Bei­jing’s dis­as­ter play­book falls short


The Main­land Chi­nese author­i­ties’ han­dling of the Tian­jin ex­plo­sions bears many of the hall­marks of their stan­dard ap­proach to the litany of dis­as­ters in the coun­try — a clam­p­down on dis­cus­sion, of­fi­cial ob­fus­ca­tion, and care­fully tar­geted media con­dem­na­tion.

But it has been un­usu­ally in­ef­fec­tive, an­a­lysts say, with a lack of trans­parency com­pared to pre­vi­ous dis­as­ters that has cre­ated an im­age of in­de­ci­sion or even pos­si­ble in­fight­ing at the high­est lev­els of power.

The Aug. 12 ex­plo­sions at the haz­ardous goods stor­age fa­cil­ity in the port of Tian­jin set off a gi­ant fire­ball, killed 114 peo­ple, dev­as­tated a vast area and raised fears over po­ten­tially toxic con­tam­i­na­tion.

They are only the latest in a se­ries of man-made calami­ties to strike the Com­mu­nist coun­try. Two months ago a ferry cap­sized in the Yangtze River, on New Year’s Eve in Shang­hai a crush killed dozens and a pipeline ex­plo­sion in Qing­dao dev­as­tated an en­tire neigh­bor­hood.

Cen­tral author­i­ties look to por­tray such events as the re­sult of in­di­vid­ual, lo­cal fail­ures, rather than con­se­quences of main­land China’s sys­tem of gov­er­nance, and are quick to sup­press any online blame tar­get­ing the cen­tral gov­ern­ment or the sys­tem as a whole.

The main­land has pun­ished 50 web­sites and 360 so­cial media ac­counts for “spread­ing ru­mors” about the Tian­jin blast, author­i­ties have said.

But lo­cal author­i­ties have been con­demned online and in state-run media for not rapidly dis­clos­ing de­tails of what chem­i­cals were present on the site.

“There is a feel­ing that the author­i­ties are stalling and not be­ing forth­right with the peo­ple be­cause they are still try­ing to de­ter­mine what the next step is,” said Joseph Cheng, a for­mer po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the City Univer­sity of Hong Kong.

“Man-made dis­as­ters like the Tian­jin ex­plo­sion re­flect that so­ci­ety is not well man­aged be­cause safety rules are not fol­lowed and cor­rup­tion is ram­pant.”

China also regularly suf­fers from earth­quakes and flood­ing and in re­cent years the main­land Chi­nese premier — first Wen Ji­abao, now Li Ke­qiang — has regularly rushed to dis­as­ter sites in a show of Bei­jing’s con­cern and de­sire to im­ple­ment ef­fec­tive res­cue ef­forts.

But Li only ar­rived in Tian­jin on Sun­day af­ter­noon, sev­eral days af­ter the Wed­nes­day night dis­as­ter.

“Now most of the lead­er­ship is not tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity, they’re afraid to take re­spon­si­bil­ity be­cause they are afraid of los­ing their posts,” wrote one user on Sina Weibo, a Twit­ter-like web­site.

The de­lay was “very strange” said Willy Lam, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong, “es­pe­cially since Tian­jin is just a short train ride from Bei­jing.

“When it comes to nat­u­ral or man-made dis­as­ters, we used to see Grandpa Wen on the scene within 48 hours.”

Li rushed to June’s ferry dis­as­ter — which killed 442 peo­ple — less than two days af­ter the cap­size. Last Au­gust he was at the scene of an earth­quake that killed more than 600 peo­ple for sev­eral days, and fea­tured promi­nently in main­land China’s state-run media.

“This sug­gests there is a di­vi­sion among the lead­er­ship on who should be the fall guy,” Lam said.

Ac­count­abil­ity for dis­as­ters in China is vari­able. Fol­low­ing a col­li­sion be­tween two high-speed trains in Wen­zhou — which tar­nished the rep­u­ta­tion of one of China’s flag­ship projects — the rail­ways min­istry was abol­ished.

In the pipeline ex­plo­sion in Qing­dao, 48 peo­ple were dis­ci­plined, in­clud­ing Fu Chengyu, chair­man of the com­pany that owned the pipeline, but only 15 faced crim­i­nal charges.

But no-one has ever been pros­e­cuted over the deaths of more than 5,000 chil­dren in an earth­quake in Sichuan, when their shod­dily built schools col­lapsed but build­ings used by of­fi­cials re­mained stand­ing, rais­ing wide­spread ac­cu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion.

While in Tian­jin, Li him­self told Hong Kong’s i-Ca­ble TV: “We must in­ves­ti­gate the ac­ci­dent, find the cause of the blasts and any­one who acted il­le­gally will be se­verely pun­ished.”

Author­i­ties have been lam­basted for fail­ing to up­hold in­dus­trial reg­u­la­tions, no­tably re­quire­ments that ware­houses stock­ing dan­ger­ous ma­te­ri­als be at least one kilo­me­ter from sur­round­ing public build­ings and main roads.

In­ter­nal prin­ci­ples link dis­as­ter death tolls to the rank of the of­fi­cial who will ul­ti­mately be held ac­count­able, Lam said.

“If it’s un­der 200, only the vice mayor of Tian­jin in charge of safety will need to re­sign,” Lam said, adding he is the “ob­vi­ous fall guy.”

But in the case of Tian­jin, cur­rent mayor Huang Xing­guo is widely seen by an­a­lysts as part of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party’s “Zhe­jiang fac­tion,” which has close ties to main­land Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping.

He was a vice gover­nor of Zhe­jiang province when Xi was gover­nor, and Lam said the re­la­tion­ship could pro­tect him from pun­ish­ment, or limit any reper­cus­sions.

The head of China’s State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Work Safety, Yang Dongliang, was put un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for “sus­pected se­vere vi­o­la­tion of dis­ci­pline and the law,” the Cen­tral Com­mis­sion for Dis­ci­pline In­spec­tion said Tues­day, em­ploy­ing a phrase of­ten used to in­di­cate cor­rup­tion.

“There’s still a fairly long way to go for China to be­come a de­vel­oped and well-man­aged coun­try,” Cheng said.

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