Issue Date: September 7, 2015
Post-Tianjin, China Exposes Its Blemishes
When two high-speed trains collided in China’s Zhejiang province in the summer of 2011, killing 40 people, Chinese authorities moved quickly to put the disaster behind them. Literally burying the news, officials ordered that the train be interred even while rescuers were still looking for survivors. Authorities also demanded that the Chinese media stop reporting on the accident.
The Chinese government has clearly adopted a different strategy regarding the explosion of a hazardous chemicals warehouse in Tianjin on Aug. 12. Weeks after the tragedy, informative Chinese media reports keep coming. And in disclosing the arrest of 23 people in late August, an implicit admission that many government officials were either corrupt or neglectful, the central government in Beijing seemed unconcerned about managing the flow of information.
Beijing’s openness with regard to the accident is surprising to many. Foreign businesspeople running companies in China have long been careful about what they say. Local government officials throughout the country are similarly guarded about releasing information to the public. Yet it’s unclear whether the openness about the Tianjin disaster marks a new era.
Ten days after the explosion, I visited the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA), a zone in Tianjin that is home to many multinational companies. In the areas of the zone adjacent to Tianjin’s harbor, where the blast occurred, signs of the Aug. 12 havoc remained. Miles away from the explosion, windows were blown out of office buildings. In many cases, ceiling lights had crashed to the floor.
A few miles farther from the scene, life was returning to normal. Immediately after the explosion, many TEDA residents had fled on concerns that sodium cyanide and other dangerous substances involved in the accident would poison the air. They were trickling back to their homes and jobs. Businesses that had temporarily closed were opening back up, and the streets were filling with traffic.
Fewer residents might have fled were the government more open with information. Authorities have been assuring the public that the air and water outside the blast zone are clean, but people, accustomed to the Chinese government’s tradition of restricting information, have their doubts. In the absence of independent sources confirming the air is breathable, TEDA residents decided it was better to be safe than sorry.
Corroboration of the government’s assurances would have been easy to obtain. TEDA is home to many private labs. One operator of a drug R&D center in TEDA tells C&EN that the air in the zone is in fact fine. After the explosion, he ordered his scientists to use the company’s analytical instruments to measure outdoor air quality near the lab, and they found it normal. But the manager says he can’t inform the public because “the government normally controls that kind of information.” He declined to be quoted by name.
Local officials seem equally reluctant to talk publicly about the blast. Asked for an interview about recovery efforts, a TEDA official said no one was willing to talk about the accident. It took several days for TEDA to mention the explosion on its website.
But from Beijing, the disclosures after the explosion keep coming. In late August, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that contaminated soil removed from the blast site would be stored in a lined well less than 3 miles away. The word was put out even though local residents are already concerned about tap water quality.
It’s not clear what motivates China’s display of openness regarding the Tianjin blast. On Aug. 28, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper reported that the country’s top leaders are dissatisfied with the Tianjin government’s response. Beijing is encouraging aggressive Chinese news media reporting to increase pressure on local officials, the newspaper said.
Indeed, the Chinese government’s openness appears to be limited strictly to this event. A few days ago, the chief editor of the People’s Daily website, the Chinese Communist Party’s online platform, was taken away by police. The arrest appears related to his public support for a controversial film about China’s air pollution problem. So although the government is being open about Tianjin, don’t be surprised if future safety lapses are treated like the Zhejiang train crash.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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