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Moment that mattered: Chemical explosions kill over 170 people near Tianjin

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2015 file photo, a man walks past the charred remains of new cars at a parking lot near the site of an explosion at a warehouse in northeastern China's Tianjin municipality. As Chinese President Xi Jinping makes his first state visit to Washington this week, the outlook for relations is decidedly murkier than when he hosted President Barack Obama at their last summit less than a year ago. The catastrophic chemical warehouse explosion that killed 173 people have underscored concerns about corruption and incompetence, increasing doubts about the viability of China’s model of authoritarian governance. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

I was in downtown Tianjin at the time of the explosions in Binhai [which originated in a warehouse storing dangerous chemicals], and I saw and heard nothing. The first hint I had that something was wrong was seeing my friends on WeChat [a messaging app popular in China] post photos of what looked like a bomb blast, just before midnight. When I saw in the comments that it was happening in Binhai, I turned to Chinese microblogging site Weibo to search for some first-hand accounts. Western media reports described the blasts as “shaking Tianjin”, but this misses a sense of scale. Binhai, the port district in Tianjin municipality, is about the same distance from downtown Tianjin as Washington DC is from Baltimore, around 50 kilometres.

Around two million people live in the area where the blasts happened. 173 people died according to the authorities and around 800 were injured. It turned out that I knew a few people who were affected. My former supervisor at work had an apartment in the Vanke complex near the port, and it was trashed in the blasts. She and her husband are waiting for compensation – the government has initiated a buy-back scheme for unsafe apartments – but she doesn’t want to live in the area any more.

In the days after the blasts it was hard to get hold of reliable information. There’s constant competition between the rumour mill, which spreads stories – such as the one about the “mystery foam” that emerged during rains in Tianjin and caused burning eyes – and the government, which tells everyone that it’s safe, although for the first couple of days the local authorities advised people not to go out. The government published very little health or safety information. They didn’t even organise aid efforts. These were spontaneously organised by people from Tianjin.

“Many people lost their homes and are still trying to cope. Many people are waiting for compensation”

People here still have many questions about the causes of the blasts and why there were residential areas so close to warehouses containing hazardous materials. These questions haven’t been adequately answered; instead it’s all been swept into the narrative of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. The government want to say that corruption rather than a lack of regulation was the problem. State media have played along with this narrative and people are actively discouraged from asking further questions. The government may eventually choose to deliver a verdict but they’d rather just hope that it goes away, like the Wenzhou train derailment [of July 2011, when 40 people died and 200 were injured; the government didn’t let journalists anywhere near the scene].

A lot of the media focus here has been on the tragic deaths of firefighters, almost 100 of whom died. Both city firefighters, who are part of the military, and port firefighters, who are contract workers, were sent to the site of the explosions, and right after the blasts there was a lot of talk online about how Chinese firefighters are under-trained and under-equipped compared to their Western counterparts. There were also rumours spreading that the firefighters had no idea how to deal with chemical spills, but criticism subsided as the media portrayed them as heroes.

The incidents raise many questions regarding the enforcement of workplace safety legislation in China. It’s a two-sided issue. On one hand, many Chinese companies don’t have adequate health and safety facilities, and environmental hazards abound. EHS (environment, health and safety) is a developing field and inspectors are still pretty piecemeal in their approach. But on the other hand, companies often struggle to get their employees to take workplace safety seriously. Even when safety equipment and regulations are provided to the workers, they complain that this restricts their work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen workers welding without protective eyewear, or using grinders on glass or concrete without a face mask on. China is a world leader in work-related respiratory illnesses – and that’s not just because of the companies involved. Education is a huge factor.

Ten weeks after the blasts, things are back to normal in Tianjin city, while in Binhai it’s more like a “post-explosion normal”. Many people lost their homes and are still trying to cope. Many people are waiting for compensation. The train that connects Binhai to downtown has been replaced by a temporary shuttle bus, but people from downtown don’t go to Binhai if they can help it. Real damage has been done to the confidence of people in Tianjin. ‘I used to think Tianjin was safe,’ I was told by a female student who was weighing up a move to Binhai when the disaster happened. ‘But I don’t think it’s safe any more”

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