The deadly blasts that killed 114 people here also put a deep dent in the compact between China’s government and its middle class.
The hundreds of millions of Chinese who have ridden the country’s breakneck growth into comfortable middle-class lives have traditionally shied away from direct challenges to the Communist Party, accepting little say in the government’s workings as long as their living standards continued to improve.
But the blasts at a dockside warehouse hit directly at owners of high-rise homes, dashing the perception held among many upwardly mobile Chinese that they were exempt from the ill effects of runaway growth.
“On the surface, your life is no different from a middle-class person in a normal country,” said an anonymous author of an essay that has drawn nearly 32,000 views since it was posted online Monday. “But after the blast, homeowners [in Tianjin] are finding that they are the same as those petitioners they looked down on.”
In Tianjin, entrepreneur Yan Hongmei did something she had never imagined: She joined a protest.
Like many others in her generation, Ms. Yan, 28 years old, had tread a steady path toward a middle-class, urban dream. With only a high-school education, she moved to Tianjin from a rural part of Jilin province, saving up from odd jobs to open a cafe. Last year, she borrowed from friends and the bank to buy a seaside apartment for 1.8 million yuan, or about $282,000.
After the explosions wrecked her home and badly wounded her mother, Ms. Yan took to the streets to press Tianjin officials to accept responsibility and make amends for the damage.
“Never once had I thought I would go onto the streets, hold banners in protest,” said Ms. Yan, who lived in an eighth-floor apartment just under a mile from the Tianjin blast site. “We’ve seen these things on television, but they’ve always seemed so distant from us.”
It’s hard to overstate the transformation of the Chinese landscape in the past three decades. A country that was two-thirds rural two decades ago now has more than 130 cities with more than 1 million people each, compared with just 19 in 1978, according to data provider CEIC.
The increase in an urban population that now numbers 749 million has run parallel to a surge in industry. China last year churned out about eight times the crude steel and 18 times the cars and trucks it did two decades ago. The drawbacks of the growth have also multiplied: In a decade, China’s production of solid waste tripled, to 3.3 billion tons in 2013, CEIC says.
The result: environment despoliation and haphazard urban planning that has forced China’s new urbanites and its polluting industries closer and closer to each other, in several cases with disastrous results.
“Every accident gives people another reason to emigrate,” said one social media user. “People enjoy a rich material life, delicious food, beautiful scenery and feel like they are the same as other developed countries, or even better, when there is no accident. But once something bad happens, the deception and carelessness of the ruling party is exposed.”
Chinese leaders have declared “war” on pollution, pledging to clean up China’s environment. But under President Xi Jinping, a tightening grip on social media and civil society has closed down many of the less confrontational channels the middle class had traditionally used to express concern.
Earlier this year, a documentary on China’s environmental meltdown that laid out the health effects of rising pollution quickly racked up 200 million hits. The film, by former TV anchor Chai Jing, was even praised by China’s environment minister. But less than a week later, as its viewership spread, it was blocked. Government officials declined to comment on the censorship of the video at the time.
To many environmental activists, the episode illustrated the difficulty in getting independent voices on pollution and environmental hazards heard in China.
In the past, some street protests have been successful: Plans for a “showcase” nuclear-fuel-processing and equipment-manufacturing center in southern China were canceled in 2013, a day after demonstrators filled the streets to oppose it.
Gradually such tactics have won over more members of China’s middle class who are worried about the environment.
Luo Jianming, a 38-year-old who runs a recycling group in Guangzhou, was an office worker in 2009 when he learned of plans for a trash incinerator near his home. Worried about the potential toxic effects, he joined hundreds in protesting. The incinerator was eventually located somewhere else.
The Tianjin incident, he said, was extremely sobering, and likely to make more people reflect on the importance of environmental safeguards. “We can’t as a society continue this way,” he said. “We’ve developed too fast.”
Others say that the best way to prompt change is to create transparency.
As a manager in the steel industry, Ying Wenxiang, 29, traveled from mill to mill, seeing towns that “were full of dust and gray.” The Zhejiang province native left his steel job to start a company making affordable air-quality monitors and purifiers and is creating a mobile app of air quality in public places around Beijing.
“If people know what’s in the air and the water and the food, then the government will have to make changes,” he said.
