China Jails Dissident Over Tianjin Blast Death Toll Retweet

2015-08-19
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Shen Liangqing, April 2010.
Photo courtesy of Shen Liangqing

Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui have jailed veteran activist and whistle-blower Shen Liangqing on public order charges after he retweeted a social media post about last week's devastating warehouse explosions in Tianjin, his relatives told RFA.

Former state-prosecutor-turned-whistle-blower Shen Liangqing, who wrote a book detailing abuses under the ruling Chinese Communist Party's internal disciplinary regime, was handed a nine-day administrative sentence by police in the provincial capital, Hefei.

"He went downstairs to buy groceries, and when he came back, I saw three police officers following him," Shen's son Shen Li said in an interview on Wednesday.

"He took out his cell phone and gave it to me, so they didn't confiscate it," he said. "Then they left."

He said police had told him his father was being detained on suspicion of "fabricating facts and disturbing public order."

"He called me [on Tuesday] and told me to bring him some clothes and other items to the Wuhu Road police station," Shen Li said. "When I went there, he gave me the administrative detention notice."

According to the notice, Shen Liangqing retweeted a post on a social media platform on Aug. 15, 2015 which said that at least 1,400 people had died in the Tianjin explosions, while more than 700 were still missing.

"This information was not accurate," the notice said.

Charges 'unfair'

Shen Li said the charges against his father, a former prosecutor at the Hefei municipal procuratorate, were unfair.

"I don't think it amounts to fabricating information if you are just retweeting something," Shen Li said.

"The reason the tweet was not accurate was a lack of openness and transparency on the part of the government," he added.

China's propaganda ministry has ordered the country's tightly controlled media outlets to stick to officially approved news stories, which put the death toll in Tianjin at 114.

Tweets and social media messages linked to the disaster initially gave a real-time glimpse of the two devastating explosions and their aftermath, but were later tracked down and deleted by China's Internet censors.

China's draconian Internet agency, the Cyberspace Administration, said it had suspended more than 360 social media accounts since the blasts rocked Tianjin.

Shen Li said if anyone was held responsible, it should be the original poster of the offending tweet.

"I don't think that retweeting on its own should be a crime," he said. "Rumors only emerge because the government is closed and secretive. If they were more transparent, they wouldn't circulate."

An officer who answered the phone at the Wuhu Road police station in Hefei declined to comment on Shen's case.

"I don't know about this," the officer said.

No intention to deceive

Tianjin-based lawyer Liu Jia said he didn't believe Shen had done anything wrong.

"The crucial point here is that there was no intention to deceive," Liu said. "If he retweeted it in good faith, then he shouldn't bear responsibility for it."

"It's not my responsibility to try to confirm whether other people's posts are fake or fact."

Meanwhile, investigators at the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) have announced a probe into "serious discipline violations" by the director of the State Administration of Work Safety Yang Dongliang, although it didn't mention any direct connection with the Tianjin blasts.

Yang, 61, worked in Tianjin for 18 years and became a vice mayor before taking office at the work safety agency in 2012.

Xie Tian, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina at Aiken, said Yang is likely being made to act as scapegoat so the government looks as if it is pursuing those responsible for the tragedy.

He said further environmental legislation won't help, either.

"China's laws are pretty empty because they aren't implemented," Xie said. "There is no judicial independence."

"That means that all a chemical company like that needs to start operating is the agreement of one [high-ranking] person, like the mayor or the municipal party secretary," he said.

"This is a very Chinese problem, and as long as the problems of the dictatorial system aren't addressed, more laws aren't going to be of much use."

Suspicious dealings

State media on Wednesday pointed to further suspicious dealings behind the blasts at the hazardous goods storage facility owned by Ruihai Logistics.

The owners of the company, including the son of a former municipal police chief, took steps to mask the fact that they held stakes in it, the official news agency Xinhua reported.

The agency said that Dong Shexuan, 34, owned 45 percent of Ruihai through a schoolmate so as to avoid the news of his stake "leaking."

He said he had used his connections in the police and fire departments to help the company obtain the necessary safety permits and pass inspections.

Local residents now fear the effects of toxic pollutants in the city's air and water, after officials said that around 700 tons of highly poisonous sodium cyanide were found at the site.

Tianjin Ruihai International Logistics had operated without a license for nine months until June, Xinhua said.

Chinese law requires hazardous storage facilities to be located at least 1,000 meters from public buildings, major roads, and residential units, but the Ruihai warehouse violated that rule, as there were a number of public and residential facilities within 650 meters of the site, official media reported.

Reported by Yang Fan and Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ka Pa and Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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