On Wednesday August 12th, 2005, an explosion ripped through the night sky in the Binhai New District of Tianjin, China. Thirty seconds later, another bigger explosion rocked the city. The blast originated in a chemical warehouse owned by Ruihai Logistics—a company that handles the disposal of hazardous wastes; over one hundred people died—including many first responders — and many more hundreds were wounded in two tremendous fireballs. One of the more dramatic videos of the explosion can be found on a YouTube video. In the aftermath of the explosion, authorities and the public have been searching for answers as to how and why the blast occurred and what can be done to prevent it in the future.
Two Initial Reactions
News of the blast in Tianjin spread like wildfire on China’s major social media apps — WeChat, Weibo, and QQ. As is often the case in contemporary China, these mediums spread the word before the government and media outlets could even react. Dozens of eyewitnesses took to social media to show others what had happened through pictures, videos and written accounts. Members of the blogosphere quickly took the local government authorities to task for their failure to recognize and respond to the deadly explosions. According to the Economist, questions grew online about how Ruihai Logistics managed to pass a safety inspection in September last year. Others pointed out that the amount of sodium cyanide — one of the major contributing chemicals in the blast — was far above the amount that the warehouse was permitted to keep. Cynics and realists quickly pointed out that government corruption was surely a contributing factor in the run-up to the explosion. In the early hours after the incident, the only reliable accounts of the blast could be found on Chinese social media.
The online reaction — as is common in China — was met with widespread censorship on the issue by the government. By now, the government’s response to tragedies like this have almost become routine: sweep under the carpet any information surrounding the event until the story can be given a new spin that portrays events in a more favorable light. However, Chinese social media has proven to be a formidable tool for keeping the government in line; the secrets eventually find their way to the light and both cynics and realists are proven correct. According to a report by NPR, the warehouse owner was the son of a former police chief for the Tianjin port - quite close to where the warehouse was located. And how was this information received by the Chinese public? Neither anger nor outrage, but by submissive resignation of the fact that China will seemingly never change. Many of China's recent disasters have been caused by some collusion between businessmen and the government. It's not a revolutionary concept, just a fact of Chinese life.
For this reason the Chinese government wanted to censor social media accounts related to the blast. These types of disasters entail a backlash. Events like the Wenzhou train derailment in 2011 will provide a formula for the reaction to the Tianjin blast — censorship, moral hand-wringing and the promise to 'get to the bottom of this' by high-level government officials, then the sacrificing of various government employees, and finally a long-delayed report which may or may not lead to more official sacrifices. Unfortunately for the Chinese, this song and dance has become all too familiar.
The Tianjin explosion will cause major losses to Chinese insurers. According to Fitch Ratings, the estimated payout for the explosions will be upwards of $1.5 billion. This will fall squarely on the shoulders of major Chinese insurers like Ping ‘an Property Insurance, PICC Property and Casualty Insurance and China Pacific Property Insurance, among others. The losses these insurers will face can be mitigated, but the impact on domestic insurance agencies is likely to be huge.
Other than the insurers, several world famous companies will face dramatic consequences from the fallout. According to an article by China Daily, car companies like Jaguar Land Rover, Hyundai, BMW, Volkswagen and Toyota have suffered a major loss of inventory. Jaguar Land Rover said that almost 6,000 of their vehicles are estimated to have been destroyed by the blast. The total loss for these automakers is estimated to be a combined 2 billion yuan ($312.5 million).
Since many dangerous chemicals were stored in the Ruihai warehouse, the environmental concerns are now legion. There have been reports of mysterious white rain and high-profile millionaire volunteer Chen Guangbiao was treated at a Tianjin hospital for moderate poisoning after helping clean the blast site. According to the Guardian, there were up to 700 tons of sodium cyanide, 800 tons of ammonium nitrate and 500 tons of potassium nitrate, along with over 40 different types of other chemicals present within the blast radius. According to CNBC, over 200 chemical and nuclear scientists and engineers have traveled to Tianjin to assess the environmental impact of the deadly explosion. Figuring out if the blast site still contains combustible material is proving to be a massive challenge for the government and the on-site experts.
The environmental concern has brought scrutiny from international NGOs as well. Greenpeace has taken this opportunity to highlight the numerous other chemical explosions that have occurred in China this year. They criticize China's lax environmental enforcement, not just in Tianjin but around the country. China is not well known for particularly blue skies so, it is reasonable to assume that environmental activities will continue step up their pressure on the Chinese government after this explosion.
Air pollution is a constant worry in modern China and the blast is already having adverse effects on the Tianjin air quality. According to the China Daily, 12 temporary air monitoring stations around the site have detected high levels of the toxic chemical toluene, which is often used as a solvent. Also, concerns about air pollution have gripped Beijing, which is only 150 km north of Tianjin. Officials have claimed that the prevailing wind would push any toxic air into the Bohai Sea to the east of Tianjin, towards the Korean peninsula. Yet the Beijing officials have a very strong incentive to make sure this is the case: the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships are currently taking place (August 22nd to August 30th) in the capital. According to Xinhua News, Beijing has strengthened checks on businesses that handle or buy and sell harmful chemicals including gas stations, oil warehouses and even fireworks manufacturers. Beijing's report may be correct. The American embassy — considered a far more reliable source for air pollution notifications — has also declared the air quality in the capital “good”. Just as during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese government has, quite literally, cleaned up its act to put on a good face to the world. While the explosion in Tianjin did cause a scare for athletes in Beijing, the Chinese infrastructure remains in place to ensure the IAAF World Championships continue unimpeded.
The families of the victims now face an uphill battle in trying to find out what happened to their loved ones, and who is to hold accountable. Between the dangerous nature of the rescue and cleanup work and the necessary censoring and political scrubbing, it is doubtful that authorities will have answers anytime soon. According to Xinhua, 44 people are still missing and presumed dead. The families of the victims and survivors will have to wait in agonizing limbo until official reports finally make their way to the public.