What Tianjin disaster tells us about HK’s future

August 20, 2015 11:23
People pay tribute to the firefighters who died in the Tianjin explosions at a ceremony in Binhai new district on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Five days after the massive explosions in Tianjin that shocked the world, Premier Li Keqiang finally showed up at the disaster site.

However, Tianjin’s top local party leaders, the mayor, the police commissioner, health officials and the transport bureau chief, who are supposed to be in charge of the rescue mission, are nowhere to be found.

No wonder officials could not answer the reporters’ questions at a press conference after the blasts and had to wrap it up hastily.

The official death toll has risen from the initial 56 to the latest 114, with 95 people still missing, among whom 85 were firefighters. As we all know, official figures on the mainland are never reliable, and a hundred times more people could actually have perished in the accident.

Website hk.aboluowang.com quoted experts as saying that the power of the blasts was equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT explosives, turning the area within a 200-meter radius of the explosion site into complete rubble, and as many as 2,000 households could have perished in the disaster.

Worse still, an estimated 700 tons of highly toxic sodium cyanide could have been released into the air during and after the explosions, posing an enormous threat to the health of citizens.

Most people just took what the officials said about the accident with a grain of salt because they all know the Communist Party has been notorious for playing down disasters and covering up the truth, and we may never find out the exact number of people who were killed in the explosions and the true implications of the resulting toxic contamination.

In Mainland China, disasters have become so frequent and common that people have already got used to them.

Before the Tianjin explosions grabbed international headlines, several similar incidents had already taken place in Liaoning, Zhejiang and Qingdao, let alone the recent sinkhole collapse that had continued for two consecutive days in Dongguan, only that these incidents didn’t draw as much media attention.

The deadly accidents that took place one after another on the mainland have their roots in the rigid bureaucratic practices of party officials and the corrupt and unchecked autocratic capitalism prevailing in the country.

The system that is governing China at the moment is neither a socialist-planned economy nor market-oriented capitalism, but rather a malformed hybrid of both, with absolute power firmly in the hands of high-ranking party officials and newly emerging business tycoons.

Let’s take the latest explosions in Tianjin for example.

The warehouse complex at the center of the blasts is owned by Rui Hai International Logistics, which is 55 percent owned by Li Liang, the son of Li Rui-hai, brother of former Politburo Standing Committee member Li Ruihuan.

Shu Zheng, who holds 45 percent of the company, is obviously just a proxy.

It is without question that the powerful Li family actually owns the company and controls its operation, which explains why the authorities still allowed the company to build a massive warehouse complex for the storage of a huge amount of dangerous chemicals despite the fact that the area surrounding it had already been allocated for housing.

Rui Hai Logistics must have lied about the actual type and amount of chemicals stored in the site, as even soldiers from the People's Liberation Army anti-chemical weapons unit who were ordered to clean up the area had no idea about the exact amount of chemicals in storage.

The first batch of firefighters who entered "ground zero", most of whom were probably killed, clearly had no idea of what kind of chemicals they were dealing with. As they tried to put out the fire with water, the situation got worse.

Premier Li Keqiang pledged he would definitely hold Rui Hai Logistics and other local officials accountable for violations of the law and negligence which caused the explosions, and would conduct an inquiry to follow all the facts wherever they lead.

The truth, unfortunately, is that without the support of the military and the so-called “Second Red Generation”, Li Keqiang has been fighting an uphill battle in the power struggle against President Xi Jinping, and there are signs that he has already been pushed to the sidelines at the top levels.

Obviously, there is not much he can do apart from taking responsibility for cleaning up the mess in the aftermath of the disaster.

On the surface, the people of Hong Kong seem indifferent to what happened in Tianjin, but in fact they are watching closely, because under the rule of Leung Chun-ying, the difference and boundary between Hong Kong and the mainland have become increasingly blurred, and it’s just a matter of time before Hong Kong becomes just another Chinese city where the communist style of governance prevails.

What happens on the mainland today may take place in Hong Kong tomorrow, and compared with the Tianjin blasts that killed hundreds or perhaps thousands, the recent lead contamination scandal in Hong Kong is just nickel-and-dime.

Unless the people of Hong Kong pull themselves together and rise against the communist regime under Leung Chun-ying and stem the tide of “mainlandization”, our future is definitely doomed.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 19.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist