The Future Cities project

against technical solutions to political problems

Tianjin in perspective

explosionby Austin Williams | 19 August 2015

Disasters on the scale of (this) tragic explosion … tend to provoke a brief wave of statements that such things must never happen again. With the passage of time these sentiments are diluted into bland reports about human error and everything being well under control… (but), there is a real chance that the death toll could trigger meaningful changes in a neglected aspect of industrial safety.

Such was the New Scientist’s comment about the Flixborough disaster in 1974 when flammable hydrocarbons ignited at a chemical plant near Scunthorpe killing 28 people and seriously injured 36. On that day, nearly 90 percent of the industrial workers on site were killed or maimed.

Forty years later and, at the time of writing, the death toll from the explosion that ripped through the north-eastern Chinese port of Tianjin has risen to 114. Much is unknown about the actual causes, but it is undoubtedly an accident. With many Chinese families affected – either by broken windows, destroyed property or loss of life of loved ones – there is an understandable clamour for information, clarity, honesty and retribution.

It was a coincidence that one year on from the Flixborough disaster, the UK government launched the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 that is still in force today covering arrangements “ensuring safe means of handling, use, storage and transport of articles and substances”. In China, within four days of the disaster, Premier Li Keqiang ordered a nationwide overhaul of work safety focusing on dangerous chemicals and inflammable materials. Whether this is a smokescreen or a genuine response to the problem remains to be seen, but Tianjin is definitely a wake-up call to government, officials and businesses that modern economy requires modern standards of behaviour, regulation and transparency.

Tianjin Binhai New Area development zone is around 90km away from the city of Tianjin. The city is home to 7.5 million people (although it needs to be said that cities are not cities in the way we know them in the west; they are administrative zones rather than urbanised agglomerations, and can often include huge areas of agricultural land). However, Tianjin is an important city that is within a zone of rapid growth for industrial – as well as being well-known for China’s sole significant prototype Eco-City.

The Bohai Economic Rim extends from Beijing to the mouth of the Yellow River (taking in the Tianjin region), and includes heavy industry, as well as growing strengths in manufacturing, automobile, electronics, and petroleum sectors, together with shipping and aviation. This economic zone envelops 3 percent of the global population creating 25 percent of China’s total GDP, and 25 percent of its total financial resources. The import and export volume of Tianjin Port alone, is $85 billion and $80 billion respectively.

It is a well-worn cliche that China is compressing 40 years of history into ten, so in some senses it is hardly surprising that a scaled up version of industrial disasters from 40 years ago in the West should occasionally arise in China. This is not to treat the Tianjin tragedy flippantly, nor to say that China ought not have mitigated the problems that undoubtedly gave rise to the explosion by learning from historical mistakes elsewhere, but hopefully now they will. Similarly, the scale of the disaster reflects the scale of operations unimaginable in the West.

Tragedies are always newsworthy, but there is something unhealthy about the way that media appears to be picking through the charred remains of cars and homes, visiting the shocked and injured and speculating on the potential, hidden sulphurous dangers still lurking in the air. It might be fair game to a news journalist but, reading between the lines, there seems to be a moral rebuke underlying the empathy. Let’s look at a few issues:


Just as naive reporters were shocked to discover what the aftermath of a huge explosion looks like, so the scale of China’s industry and development is something that sometimes overwhelms Westerners. Such scale suggests that there is a greater likelihood of something tragic happening in China. Admittedly, when population size is taken into account, China’s workplace fatalities are still 20 times higher than the UK (9 per 100,000 workers compared to 0.45 per 100,000 in the UK) but this is statistical game-playing. In the construction industry, for example, until recently, Britain had the lowest numbers of housing being constructed since the War compared to China’s huge housing expansion. But also, British construction is bog-standard, brick-block, low-level safe stuff – not the record-breaking, challenging, innovative constructions that China is racing to erect.

Also, China is still a developing country in the process of metamorphosing migrant labourers into skilled contractors. The training required to construct the future is substandard, with a dearth of creative management and supervisory authority, let alone detailed knowledge at the level of construction operations. (Remember Ronan Point, anyone?) Similarly, regulatory standards of material production, safeguards and protection are very low, often due to poor official guidance (sometimes regulations are 2-3 decades or so behind the West) and even if it was up to speed, too many dodgy developers have no time or inclination to implement costly and time-consuming protective measures. This disaster will now concentrate minds at many levels.

But, it needs to be said that corruption – or rather, self-advancement and opaqueness – is a social necessity in China. It pays to be secretive in China for all kinds of contemporary and historical reasons and this mindset clearly leads to defensiveness and evasion. There is no social dynamism for most employees in China to take initiative or to remedy problems, when they are simply paid to do the job. Such bureaucratic thinking is evident across the world (remember local authority council staff in the UK in the 1960s and 70s, for whom the word “jobsworth” was invented?) Multiply that by a couple of million.

