Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Tianjin Disaster

The comments in the following article talk about how the huge explosion in Tianjin are similar to a disaster that happened in Texas in the 1940's. So, while China is becoming a world power it does not have the same knowledge as a developed country. Aivars Lode

THE TIANJIN DISASTER...a friend just back from China offers a very insightful "intro" to the more specific remarks of Our Man in Beijing, Robert Blohm, arguing that the explosion is a metaphor for all that's wrong about CCP rule. 



The main take-away for me about PRC (and that you don't understand until you've been): it's a developing country with the military and foreign policy ambitions of a far more developed country. 

There's such tremendous insecurity at every governmental level about social unrest and dislocation. It is hard to imagine a country with this level of potential social trauma being a true global power. 

Yet, at the same time, the scale at which they operate (the port of Dalian defies description- I've never seen anything so massive) makes it impossible to ignore them no matter how internally dysfunctional. 

They have Third World safety standards and you can't drink the water- but their Navy can talk seriously about deploying to the Mediterranean. It just doesn't all add up. 

It is hard for me to think they can continue on their current course without real internal instability in the coming years- there are just too many social problems and no constructive way (i.e. rule of law) to manage those tensions.

Speaking of the explosion- in the Beijing airport I grabbed an International NYT. They had removed three different pages from the paper that mentioned the explosion. Again, how can something like that be sustainable in the internet age? I think they're just trying to put a lid on a powder keg and the only question is when the lid gets blown off.

