14 November 2019
"Ground zero" of the Tianjin blasts. Residential blocks and other public buildings, severely damaged, are merely a street away. Photo: EPA
"Ground zero" of the Tianjin blasts. Residential blocks and other public buildings, severely damaged, are merely a street away. Photo: EPA

The Tianjin blasts and CY Leung’s role as city planning advisor

I mentioned in my column last week that, under a corrupt political and business environment, mainland enterprises will have to curry favor with those in high places.

Sometimes these firms are run by well-connected, nepotistic people themselves, making these entities particularly prone to safety accidents that often result in the loss of lives as seen in the past. 

Days later came the deadly blasts in Tianjin — a key port and industrial powerhouse in northern China — that have claimed more than 114 lives as of Monday, according to official briefings.

The tragedy has dominated the public and media discourse so much so that the party propaganda and ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and China’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War, which Beijing has been preparing for years, appear to have been sidelined.

Beijing wants to project the image that it is ruling by the law yet what we see in the tragedy is the abject disregard of the law.

We see a regime that rushes to bury the truth and bars the public from speculating on the collusions between the government and those that should be held responsible for the tragedy.

Warehouses operated by Ruihai (瑞海) Logistics Co., Ltd. for the storage of excessive amounts of dangerous chemical compounds were the “ground zero” of the catastrophic explosions.

Some mainland media have hinted that Zhi Feng (只峰), the firm’s general manager, could be the son of Zhi Shenghua (只昇華), a deputy mayor of Tianjin who oversees the city’s industrial safety and fire services.

The real owner of Ruihai is also rumored to be a nephew of the party patriarch Li Ruihuan (李瑞環), a former standing member of the Politburo and chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Li, who once served as the party secretary of Tianjin, became a member of China’s top leadership after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

Unsurprisingly, all this information circulating on mainland social media platforms was soon erased by party censors.

Here in Hong Kong, shortly after the blasts, some netizens have dug up news reports on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s visit to Tianjin in March 2013.

While touring the city’s Planning Exhibition Hall, Leung was quoted as saying that Hong Kong needed to “model on” Tianjin’s rich experience, particularly in long-term city planning and land use.

Leung also noted that as early as 1993, he had been invited as a senior urban planning advisor to the Tianjin municipal government.

Now the tragedy has laid bare an ugly, unforgivable truth.

China promulgated relevant planning laws in 2001, which stipulate that the location of warehousing facilities for inflammable or dangerous chemical goods must be far away from residential areas and within the downwind range of the prevailing wind direction as well as the downstream regions of main rivers.

Such facilities should also have a minimum safety clearance of 1,000 meters from nearby buildings, roads and manufacturing facilities.

There were several dense residential quarters within the 1,000-meter range of the blasts, including one estate developed by Vanke (02202.HK, 000002.CN) housing over 2,000 residents, which was just 600 meters away from the warehouse.

Vanke bought the plot in 2010 and Ruihai was established the following year. There was also a major elevated motorway in the vicinity.

Now we know that safety laws and regulations have been reduced to mere pieces of paper in Tianjin’s case.

It is a clear example of nonfeasance in city planning and land use and Tianjin can hardly be a standalone case in this regard.

Such negligence can be seen virtually anywhere in the country. The endless mass protests against p-Xylene plants or oil refinery facilities have everything to do with such improper planning and land use.

The Tianjin blasts beg these questions:

1. Why does the more advanced Hong Kong, a model in modern land planning, need to learn from the mainland?

2. What exactly have we learnt from Tianjin and other mainland cities? Are there any related projects or programs being implemented locally?

3. Why did Tianjin officials make a colossal blunder in land planning when Leung has been advising them on such matters since 1993? What advice did Leung give them?

Leung is well-educated in the field of city planning and land use, having majored in land surveying when he studied in the United Kingdom, and he had a fairly good track record in the sector.

So the only likely reason is that once you become a Beijing loyalist, you may have to sacrifice your professional conduct and ethics in order to stay obedient and politically correct.

We have seen similar things happening among other local professionals and intellectuals.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 17.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A file photo showing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying touring Tianjin’s City Planning Exhibition Hall in 2013. Photo: Tianjin Forum

A grief-stricken resident carries his belongings after authorities declared a three-kilometer evacuation zone. Photo: Beijing Times

A residential estate developed by Vanke near the scene of the explosions. Photo: Beijing Times

A light rail station was shut down after sustaining serious damage from the blasts. Photo:

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (fourth from left) paid a visit to Tianjin days after the tragedy happened. Photo: Xinhua

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal