THE CITY OF Tianjin is facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions following the double explosion at the Ruihai International Logistics warehouse on Wednesday. The presence of sodium cyanide, which combines with water to form deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, has been acknowledged along with calcium carbide, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate — all industrial chemicals whose impact on the population of the northeastern port city may be felt through illness and shortened lives for generations to come.
For the leadership, failure to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy that has cost at least 112 lives with hundreds more injured could be just as toxic. At risk is public trust in the Party to look after the people.
Industrial accidents are commonplace in China, even in large cities. Yet the power of the second blast in particular and the amount of dramatic video footage seen on social media before the inevitable media clampdown puts this one into a class of its own.
By way of comparison, the Jilin chemical plant explosion in 2005, one of China’s worst comparable man-made disasters, killed six and the injuries were in the dozens. However, pollution of the Songhua River was severe. Harbin, 400 kilometers downstream, had to cut off the public water supply to avoid poisoning its residents. Environment agency minister Xie Zhenhua was eventually sacked.
The initial official response to Jilin was to cover it up. That has been the go-to response for authorities to any environmental disaster until the evidence can no longer be ignored. Officials did not admit to the Bohai Bay oil spill in 2011 until a month after it had happened.
A nationwide check ordered on dangerous chemicals and explosives following the Tianjin blasts and a blanket order to officials to enforce safety regulations seems like bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Even worse will be if authorities react in their customary way and pursue a carefully managed information blackout.
Signs are not encouraging. Social media accounts and websites are already being closed down; state media is starting to craft a narrative around the laxness of businesses and workers that officials will address.
Even in these early days a finger is being pointed at Ruihai for keeping inadequate records of what was on site, following inadequate storage procedures or turning a blind eye to what safety regulations there are. Regulations keeping public transport and housing at a specific distance from dangerous industrial sites were ignored or flouted by officials.
The first-responder firefighters were ill-informed, inadequately trained and equipped, or all three. Suggestions that attempts to put out an initial fire with water inadvertently caused the chemical reactions that produced the subsequent blasts seem well founded, though, again, this Bystander cautions against early judgments on limited information. Whatever the circumstances turn out to have been, firefighters have paid a heavy toll in human life.
Assurances by officials that air and water quality levels in Tianjin are safe have been met with incredulity by residents. The 3-kilometre evacuation zone imposed on Friday will have done nothing to diminish concerns, any more than the earlier shutting off sewers to stop discharge into Bohai Bay. Many residents already know the water they drink and the air their breathe are polluted enough.
China has long disregarded environmental and public health whenever untrammelled economic development was at risk. Pockets of populations with abnormally high cancer rates in some of the most polluted areas bear silent testimony to that. The Party has seen the delivery of ever higher living standards to the broad population as the basis of its claim to a monopoly on political power.
For most Chinese, higher living standards increasingly include quality of life, not merely the quantity of material well-being — simple things like clean air and water and neighbourhoods that don’t explode.
This Bystander would like to think that the legacy of the Tianjin disaster would be that it was the one that caused that penny to drop for the authorities. That is likely wishful thinking. Scapegoats will again be found; rescue efforts will be lionized; online critics will be silenced. The policy and institutional reforms needed to ensure there is no repeat will not be carried out with the same vigour.