The Tianjin blasts are a way bigger threat to China than any economic meltdown

It rained in Tianjin. Picture: Getty Images

The death toll of the gigantic chemical blasts that leveled part of Tianjin, the fourth largest city in China, now stands at 114.

There are up to 70 people still missing. And there are still questions surrounding exactly what chemicals were spilled.

The government has tried its best to censor journalists and calm dissent online, but global interest in what’s going on means that information is getting through China’s “red fire wall.”

For a combination of reasons, this disaster is more calamitous for the government than any economic crash.

This cuts directly to the heart of what scares the Chinese government the most — political dissent.

China has a complicated relationship with environmental reform. It’s the only issue where China’s authoritarian government has left room for protest.

In March, a famous Chinese television journalist named Chai Jing put a documentary called ‘Under the Dome’ on the internet. It’s a heart wrenching investigation into the roots and results of Chinese huge pollution problem.

The well researched presentation replete with facts and in depth interviews immediately went viral. Observers were surprised it was allowed to even exist on the internet.

It had over 150 million views in a matter of days, according to the Washington Post.

In three weeks, the government took it down.

That wasn’t the end of it, though. When reporters asked Chinese Premier Li Keqiang about the documentary’s damning findings, instead of shutting them down, he actually responded:

I want to tell you that the Chinese government is determined to tackle environmental pollution, and tremendous efforts have been made in this regard. The progress we have made still fall far short of expectation of our people. Last year I said that the Chinese government would declare a war against environmental pollution. We are determined to carry forward our efforts until we achieve our goal.

We must get the focus of our efforts right. This year our focus will be to ensure the full implementation of the newly revised environmental protection law. All illegal production and emissions will be brought to justice and held accountable. We need to make the cost for pollution too high to bear. More support, including capacity building, needs to be given to these environmental law enforcement departments.

This doesn’t happen every day in China. In fact, it rarely happens at all.

China has made big overtures at environmental safety, spending billions investing in alternative energy and pledging to cut carbon emissions.

It has laws on the books to promote environmental safety too, but as ‘Under the Dome’ shows over and over again, people don’t follow them. There’s always a way for powerful people to skirt requirements, which turns this into another issue the government has vowed to combat — corruption.

For over a year, President Xi Jingpin has been engaged in an anti-corruption probe that has taken down thousands of business people and government officials, “powerful tigers” and “lowly flies” alike.

This is what makes Tianjin so dangerous. With a lot of issues — for example, religious or political freedom — Chinese people expect to be censored by their government. They often even preemptively censor themselves.

The environment and corruption, though, are two issues where they expect the government to do something — where, in fact, the government has promised to do something.

For days, after the blast the Chinese government shot silver-iodide into approaching clouds, keeping rain from falling on what has become a ghost city, according to Associated Press journalist Helen Franchineau. This is a common practice ahead of big events in the country, like the Olympics. The chemicals dissipate rain clouds and make the weather nice and sunny.

On Tuesday, though, it rained, covering the city in a mysterious white foam. Residents complained of burning sensations on their lips and skin.

They will expect the government to do something about that.

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