China Cleans up Chemicals After Tianjin Blast Amid Calls For Compensation

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Bulldozers clear off wreckage created by the deadly explosions in Binhai New Area in Tianjin, China,  August 17, 2015.
Bulldozers clear off wreckage created by the deadly explosions in Binhai New Area in Tianjin, China, August 17, 2015.

Residents of the northern Chinese city of Tianjin made homeless by last week's massive blasts at a container port warehouse demanded compensation from the government for damage, while online activists hit out at the lack of transparency around the disaster and its aftermath.

Official media reported that the death toll from the two blasts last on Wednesday rose to 114 on Monday, with more than 70 still missing.

The blasts, which registered on earthquake monitors, send a massive fireball blooming skywards and damaged property up to two miles from the epicenter of the explosions, which came after fire and rescue teams struggled to control a fire that was spreading rapidly through a warehouse storing dangerous chemicals.

Some 6,000 people have been evacuated from homes and businesses within a three-kilometer (two mile) radius of the disaster site, where specialized chemical teams are scrambling to clear up the the site, where around 700 tons of the deadly chemical sodium cyanide were stored.

Tianjin deputy mayor He Shushan said that those responsible would be held to account but didn't touch on the issue of compensation for the damage to homes, health and livelihoods.

"We believe that the investigation team can determine the cause of the accident, in short order determine and firmly punish violations of law, and in this way ... give victims and the people a full explanation," He told a news conference on Monday.

He pledged that hazardous chemicals would be cleaned up within a two-mile radius of the blast by the end of Monday.

As he spoke, a crowd of around 200 people made homeless by the blast gathered outside the news conference venue, chanting "Human disaster! Human disaster! Give us back our homes!"

Compensation demands

A protester surnamed Wu said they wanted officials to come out and speak to them about compensation, while a protester surnamed Li said they were hoping to gain more media attention for their campaign.

"We want the government to clarify how it is going to pay this compensation," Li said. "We want the government to take a very clear stance on this."

"As well as payouts, they should make sure everyone has peace of mind ... like continuing healthcare," he said. "We won't give up on this."

China's top prosecutor, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, announced a criminal investigation into the blasts, following calls by the country's highest-ranking leaders for "profound lessons" to be drawn from the explosion.

But local people remain skeptical that they are being given accurate information, and most blame the government for the disaster, in a country which is no stranger to fatal industrial accidents.

Home-owners in Tianjin have been calling on the government to compensate them for damage to their property in the days since the blast.

A home-owner surnamed Wang from the port district told RFA: "There is no way we can live [in our home] now. We have two apartments there, and we can't stay in either of them."

He said the government should bear the burden of responsibility for the disaster.

"The company should bear some responsibility, yes, but that's not the most important thing here," he said.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has ordered official media and online news sites to stick closely to officially approved copy when reporting on the Tianjin explosions and aftermath.

Tweets on social media about the blasts are rapidly deleted, and the country's Internet regulator has shut down hundreds of social media accounts deemed to be "spreading rumors."

Tianjin police jailed a netizen surnamed Kang for alleged "rumor-mongering" for five days after they tweeted that the death toll in the blast was 1,300, while a netizen surnamed Cao was placed in administrative detention for 10 days for tweeting that there were "no signs of life" within a one kilometer radius of the blast, according to the official @pingantianjin account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.

But Beijing-based netizen Xiang Li said the rumors are a direct result of a lack of transparency from the government.

"They aren't putting out any reports, so of course the rumors are going to start flying around," Xiang said. "The basis on which we should address the rumors should be one of pursuing the government over why there is this lack of transparency."

"At the news conferences, people ask the officials lots of questions, but they just say they don't know," Xiang said.

"They don't know who is organizing the relief effort; they don't know how many people died; they don't know who owns that company. They don't know anything."

Workers still missing

Meanwhile, relatives of those still missing are struggling to locate them, in the absence of detailed information from the government.

The sister of one of the missing said her brother Zhang Shiqiang was working as a container truck driver in Tianjin port on the day of the blast, and had been sleeping in a dormitory near the blast site at the time.

"He was pretty close, maybe 50 meters away [from the blast]," she said.

"He drove container trucks, and he slept in the company dormitories at night, which are right opposite the blast site," she said. "He worked and lived alongside 10 other colleagues, but he is the only one who is unaccounted for."

"When the firefighters were pulled back to 500 meters away ... he sent out a video to his circle of WeChat friends," she said. "We haven't heard from him since ... we are afraid that he didn't run away."

Some workers have returned to work outside the two kilometre radius zone, but fears remain about how safe conditions are, workers told RFA.

"There are several factories that have gone back to work in the vicinity, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect us to work here any more," an employee at a factory in Tianjin said.

"The blast was just two kilometres away from here, and they are making us go back to work a week later," he said. "The windows and glass doors are all shattered."

He said the factory had also implemented tight controls on workers' communications with the outside world.

"The controls are pretty tight," he said. "You can't take your cell phone into the factory, and you're not allowed to take photos."

"Anyone found taking photos will lose their job."

Reported by Yang Fan and Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service.





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