ROBERT BLOHM, on the explosion itself, and on the theme just noted:
In answer to your query about political impact, and to make the worst case for the Party, I reckon China's Tianjin "Texas City"-scale disaster is unique: it can't be attributed to operator error or an act of nature.  It's due to dysfunctional governance-a "no go" area of public inquiry in the infallible Party State.  
     Current obsessive deployment of governing resources to spirituality in the form of thought-control, ideological rectification, cultural nationalism and Party-protection, in corresponding neglect of practical governance affecting day-to-day social and economic well-being (safety, legal, and IP protection), had a parallel in that earthshaking year of 1976.  The absence of immediate relief effort by the Cultural-Revolutionist Gang-of-Four following the July 1976 Tangshan earthquake turfed them out 2 months later, a month after Mao died, and ultimately brought Hu Yaobang, the hero of albeit-belated earthquake relief, to power and brought us Tiananmen triggered by his 1989 death. 
     This is a man-made disaster of the scale of a natural disaster, including being of wide area, besides the 2 fireball explosions' being measured on the Richter scale at 2.6 and 2.9 respectively, one of China's worst-ever industrial calamities.  And it happened in the spotlight of the most prominent, affluent of places.  Think of how this spreads, like wildfire nationwide, concern by those living near hazardous facilities.  It points to shabby governance, even criminal negligence, not just operationally but also in planning because of its wide-area footprint.  
     The culprit company is rumored to have ownership by officials, with ownership records of all locally registered companies suddenly unavailable after the accident but recently made available with the company's data appearing to be doctored with "disguise" owners.  Officials only belatedly acknowledged the storage of many tens of times the legal maximum amount of instant-death-when-moistened sodium cyanide that had been unofficially reported only hours after the accident and reported to be 70 times the legal maximum amount.  The company is rumored to be a big-time hazardous materials smuggler.  
     The elderly deterministic engineering mindset at the top of the Party is very hard pressed to understand probabilities, risk, and contingency planning.  Officials, even the military, still don't have a handle on what's there, and people can't go home.  Greenpeace has called for a wider no-go perimeter.  The scene is reminiscent of 9/11, without the dust, but with some sodium cyanide now confirmed to have polluted.  Recovery and decontamination are beginning to look like a Fukushima, at least short-term.  
     Forget about non-existent contingency planning or timely post-accident safety information. Why were so many people living so close?  Public infrastructure (a subway station) and residential high-rises (some erected by the country's top developer) are within a one-kilometer radius of the warehouse contrary to regulations, and apartments had their front room interiors and windows all blown out, with consequent human injury.  How did planners let that happen?  They evidently let slip through only recently hazmat warehousing in the area after everything else had already been located there, including one of China's two supercomputers and even public security offices, on the basis of no registered/licensed hazmat storage nearby.  There's compensation hell to pay.  
     Then the non-specific concerns about the area expressed by the local government just weeks before about summer heat, rain, toxicity, and pollution dangers.  Then the Keystone Cops sent the fire department (wet-behind-the-ears contract firefighters employed by the port operator, instead of the public fire department run by the paramilitary People's Armed Police that was only belatedly called in), clueless enough about chemicals or which kind were on fire to hose them before the explosion that was likely triggered by flammable gas catalyzed by the water and magnified by, say, enough (kiloton scale?) containerized ammonium nitrate (the bread-&-butter of explosives) to wipe out the local police contingent and fire brigades on the scene.  
Only when they called in the military who are the exclusive possessors of what needs to be known in China, did they have the wisdom to let the fires burn on, and they're still hoping it doesn't rain.  In this case it's the military's draconian anti-chemical-warfare unit that's been called in because secrecy-obsessiveness appears to deem hazmat control too strategic to be a civilian competence.  
     Chinese citizens are increasingly-demanding consumers who rock not only the boat, but also police cars.  So information control kicked in to make sure the military remain the sole possessors of what needs to be known.  No critical internet postings allowed.  Nevertheless, on the first day, views on Weibo were more numerous than the country's population.  Censorship was more than ten times the normal rate.  Hundreds of local reporters quickly at the scene were kept out of the papers and off the air, with no continuous real-time TV coverage that we would expect, because that would just make citizens more demanding, especially of an immediate explanation.  Meanwhile the paramilitary police have been cleaning up the blown-out apartments, leaving angry residents no photo opportunities to post online.
     Chinese officials' instinct after these incidents is first a long pause to get together to cover butt by getting alibis straight.  For the first day immediately following the blast only 10-minutes of anodyne news reporting at top of the hourly news by CCTV nowhere near the immediate scene of anything interesting, plus prime-time for written statements by top officials as clueless as the viewers, foremost His Serene Countenance, Chairman Xi, telling the children to go back to bed and everything will be fine because he'll root out the cause and fix it by drawing officials' attention to safety.  Local officials in days immediately following abruptly ended press conferences when unexpectedly overwhelmed by fundamental questions they couldn't answer.  As usual it took the customary visit by the cavalry, commanded by Premier Li himself, several days later to ad-hoc top-down organize the local government for action with still no single central government agency in charge.  
     The ease and absurdity of this disaster was symbolized by the post-Olympic $200 million loss in 2009 of the Millenium Hotel adjoining the new CCTV building in Beijing, both in the final stages of construction, when a single lame-brained CCTV CEO decided to hold and televise an illegal Chinese-New-Year-closing Lantern-Festival fireworks  extravaganza right above the Millenium Hotel through whose open top a few sparks could fly in and ignite the bags of flammable insulation that lined the walls on each floor waiting to be installed.  That's gang-who-can't-shoot-straight management.  
     Tianjin is much worse, and won't be leaving the radar any time soon, especially with the TV propaganda time now being given the relief effort and focused ever increasingly on hazmat detection and cleanup to allay rising public concern.  President Obama sent immediate condolences to China, not normally done after your one-off industrial accident, because we must have immediately grasped the severity. 
     The 1947 Texas City disaster, consisting of the explosion of 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate (likely in containerized abundance in Tianjin), was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and one of the largest ever non-nuclear explosions (a sixth of Hiroshima).  It triggered the first ever class-action lawsuit against the US Government.  After the Supreme Court affirmed an appeals court reversal of an award by the district court, relief was granted by Congressional legislation that paid claims altogether amounting to nearly $200 million in today's dollars.

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