17 Aug 2015

China: has there been an official cover-up?

The chief engineer of the Tianjin Environment Protection Bureau, Bao Jingling, says there’s no problem with air pollution after last week’s massive chemical explosion. Luckily the wind is blowing out to sea.

But does anyone believe him? In China they’re calling government information around the disaster the “Pinnochio version of events”. The assumption in China these days is that officials lie and cover up whenever there’s an environmental catastrophe.

Earlier, the Tianjin police department said the danger to the public was “extremely small”. The most popular comment on the post said it was a lie. Another response was: “Bulls***. Everyone in the area can smell it.”

Official records systematically under-estimate air pollution in Beijing by minimising the number of days when it’s acute and downgrading the levels of pollutants in the air. The Tianjin explosion is even worse: residents seem to have been unaware that they were living within a kilometre of a company that imported and exported a million tonnes of dangerous chemicals every year, storing sodium cyanide in the same compound as flammable liquids and compressed gas.

“We don’t know if there will be further leaks in the future. We don’t know anything,” said one of a hundred or so protestors who gathered in front of a hotel where officials were holding a press conference. Chinese journalists have asked the obvious questions: what exactly was being stored? Did government officials know? What are the laws covering the storage of such hazardous materials? The response has been “We will check.” No-one knows, it seems, or if they do, they’re not prepared to say.

Such lack of information contrasts with the government’s extreme efficiency in locking up journalists and activists saying things they don’t like on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

“You squirrel yourself away and quietly make a post to Weibo, and a few minutes later they know it was you who did it,” wrote journalist Jia Jia. “But days after the explosions, they still don’t know just what on earth Ruihai International Logistics had in their warehouse. Does that sound plausible?”

One reason is the close, often nepotistic and corrupt links between businesspeople and local officials. The chairman of Ruihai Logistics, Li Liang, who is reported to have been arrested, is said by foreign-based Chinese journalists to be the nephew of Li Ruihuan, a retired member of China’s Politburo. The company promises “excellent service, high efficiency, large-scale development,” and boasts about safety inspections but it looks like window dressing. There have been five large explosions at chemical factories in Chinese cities since April and as yet no major enquiry into the safety culture in country.

Yesterday China’s premier, Li Keqiang, visited the site – he waited until the air cleared, said cynics, comparing his slowness to get to Tianjin with his speedy arrival at other disasters.

“We have to assure the public, not only by words but with facts and statistics,” he said. Trouble is, no-one believes the Chinese Communist Party’s facts and statistics and the handling of this deadly incident has done nothing to change that.

Jia Jia berates the online community mourning the dead with emojis of candles rather than asking hard questions. “If we don’t ask why, these incidents will keep happening, one after another,” he said.

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