Stanley Lubman writes for The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2015
Neither the blue sky over the anniversary parade in Beijing nor the darkness over the stock market will distract Tianjin residents from the enormous conflagration that erupted in that port city last month. The cause of the explosion, which had a blast wave that rippled out from the port into residential areas, was related to disregard for safety rules and regulations on the storage of hazardous substances. Two subsequent explosions in chemical plants, one in Zibo and another in Dongying, both in Shandong Province, should set off new alarms within both the Party-state and Chinese society.
Soon after the Tianjin disaster, investigations began to expose corruption and illegality behind the licensing of Ruihai International Logistics Co., which owned and operated the warehouses where the hazardous chemicals were improperly stored. This event should force the state to investigate not only the control of hazardous substances nationwide, but also food safety and environmental pollution because all three are compounded by corruption and local disregard of the law.
As of this date, 161 deaths have been reported and thousands of residents displaced in Tianjin. 23 people have been detained: 11 municipal officials and port executives accused of negligence and abuse of power, and 12 people including top executives of Ruihai. There appears to have been a pattern of wholesale disregard of safety regulations that could have limited the dangers. Moreover, for years before Ruihai began to plan its facilities, local scholars had documented the dangers posed by storage of dangerous materials close to residential neighborhoods. They were unable to generate concern among regulatory officials.
Ruihai began storing chemicals without obtaining a license. The company falsely stated that the location of the warehouses complied with national safety regulations, which would have required them to be situated further from residences and a highway. It then stored different volatile materials haphazardly instead of separately, “at safe distances, and in smaller quantities as recommended in the industry.”
The Chinese government has previously acknowledged the need for more efficient regulation of hazardous chemicals at local levels — but local governments have been reluctant to comply, with little consequence. The head of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology acknowledged recently that work on plans to relocate or upgrade almost 1,000 chemical plants was slowed because the Ministry’s work “is not actively supported locally in the past year.” (emphasis added)
This state of affairs can’t continue without serious consequences for both public safety and domestic confidence in the system. Chinese leaders need to push through reforms that focus on work safety, efficient and fair compensation to injured workers as well as remedies for deaths, injuries, and property damage. The corruption that led to the Tianjin blasts is not unique but pervasive.
According to a March 2015 China Youth Daily poll of Chinese citizens, more than 77 percent ranked food safety as “the most important quality of life issue,” with environmental pollution close behind. Early last month the Supreme People’s Procuratorate announced that it has begun a two-year campaign targeting corrupt officials involved in food-safety crimes. In addition, the influence of major oil and coal companies in weakening the “war on pollution” has been well documented.
If the government cracked down nationwide to expose safety hazards and related corruption, it would help challenge the widespread belief that corruption is systemic and that at every level of government privileged officials use their connections for their own financial advantage. Corruption runs deep among Chinese officials, who often view their conduct as standard practice. One vice-mayor told the Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily newspaper earlier this year that his rejection of a bribe would be viewed as “abnormal” and a rejection of “good intentions,” and might even would hamper future promotion. Another vice-mayor said that it was “normal job behavior to accept gifts and payments.”
The Tianjin disaster creates a compelling motivation – and opportunity—for the Chinese leadership to investigate enforcement of public safety laws and to begin necessary nation-wide reforms. A new anti-corruption campaign should be aimed at the ranks of state agencies involved in regulation, including local governments. The campaign could be conducted by the Procuratorate, which investigates and prosecutes offenders charged with failing to enforce laws and regulations.
Such a campaign would claim attention and support from middle- and upper-class citizens like those in Tianjin, who lived in the apartments that had their windows and doors blown out by the blast wave due to violation of existing laws. Elsewhere in China, such a campaign could encourage local officials to enforce national laws more closely despite simultaneous pressure to stimulate local growth.
The massive explosions in Tianjin should challenge the state to take useful steps to improve legality, which would also enhance the legal environment needed for the promised economic reforms. Failure to do so will mean more loss of life and further erosion of government credibility. China can’t afford more Tianjin fireballs.
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).