Stanley Lubman writes for The Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2015
Following the deadly explosions in Tianjin late last week, serious questions are being raised: Why were warehouses for dangerous chemicals located too close to residential areas? Were there corrupt relations between the local government and Ruihai International Logistics, the company that owned the warehouses? Were potential dangers to the community inadequately considered before permission was first given to license the warehouses? Some officials will certainly be removed or charged.
However, inquiry should go beyond Tianjin and probe deeper into the reasons for widespread inadequate enforcement of safety regulations involving dangerous products and activities.
At the moment, one of the most prominent concerns being debated is why the warehouses were situated closer to residential areas than regulations allowed. The warehouse that exploded was within several hundred yards of apartment buildings, a highway and a railway line, although national safety regulations “forbid situating large warehouses of hazardous chemicals within one kilometer (0.6 miles) of residential areas.” The same article quotes a Beijing lawyer who asked, via his microblog, “Who conducted the environmental assessment?”
This question is indeed appropriate, given what little is known about the assessment. An impact statement was prepared for Ruihai by the Tianjin Academy of Environmental Protection Sciences that showed that the majority of products stored in the warehouse were dangerous or flammable. The statement also concluded that the risk of an accident ”was within acceptable limits.”
A curious fact about the academy’s report is that it says 130 questionnaires were circulated in the “surrounding area” (no further details were given) and that 100% of respondents said the site was “suitable.” According to the report, 52% of respondents accepted the project’s proposed environmental measures while remainder expressed no opinions.
There is no further information about who the respondents were or anything else about the impact statement itself. On its face, the report raises questions: How could such a small sample be taken seriously? What measures for safety were considered? The references to the impact statement not only warrant a deep investigation into this case but also underscore the need for more transparent and effective environmental impact assessments overall.
Another issue that has been raised is the ownership of Ruihai. Tianjin’s online corporate registry was inaccessible for four days after the explosions. After access returned, it showed that the company was registered in 2012. But the current legal owners bought their shares in 2013; the register showed no trace of the previous owners. A later report in Caijing magazine showed that Ruihai was controlled by the 32-year old son of the recently deceased head of public security of Tianjin’s port.
Since then, the corporate registry has shown the names of two men who own all the shares—but one who was interviewed by a Chinese newspaper “said he had nothing to do with the company and had simply agreed to hold the shares for a friend he refused to identify.”
If the foregoing isn’t enough to raise suspicions of illegal conduct, the most recent news is that Yang Dongliang, Director of China’s State Administration of Work Safety, is currently under investigation for suspected “serious violations of party discipline and the law,” a term commonly used to designate investigations for corruption. Yang formerly was deputy mayor of Tianjin for over ten years until 2012, the year that Ruihai was registered. The Xinhua news agency also reported that Ruihai had operated for months without a license to handle the chemicals involved in the explosions.
Because the disaster occurred in one of China’s largest cities, with a population of 15 million, it should provoke a necessary deeper consideration of subpar worker safety conditions throughout Chinese industry. At the root of the problem is a defect in China’s governance that has long been evident – namely, the disconnect between central laws and regulations and their inadequate local enforcement, a circumstance common throughout Chinese industry and society.
The reasons for this stem not only from China’s size but also from the continuing weakness of its legal culture due to localism and the strength of ties among local elites, which must be addressed by the Party-state now.
Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, is Distinguished Lecturer in Residence (ret.) at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. He is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao” (Stanford University Press, 1999) and editor of “The Evolution of Law Reform in China: An Uncertain Path” (Elgar, 2012).