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Tianjin Tragedy Is A Painful Reflection Of How China Largely Works

Smoke rises at the site of the explosions in Tianjin.
AFP/Getty Images
Smoke rises at the site of the explosions in Tianjin.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has covered China for nearly a decade. After reporting on the Aug. 12 explosion in Tianjin that killed more than 100 people, he offered this commentary.

There's a moment when you're covering a disaster in China when you know what happened.

You know it wasn't an accident, as the government initially says.

You know someone did something awful that put lives at risk to make money.

For me, that moment came when I was sitting in the hallway of a Tianjin middle school.

I was talking with Yang Limei, a local chemistry professor. She was wearing a flowered house dress that she'd worn when she fled her home after a giant, toxic mushroom cloud erupted nearby on the night of August 12.

"Did you know there were so many dangerous chemicals at the warehouse so close to your apartment?" I asked.

"We didn't know," she said. "And if we'd known, we wouldn't have lived here."

None of the other residents knew, either.

The next day, China's state-run press reported that the warehouse was perhaps 500 yards from apartments like Yang's. Under the law, a warehouse handling such hazardous chemicals was supposed to be at least 1,000 yards away for safety.

When I read about that gap, I knew this was no oversight. Somebody in the local government looked the other way in exchange for something — ­ maybe a favor, maybe money.

Meanwhile, workers at the warehouse were handling 3,000 tons of dangerous chemicals — ­ what became the ingredients of a giant bomb that left a crater about 20 feet deep.

Last week, one of the warehouse owners was interviewed in police custody. He told state media that he used political connections to get the warehouse approved, ­ even though it violated safety laws.

Who was this guy? He was the son of the former police chief for the Tianjin port, where the warehouse was located.

How did people react online? Not much outrage, mostly resignation. People thought: Of course this is what happened.

An Internet user with the handle "Pinky Not Sad" wrote on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter: "Which disaster that has happened in China was NOT caused by collusion of officials and businesses?"

Another user described the role that ordinary Chinese citizens routinely play in disasters like this: "They are there to be bombed, emotionally moved, to make donations, to pray and keep worrying about the next explosion."

That's because — painful as it is to say — this is largely how China works.

Even in the middle of the biggest anti-corruption drive in many decades, it's still a corrupt, authoritarian state, where things get done based on relationships and where there's no rule of law or system of independent checks and balances.

It's also a country where many people have spent the last two decades chasing fortune with few constraints, ­ moral or otherwise.

Looking back, what happened in Tianjin wasn't really a surprise.

It was kind of predictable.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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