Nov 07, 2019 05:09 PM

10 Years of Caixin: Tianjin’s Lethal Explosions

Editor’s note:

Since its founding 10 years ago, Caixin has been a witness to China’s social and economic transformation and has worked to uncover the stories and key people behind this process, which has required the persistent, professional pursuit of truth.

To mark our 10th anniversary, we are taking a look back at 10 of our most important original investigative reports, which led the way in Chinese media and uncovered the twists and turns of the country’s ongoing modernization.

These stories include the tales of a corrupt top security official, a barbarian at the gate, a fugitive tycoon, the industrial safety failures that led to more than 170 deaths in a series of fatal blasts, and the environmental destruction wrought by the pursuit of economic growth at any cost. We will be publishing one story of the series each day through Nov. 11.

On Aug. 12, 2015, a series of huge industrial explosions shook the port city of Tianjin, killing 173 people and leaving hundreds more injured. More than 100 of the dead were firefighters who had been dispatched to combat the initial blaze at the Ruihai warehouse complex in the city’s southeast.

The incident was widely covered by Chinese media, which documented the devastation the blasts caused to the nearby warehouses and residential areas, and the subsequent human suffering.

The onsite coverage was abruptly halted after a week when the authorities ordered all reporters to leave the blast area. But Caixin did not stop digging into the causes of the incident.

Two weeks after the explosion, with the official investigation underway, Caixin published a cover story in its Chinese magazine brandishing a headline “The Human Errors Behind the Tianjin Blasts.”

“We should not just indulge ourselves with fragmented facts when a tragic disaster like this occurs, we must go deeper into the details of the whole incident and rethink why it has happened,” said Caixin editor Gao Yu, who oversaw Caixin’s coverage of this event, which involved a dozen reporters being sent to the site.

Caixin found numerous breaches of workplace safety measures, from the storage of hazardous chemicals to the fact the firefighters weren’t told the details of the situation they were being sent to face.

At the time, the Tianjin municipal government was scrutinizing Zhongbin Haisheng, a local warehouse safety assessor. According to official announcements, the complex where the explosions took place contained more than 40 types of hazardous chemicals, including 1,300 tons of ammonium nitrate and potassium nitrate, chemicals often used to make explosives.

But the discovery that an excessive amount of hazardous chemicals were being stored at the Tianjin port — which one executive told Caixin had lax supervision — came too late for the firefighters seeking to contain the disaster.

In interviews with Caixin, firefighters who had been on the scene said they used so much water that within 20 minutes, low pressure in the public water system forced them to search the port area for another source. When the commanders realized that the fire was getting worse, they ordered a suspension of firefighting operations and a retreat. Then came the first explosion.

“It’s of crucial importance that firefighters know what they’re dealing with before they arrive at the scene of a fire, academics say, in part because dousing some chemicals with water can make fires worse,” the Caixin report read. “But providing this information is almost impossible in China because oversight of hazardous chemicals is sorely lacking, according to a senior executive at a logistics company that handles dangerous chemicals.”

The Tianjin explosions that night put a magnifying glass over the lax implementation of safety standards and regulations in the hazardous chemical industry. The Ruihai warehouse complex was far too close to the general public — less than the 1 kilometer minimum required by safety standards set in 2001.

Additionally, experts told Caixin that the material safety data sheets that cargo-hauling companies are required to give to warehouse operators frequently contain falsified data.

In 2016, the chairman of Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics Co. Ltd., was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve for his role in the incident.

Contact writer Ren Qiuyu (

Read more about Caixin’s anniversary series:

10 Years of Caixin: Popping Anbang’s Bubble

10 Years of Caixin: How Failed Takeover of World’s Largest Developer Exposed Shabby Financial Regulation

10 Years of Caixin: Billionaire's Oil Empire Brought Down by Risky Financing

10 Years of Caixin: Star Chinese Fund Manager Arrested After 2015 Market Rout

10 Years of Caixin: Mapping Zhou Yongkang’s Vast Web of Graft

10 Years of Caixin: The Army Logistician Who Lined His Own Pockets

10 Years of Caixin: Exposing Fugitive Tycoon Guo Wengui

10 Years of Caixin: Baidu’s Dangerous Ad Game

10 Years of Caixin: The Environmental Cost of Land Reclamation

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