New solutions will arise in coming months, and such technical solutions like factory-applied steel protection, better transit routes, educated project management officials, meaningful regulatory standards, trained construction workers, blast protection, intelligent monitoring systems, etc, will help matters. However, even in an open society this is a slow process: but in China it will be more difficult to cut through the equal and opposite tendencies to protect secrecy. This is a social problem that is difficult to resolve in any coherent way given China’s hierarchical social structure and thus while technical and managerial solutions will undoubtedly be effective, they can only ever be piecemeal. protect tianjin

In this one-party state, the western media appear mesmerised by the growth of protests with family bursting into press conferences and official meetings to criticise the insufficient level of detail being revealed. Frustration occasionally boils over as fragments of news emerges about the dead and injured, some of whom may never be recovered. But ordinary Chinese people have a healthy disrespect for incompetent authority and revel in the rare opportunity to express it.

According to China Labour Bulletin – which tracks disputes in China – there are around 200 separate local protests every month in China, a fact that news reporters seem oblivious to, apparently assuming that Chinese people are completely under the dictat of the state. Not so. Protest and complaint are in rude health. The Chinese are not automatons and are unsurprisingly angry at the situation. However, the fact that some of these protests are demands for compensation is a common feature of Chinese protests, with around 120,000 so-called “mass incidents” every year arising from grievances over forced land acquisitions and the call for pay-offs. In most cases, the currency for settling grievances is money. Parallel demands for greater legal openness – with some families insisting that the authorities tell the truth and punish offenders – are gleefully reported in the west as a sign of Chinese discontent with their government; but actually this kind of demand usually reinforces the authority of the state to impose order on errant functionaries. Ironically, this way a stronger state lies. The balance between local and central government is a delicate one. The Global Times says: “making some efforts to respond to reporters should become routine if local governments encounter a major event in the future”. This is because “a single slow reaction can lead to rumors running riot. And in turn, public confidence in the government will continue to fall”. Openness will only be a pragmatic response to further preserve the authority of the party, after all and one of the earliest responses from the government’s Cyberspace Administration of China has been to shut down a number of websites for publishing “unverified information”.


Roving journalists and social media drones have pointed to the collateral damage around the site to imply a callous disregard for ordinary people by the state and local authorities. What kind of government would allow residential districts to be constructed so near a chemical plant, they seem to say. First of all, money-grabbing developers are as much to blame as local officials – all of whom are now clamouring for compensation for damage caused. But actually, it is important to note how few residents were hurt in Tianjin and how little significant structural damage was done to homes in the immediate and surrounding area. This indicates that the rule that no housing be built with 900 metres was not too bad and that construction standards that have been slowly improving over recent years, and ought now to improve more swiftly.

(As an aside, a 2008 report by the liberal Center for American Progress examined the risks to local residents living alongside chemical plants in America and concluded that the top 100-most dangerous facilities posed safety risks to about 80 million Americans). Clearly, if we build with disaster in mind, we’d lose sight of the fact that very few people have in fact ever been injured by chemical plants in the US; but we’d also have very few industries within cities, and lots of survivalist homes in the desert.

In James Palmer’s book “The Death of Mao”, the Chinese made great play of the cosmic significance of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake occurring as Chairman Mao lay dying. (For a sense of perspective, the Tangshan earthquake lasted 23 seconds and killed 300,000 people.) For many, this natural disaster was a symbolic juxtaposition between politics and everyday life: “The heavens crack and the earth shakes”. Nearly fifty years later, and many are already beginning to talk of the conjunction between the Tianjin explosion and China’s place in the world. Indeed, the Western media seem to revel – empathetically, of course – in this come-uppance approach to China’s rapid development. While China has many intelligent people who revel in Daoist fatalism, it is tragic when Western commentators who should know better, also start indulging it.

This event has been a tragic accident that will undoubtedly lead to industrial and manufacturing safeguards and regulatory standards being ramped up. There will be cover-ups and disappointment. The conspiracy theorists will have their paranoia reinforced and the Schadenfreuders may even relish a few figureheads being punished to excess. But we should remember that this is primarily a terrible human tragedy and hope that – just like Three-Mile Island, Seveso, Aberfan and others – valuable lessons are learned so that it never happens again in China’s necessary rush to catch up with the standards of western industrialization.

Austin Williams, associate professor of architecture, XJTLU university, Suzhou, PR China; director, Future Cities Project. Twitter: Future_Cities