fertilizer was right in the middle of the town. Even with such a central location, the plant owners’ papers were not in order. The explosion was caused by contact between the 24 tons of Ammonium Nitrate and water. The explosion, the fire, the destructive force of blow – almost everything was the same as the blast in Tianjin. The quantities of the substances involved were different: in Tianjin, the warehouse was storing, among the other chemicals, 700 tons of Ammonium Nitrate. And yet if you watch ABC’s dispatch from Waco, the images from Texas and Tianjin are very similar.
In the U.S., we got a rapid more precise tally of the deaths and destruction. But justice? More than two years later, neither those responsible for West Fertilizer, nor the people who obviously facilitated them, have appeared in court. If the deaths of 15 people and the destruction of a small city are not enough to bring the people responsible to the justice in the U.S., then what can we expect to happen in China?