• The Chinese port city of Tianjin will be subjected to an intense top-down anti-corruption investigation.
• In response to public anger, Beijing will work to improve and enforce work safety standards around the country.
• Despite the recent enhancement of Beijing’s control over provincial anti-corruption bodies, limited capabilities and systemic corruption will slow any progress in improving work safety.
PRESSURE is building on the Chinese government as an angry public demands answers in the wake of deadly explosions in the port city of Tianjin. On Aug. 18, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that it was investigating the head of China’s State Administration of Work Safety, Yang Dongliang. Although the commission did not specify why Yang was being investigated, a career history appended to the announcement that highlighted his long career in Tianjin suggests that he is almost certainly being investigated in relation to the Aug. 12 explosions.
The proximity of the explosion to residences and public infrastructure hinted at systemic corruption in one of China’s most well-developed cities. The municipal government’s response was marred by ineptitude in everything from handling the fire to managing information flows. These factors contributed to significant public outrage, exemplified when Tianjin officials were forced to unceremoniously abandon a press conference after they failed to satisfactorily answer the questions of an increasingly angry crowd — a highly unusual event.
A member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Yang is one of the higher-level officials to be investigated since the start of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. The need to target a current Central Committee member in association with the disaster points to the pressure the government is feeling from the public. Elevated central government intervention meant to mitigate public anger at official mismanagement can be expected in Tianjin in the months ahead. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Chinese central government’s response in Tianjin demonstrates that Beijing is in fact responsive to popular pressure — even if Chinese leaders react differently than the leaders of most liberal democracies. The unusually strong response suggests that Beijing is feeling acute strain as China enters into a period of prolonged economic difficulty.
Corruption and incompetence in Tianjin
The tremendous loss of life and property in the Tianjin explosions was caused by a confluence of corrupt practices and official incompetence. The explosions started with a chemical fire at an unlicensed warehouse containing more than 3,000 tons of hazardous chemicals, including sodium cyanide, ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate (saltpeter) and calcium carbide. The warehouse was located within 500 meters (1,640 feet) of residences and a public highway, far below the 1,000-meter safety requirement set by the Chinese government. Soon after the explosion, the public speculated that the disaster was the result of systemic corruption in Tianjin. This suspicion was confirmed when Xinhua interviewed detained Rui Hai International Logistics executives, who said they sidestepped zoning and safety laws by using their connections with elements of the Tianjin government. Among the groups implicated were Tianjin’s police and fire departments, the Tianjin Port Authority and Tianjin’s branch of state-owned Sinochem Corp.
The first responders to the chemical fire were a mix of Tianjin municipal firefighters and contract firefighters employed by the Tianjin Port Authority, many of whom were below legal working age and appear to have been paid off the books. Either unaware of the presence of reactive chemicals or untrained in the proper procedures to handle them, the firefighters attempted to douse the flames with water. The water from the fire hoses reacted with the calcium carbide stored in the warehouse, forming acetylene gas that was then ignited by the ongoing fire to produce explosions on par with about 20 tons of TNT. The blasts killed many of the firefighters and flattened many residences in the area. The explosions also led to widespread fears that the sodium cyanide stored at the warehouse had contaminated Tianjin’s air and drinking water, potentially forming the dangerous compound hydrogen cyanide.
After the explosion, many Tianjin citizens demanded answers from the local government on safety protocols, the fates of first responders and the possibility of compensation for lost housing. Tianjin government officials were unprepared to offer satisfactory answers and were perceived to be dodging the questions, leading to protests and rumors that there would be a cover-up by the central government. Criticism was no longer reserved for local authorities.
Anxiety and anti-Corruption
Even though there does not appear to have been a serious risk of violence in Tianjin, Beijing was compelled to take control of both the emergency response and the popular narrative. Though the full extent of Beijing’s intervention is unknown, reports of local People’s Armed Police units acting on the orders of “higher authorities” on Aug. 15 and of Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun participating in meetings in Tianjin on Aug. 17 suggest that the central government has largely taken over.
The propaganda apparatus has begun attempting to shape the narrative instead of merely censoring rumors and non-official reporting. On Aug. 17, the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily called on the public to trust the government. The editorial notably promised transparency — a theme consistently promoted by Xi’s government — and claimed that the culprits responsible for the Tianjin blasts would be punished in a fashion similar to Zhou Yongkang, China’s purged security czar. The editorial foreshadowed Yang’s fall on Aug. 18.
Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, once a weapon to use against political foes, has become a key adjunct of most central government policies. In Tianjin, the anti-corruption campaign serves the need to control both the narrative and the emergency. Anti-corruption procedures in Tianjin have been unusual. Chinese anti-corruption probes typically start with low-level officials and work their way up, gradually collecting the evidence needed to incriminate the top leaders of a network. In Tianjin, against the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection’s normal operating procedures, the central government immediately struck at or near the top of a network of corruption when it placed Yang under investigation.
This departure from standard procedure suggests that the central government is currently sensitive to public pressure. First, Beijing needed a highly visible sign of commitment to offset a highly visible crisis. Yang’s stature and background made him a natural target. Before Yang took up his position as the head of the State Administration of Work Safety, he served as Tianjin’s executive vice mayor and had previously chaired the city’s State-owned Assets Supervisory and Administrative Commission, led the municipal Economic Affairs Commission and served as deputy secretary of Tianjin’s industry working committee. These positions would have given him tremendous influence over the city’s economic planning and over the appointments of many of its currently serving officials.
Second, the central government would have had a pressing need for intelligence to avoid exacerbating the crisis. Intelligence failure may well have contributed to the original explosions; first responders were clearly unaware of the presence of chemicals. Yang or his associates are likely to know information about other potentially dangerous sites. This intelligence will be at a premium as the government tries to prevent the possibility of follow-on disasters while stabilizing the current crisis.
Although intense purges are likely in Tianjin in the near future, the Chinese blogosphere’s cool response to the People’s Daily’s editorials suggests that the anti-corruption campaign is not sufficient on its own to calm public wrath. The government will need to make demonstrable headway in strengthening work safety measures across the country. This will almost certainly run against the desires of local governments and enterprises that are eager to keep costs low and employment high. Resistance from provincial and local governments will be all the more stubborn as economic growth slows and the central government curtails much of the shadow financing system that propped up local development. These interests will need to be tamed, but raw coercion has its limits.
Despite the embarrassing visibility of the Tianjin tragedy, it is in many ways an easy case for China’s leadership. Located a short train ride away from the capital, the Tianjin area has never been able to escape the control of a determined central government sitting in Beijing. However, despite recent improvements in central government control over provincial disciplinary commissions, Beijing will find it challenging to uniformly enforce its directives over distant corners of China because of systemic corruption and limited capabilities. But Beijing must try. At a time when simultaneous crises in the Chinese economy are challenging Xi’s Chinese Dream, Beijing appears to recognize that it can ill afford a crisis of confidence among its people.
© 2015, STRATFOR
Publishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with the express permission of Stratfor Global Intelligence.