Huge explosions in Tianjin, China, heat up ongoing unrest

August 31, 2015

From the September-October 2015 issue of News & Letters

On Aug. 17, five days after explosions at a hazardous chemical warehouse killed and injured hundreds of firefighters, neighbors and factory workers, residents of Tianjin in China protested against government officials’ complicity in the catastrophe. The warehouse was illegally close to three housing complexes, and stored a lethal cocktail of flammable chemicals and at least 700 tons of sodium cyanide 70 times their licensed limit.

Protesters demanded the government buy back the housing they dare not return to as the threat of airborne cyanide forced evacuation beyond a two-mile radius.


Explosion of chemical warehouse in Tianjin, China.

Explosion of chemical warehouse in Tianjin, China.

As we go to press, fires continue to burn from explosions compared to one five-hundredth of the force of the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima during World War II. Like Hiroshima, the effects on people only begin with the blast. Devastation following cyanide in the air or water would dwarf the toll of dead and wounded that officials so far admit to.

Tianjin officials downplayed casualties, denied hazards and belatedly detained executives of the firm that owned the warehouse. This response echoes the reaction to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. In the last weeks of Mao Zedong’s life, the Party treated the earthquake which killed over half of Tangshan’s million people as a state secret and refused outside aid.

The connivance of Chinese officials with private companies riding roughshod over safety issues is parallel to the 2013 explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, within sight of the neighborhood school.

Capitalists within China and abroad have expressed more consternation about other explosions and implosions. For example, the stock market crash dropped the paper value of private corporations by 8.5% nationwide, and by one-third or more on the key Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges. As exports first flattened and then began declining, China devalued the yuan by 4.4%, only whetting the thirst of international bankers expecting further declines to follow.


Those capitalists and China’s rulers have been unable to contain the working class, which has produced untold wealth for them. Strikes in China have tripled over the last two years. Thanks to the militancy of workers, and over the government union’s obstruction, wages in “the world’s workshop” have risen almost 12% a year from the below-subsistence wages that fueled its primitive accumulation of capital.

Chinese companies as massive as Foxconn with its million workers have continued internally migrating to lower wage areas such as Guiyang where the minimum wage is less than 40% of the wages in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Warehouse owner Ruihai Logistics in Tianjin shows how profitable it can be to break regulations. Workers at Dongguan Baoxing Electronics, producing for multinationals like Nokia and Samsung and set to close, are striking to win the severance pay guaranteed by law that so many companies do not pay. The company will reopen in the same city, Dongguan, but with no right for workers to transfer.

More and more, Chinese capitalists are joining multinationals in establishing production in Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma. The global race to the bottom demands not only lower wages and low or no environmental and safety protections, but the use of the state and its police powers to enforce corporate demands. If politicians, as always in the pocket of corporations, continue attacks on labor gains that now exist precariously state by state, the race to the bottom could go through the U.S. as well as China and Southeast Asia.

—Bob McGuire

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