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China detains more suspects over deadly chemical disaster in Tianjin (+video)

Twenty-three people have now been detained in a broadening investigation of the port city's storage facility blasts, which killed more than 140.

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    In this Aug. 13, 2015 photo, a shattered window frames the site of an explosion at a port warehouse in Tianjin, in northeast China.
    Ng Han Guan/AP
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China on Thursday accused 11 transport and customs officials and several municipal authorities in Tianjin of “dereliction of duty” and “abuse of power” over a chemical explosion on Aug. 12 that killed some 140 people in the northeastern city and sparked public outrage over corruption and negligence.

The 11 join 12 people previously detained from the Ruihai International Logistics firm, including its board chairman, who ran the warehouse in the city where the chemicals were stored. 

State-run Xinhua news today described those facing investigation as "including Tianjin local transportation management authorities, work safety regulatory agencies, land resources authorities, Tianjin local customs office and a state-owned port company..."

The explosion at the warehouse, which held more than 700 tons of hazardous substances, shook the booming northeastern port city, a half-hour north of Beijing by fast train. The storage facility was located near residential apartment buildings, and the blast – heavy enough to be recorded by earthquake sensors – turned the area into a moonscape. Between 450 and 700 people were injured or hospitalized.

For many Chinese, the disaster was an example not only of official malfeasance but a lack of public oversight and accountability.

President Xi Jinping vowed to conduct a full investigation, and The New York Times today reported that the new steps “made clear that the government’s investigation [is] now broadening to include public servants who were supposed to act as watchdogs.”

China watchers note that the Tianjin episode comes amid a new policy in Beijing that aims to shut down parts of society that could act as public watchdogs. In the past year, Chinese officials have begun to target nongovernmental organizations, particularly civil society NGOs that have foreign funding. In July and early August, authorities arrested or detained more than 200 lawyers around China who describe themselves as willing to take human and civil rights and public interest cases.

Many critics have pointed to the Tianjin explosion as the kind of public disaster that civil rights lawyers as well as NGOs focusing on local and community interests could battle or prevent.

Chinese public interest blogger Xiao Shu writes in The New York Times that in 2015 so far, there have been 13 other chemical-related explosions in China, leaving 10 dead and 92 injured, most recently a widely publicized petrochemical fire that destroyed a factory in nearby Shandong Province. 

The Chinese media reported this week that two major shareholders in Rui Hai used their family ties to secure approval for storing dangerous materials at the Tianjin warehouse, in clear violation of regulations that prohibit the storage of hazardous chemicals within 3,200 feet of residences.

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One of the key characteristics of the Chinese system is that leaders grasp for unlimited power but are unwilling to take full responsibility for the social and political consequences. The government suppresses truth to deter independent thought and deflect awkward questions about accountability. Industrial accidents are the result.

After more than a week of relative silence, Chinese state media have been reporting steadily on official actions taken in the Tianjin probe. Last week they reported that Ruihai International had let its license for chemical storage lapse between last October and late May of this year.

Yesterday, as The Wall Street Journal notes, state media "reported that the head of China’s work safety agency, Yang Dongliang, was removed from his post, a week after he was placed under investigation and suspected of serious violations of discipline – a Communist Party euphemism for corruption. Mr. Yang had served as the deputy mayor of Tianjin for more than a decade until 2012."

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