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China work safety watchdog director under investigation after Tianjin blast

18 August 2015

On August 17 the current director of the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) – the country’s work safety watchdog – was put under investigation. Yang Dongliang, who was vice-mayor of Tianjin between 2009 and 2012, is suspected of “serious violations of discipline and law”, according to a statement published on the government’s anti-corruption website. 

China State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) Director Yang Dongliang
China State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) Director Yang Dongliang

This comes a week after the series of explosions which destroyed a large section of the port area of the city and killed over a hundred people. Dongliang was a major figure in Tianjin's politics for 18 years and the timing of the investigation suggests official suspicion at some of his past activities in the city, although no specific accusations have been made as yet.

The latest official death toll from the August 12 incident is 114, with 70 others – mainly firefighters –still unaccounted for. More than 700 were injured and hundreds of homes destroyed in the vicinity of the explosion epicentre, the Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics warehouse, which was storing a range of hazardous chemicals.

According to state media reports, Rui Hai company president Yu Xuewei and vice-chairman Dong Shexuan were put “under control” on the afternoon after the blasts. Local news outlet Caijing said that four of the Rui Hai workers are in hospital and six others are at Tianjin No 1 Detention Centre.

China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported that the warehouse had only received a licence to handle hazardous chemicals two months before the disaster, but had been storing and transhipping dangerous materials without a licence between October 2014 and June 2015.

Niu Yuegang, deputy director at Tianjin’s fire department, confirmed that over 40 different types of chemicals have now been discovered at the blast site, including 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide, 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate and 500 tonnes of potassium nitrate, according to local reports.

Tianjin’s vice-mayor He Shushan said that sodium cyanide had been found as far as one kilometre  from the blast site. This news came as rain fell on the site for the first time, raising fears that it might set off more chemical reactions, potentially creating toxic gas and endangering local residents and rescuers.

Military cleanup teams are attempting to remove the toxic chemicals but are being hampered by unstable collapsed structures, smouldering fires and toxic fumes.

Communist party officials have insisted there will be no cover-up as anger has grown in the local population over the disaster.

The families of dead and missing firefighters – including low-paid contract firemen as young as 17 – have staged a number of protests demanding more information from the authorities, while those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed have called for compensation in a series of  demonstrations.

Even China’s state-run media has criticised the government’s lack of openness. “Tianjin is not an exceptional case in terms of the inadequate disaster response work,” the Global Times said in an editorial that called for greater transparency.

Questions about how the blasts occurred are still being asked, with the state council – the country’s highest state administrative body – setting up an investigation team to look into the cause of the explosions.

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