Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Lessons of the Tianjin Explosion

Aftermath of the Tianjin chemical explosion. Source: VOA

Below is my contribution to a conversation on ChinaFile about the destructive Tianjin chemical explosion. The entire conversation can be viewed here.

Five days before the terrifying and deadly Tianjin explosion was the first anniversary of the Kunshan Zhongrong Metal Products incident, where a massive metal dust explosion and fire killed at least 146 workers. In a report I wrote for this website about a month after the tragedy, I cited the latest casualty figure: 75. I also explained how the government apparently had deemed the incident a sensitive topic, censoring conversation and reporting. It was only in December, 2014, four months later, after the immediate shock had subsided, that the State Administration of Work and Safety revised the death toll in Kunshan to 146 people.

In Tianjin, we see the same story playing out in a nightmarish fashion. Commensurate with the visibility of the explosion, destruction, and intense international coverage, censorship has gone into overdrive, up tenfold according to Weiboscope out of the University of Hong Kong. Within a day after the event, the government had issued directives for permitted news reporting. I noted elsewhere that a top Weibo comment on August 13 was from an assistant director at CCTV who said, “[I] hope everyone resists believing or spreading rumors. Wait for official information.” Just as the official death toll in Kunshan doubled suddenly four months after the explosion occurred, we should not be surprised if key facts surrounding the Tianjin disaster materialize only after Tianjin has dropped from headlines.

Could robust civil society have, as Tom suggests, prevented the Tianjin chemical explosion? Yes. Disasters can be stemmed by muckrakers, grassroots advocates, and whistle blowers. These are features of a robust civil society that share two critical common values: oversight and participation. These are also two forces that directly countervail the overall trend of CCP leadership, especially since Xi Jinping came into power.

Chinese leadership has sought to centralize power and contract space for independent civil society actors, not expand it. In July, over 250 human rights lawyers and activists were rounded up in a nationwide coordinated wave of suppression. Later this year an already cool environment for NGOs is likely to get frigid when a new set of regulations unleash unprecedented scrutiny and restrictions on overseas money connected to Chinese NGOs.

The contraction of operating space for non-government actors is well-documented in Freedom House’s recent report, “The Politburo’s Predicament.” Carl Minzer's recent journal article, China After the Reform Era, which puts these trends into a broader historical political context, concludes that the CCP is reversing previous liberalization of legal and political institutions for the sake of self-preservation.

The larger socio-political context in China is pointing toward more restriction of non-government entities in China. It is with this in mind that I have little optimism for Tom’s hoped outcome: that the CCP will come away from the Tianjin disaster with a greater appreciation for the value of public oversight and participation. Instead, we are seeing a repeat of the official response to the Kunshan tragedy one year ago. Control the dominant narrative through directives. Suppress influential inquisitive voices. Focus attention on assistance and support for survivors and families. Deliver swift and resolute justice unto business owners and local officials. Let other news stories dilute the toxic subject until it becomes another disaster among many in the annals of China’s industrial era.

These are the tried and true self-preservation measures utilized by the CCP in the face of those industrial disasters with potentially dangerous political repercussions. As much as it saddens me to write it, the tragedy in Tianjin (or those in Kunshan, Fuwa, Wenling, Foshan, or Mishazi) is not going push the rulers in Beijing to a liberalize their governance model. Conversely, it will embolden them to grip more tightly.

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