Zhuo Yan, a 45-year-old teacher in Shenzhen, says that as a homeowner he appreciates that the houses and apartments that have sprung up across China are of much better standards than decades ago, but that he wonders what gets lost as authorities approve massive construction projects. “They need to consider the environment nearby and people’s health. Not just build.”
Many in China date the emergence of a more-vocal middle class to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when hundreds of grieving parents said shoddy construction led to the collapse of schools. Later that year, the government set in place more stringent building standards.
Chinese leaders have ordered a thorough investigation of the Tianjin blasts—large enough to be detected by earthquake sensors—as well as nationwide inspections of dangerous chemicals and explosives. But the tragedy has reawakened questions about how the government doles out information after disasters, and puts a lid on criticism.
The number of posts deleted on China’s popular Weibo microblogging platform Weibo surged following the blasts, according to King-wa Fu, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school who built a censorship tracker called Weiboscope.
Some in China compared the government’s response in Tianjin with how Thai authorities handled questions after a bombing that killed 20 people in Bangkok this week.
“We can tell the gap in attitude and capability of the Tianjin government in addressing a major emergency compared with how the local authority in Thailand addressed the blast incident with efficiency and information transparency,” wrote one commenter on Weibo.
On Wednesday, Tianjin’s mayor, Huang Xingguo, addressed the media for the first time, saying the government would provide an answer to why the toxic chemicals had been stored so close to residential areas. Other officials detailed plans to attempt to repair damaged homes and to consider calls for compensation.
Tianjin officials said Thursday that when they measured water around the blast site earlier this week, they found it contained as much as 356 times acceptable levels of cyanide. They have continued to say that the city’s tap-water supply is safe.
But as rain fell in the days after the blast, some residents expressed anxiety theprecipitation might bring harmful pollutants down onto the rest of the city.
At a news conference, an official from the Tianjin Environmental Bureau addressed media reports and photos of white foam on Tianjin’s streets after it rained. He said samples hadn’t detected anything exceptional and the phenomenon was normal, likening it to foam when you water soil.
The statement was immediately ridiculed online. “It defies common sense,” said one commenter. “Are his flowers watered by soapsuds?”
Zhang Shexin, a 59-year-old retiree, who lives about six kilometers from the blast site, says she avoids going out when it rains and shuts all the windows. “We’re definitely concerned about what might be in the rain,” she said. “I’ve been trying to stockpile more food and supplies at home so I don’t have to go out as often.”
Questions about environmental perils are likely to become more common if improvements to living standards stall and the harmful effects of the country’s economic expansion become more visible. The government this year set its annual growth target to 7%, which would be its slowest pace in 25 years.
With 15 million people, Tianjin is a symbol of China’s continued commitment to growth. Once a foreign-influenced city where Herbert Hoover lived more than a century ago before becoming U.S. president, Tianjin is now central to an ambitious plan to revitalize the country’s northeast. Local officials offer aggressive tax breaks to companies willing to relocate there, and it is now home to significant operations for foreign companies likeMicrosoft Corp. and Unilever PLC.
The growth created opportunity for people like Ms. Yan, who had hoped home ownership would be a first step toward obtaining Tianjin household registration to give her full access to public services there.
Until last week’s blast she had no idea that hazardous chemicals were being stored nearby, she said. Now she and her siblings sleep in the hospital where their mother is treated for injuries suffered in the blast—a fractured pelvis, torn arm muscles and multiple lacerations.
“There’s no way I’m ever going to move back into that apartment,” Ms. Yan said. “I’ve lost all sense of security.”
She isn’t alone. Retiree Li Wanzhi was alone at home when explosions just hundreds of meters away blew out the windows of her apartment and tore up the furnishings. Ms. Li frantically ran down 15 floors to escape. Since then, the 65-year-old has slumped into a stupor, said her daughter-in-law, Liu Fang.
“Her life savings basically went up in smoke,” Ms. Liu says. “She keeps repeating to herself: ‘We’ve lost everything.’ ”
For Ms. Liu herself, the biggest worry is the health of her 11-year-old daughter. “The area has been contaminated by chemicals. How can we guarantee that there won’t be long-term effects?” Ms. Liu said. “For us adults, at worst we fall sick more often. For the children, their future is at stake.”