The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After China’s deadly chemical disaster, a shattered region weighs cost of the rush to ‘get rich’

An aerial view of the debris of the chemical plant operated by Tianjiayi Chemical Co., after an explosion killed at least 78 people March 21 in Xiangshui county, China. (ImagineChina/AP)
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XIANGSHUI COUNTY, China — A deadly factory explosion in 2007 didn’t kill Ren Guanying. Nor did the chlorine gas leak that sparked mass panic in 2010.

When countless smaller industrial accidents struck this smog-choked belt of Jiangsu province over the years, they spared her, too.

The 58-year-old factory worker’s luck ran out on March 21. An explosion at Tianjiayi Chemical Co. ripped through an industrial zone and the surrounding countryside, killing at least 78 people and injuring more than 600. 

Ren’s body was found on a country road not far from a 300-foot-wide crater, said her daughter, Ma Li.

“We used to always worry whenever we heard a blast, until we got numb to it,” Ma said in her shattered home about half a mile from the chemical plants. “This place was like a time bomb. This time, it finally got my mom.”

To the residents of Xiangshui county, about 200 miles north of Shanghai, the Tianjiayi explosion on March 21 wasn’t so much an accident as an inevitability.

Over the past two decades, local officials have transformed this once-overlooked coastal expanse of wheat and rice farms into one of China’s major chemical-production centers, tripling the region’s economic output in the process.

The March 21 explosion of a chemical factory in eastern China is seen by some as the latest example of safety taking a back seat to the rush toward prosperity. (Video: Gerry Shih, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

But the reckless search for economic salvation condemned the community instead. The toll, locals say, has been polluted rivers, toxic soil, four major explosions in 12 years and a litany of smaller accidents that turned the terrifying into the routine.

Three years after a similar blast in Tianjin killed more than 170 people southeast of Beijing, the Xiangshui disaster is a reminder of the domestic challenges facing President Xi Jinping, who has vowed to pursue safe, “high-quality” development but also keep the sagging economy and employment numbers afloat.

A deafening boom from the Tianjiayi plant jolted Ma from her nap around 2:30 p.m. Broken glass was everywhere. When she rushed outside, she saw neighbors lying on the ground, injured or dazed. Others fled, running down the street through a cloud of thick dust that looked like a sandstorm. 

A sour stench hung in the air.

“It was like the end of the world,” she recalled. 

Ma called her brother, who was working in a nearby factory. He was alive, but badly cut all over the right side of his head, which faced a window. “Then I called my mom and started panicking,” she said, holding back tears, “because no one picked up the phone.”

In the aftermath, the Beijing News quoted witnesses who said a spark in a hazardous-waste storage unit may have set off the explosion in the industrial park, where 65 chemical firms were located, creating shock waves felt miles away and a 2.2-magnitude tremor picked up by seismologists.

Residents say they had complained for years about the unchecked rise — and amply documented negligence — of the chemical plants just a quarter mile from their village. 

Public records show local inspectors found 13 safety violations at Tianjiayi in February 2018. The company was fined at least a half-dozen times over the past five years for improper treatment of hazardous waste.

Workplace deaths have trended lower in China over the past decade as central leaders changed performance metrics for local officials to place more emphasis on safety and less weight on meeting economic targets. 

Still, more than 100 workers die every day on average, said Geoffrey Crothall of the China Labor Bulletin, a nonprofit organization in Hong Kong. And the true number of fatalities may be much higher, he added, because incidents involving few deaths often go unreported.

“Every time this happens, the government goes through the same routine,” Crothall said. “They carry out an investigation. They say lessons will be learned, the guilty will be punished, measures will be taken.

“But nothing changes.”

A danger to speak up

Halfway between glitzy Shanghai and Qingdao, an affluent port city with a famous brewery and breezy beach villas, this impoverished stretch of China’s coast has long felt like an afterthought.

Local officials tried to change their luck 15 years ago by assiduously courting heavy industry, mostly chemical producers. The payoff has been dramatic: Xiangshui county’s gross domestic product rose from $1.5 billion in 2009 to $5.2 billion in 2018, according to the local government, which says three industrial parks account for more than 90 percent of the economy.

Today, nearly 70 industrial firms, two steel mills and a power plant rise from a low plain dotted by smokestacks and cranes. The highway to Shanghai is lined with government banners urging outside investors to jump on the Xiangshui bandwagon, which has “merged tracks with Shanghai.” Giant letters along a county road spell out “PhSO3H” — an acid compound produced here — like an art deco lawn sculpture.

Development came at a cost. New companies began habitually dumping and burying toxic byproducts. When farmers sought compensation to relocate from encroaching factories, they were often denied, sometimes violently, they said.

“We demanded to be moved, but what was the use?” said a farmer surnamed Cai, whose 79-year-old father died when the roof of his small brick hut collapsed in the blast. “You speak up, and they beat you like hell. So we don’t even dare to speak up.”

Industrial pollution became so rampant that several northern Jiangsu communities gained notoriety in the 2000s as “cancer villages.” In the case of Dongjin, 40 miles from the recent blast site, villagers sued a local chemical company after 100 residents were diagnosed with cancer. In response, the firm in 2006 offered a “subsidy” of $11 to each resident.

That same year, Kong Lingyi, the long-serving deputy environment protection chief in the region, which includes Xiangshui county, told reporters that was the price of progress.

“People would definitely choose food and clothing over environmental protection, not because we are stupid, but because we have no choice,” Kong was quoted as saying.

While local officials, including Kong, were trailed by persistent allegations of cronyism and corruption for a decade, the chemical industry flourished. Business executives like Zhang Qinyue, the boss of Tianjiayi Chemical, seemed untouchable.

In 2017, Zhang was given a suspended prison sentence of 18 months and slapped with a $149,000 fine after being sued for dumping 120 tons of industrial waste. 

But soon he returned to work.

“Why was that he is still the boss?” said Gao Xiaomei, a resident of Wangshang village, the area closest to the blast. “Who is supporting him? Who is giving him the power to gamble with people’s lives and blood?” 

Zhang, who has been detained and placed under investigation in connection with the latest blast, could not be reached. Officials at the local environment protection bureau hung up when asked for comment.

Even if Zhang did not receive favorable treatment from local cadres, as residents widely suspect, he was certainly seen as a crucial force. Despite its seemingly impressive gains, Xiangshui county’s economic results perennially lagged behind those of almost every other county in the region, which put its leaders under pressure.

“It’s not shocking that if you’re an official who still has to keep your growth numbers up, you might say, ‘I’ll take my chances with factories’ compliance’ if they’re tripling the GDP,” said Raymond Fisman, a Boston University economist who has studied the confluence of political factors and Chinese workplace safety.

Zhong Zhichun, a native of Hubei province who came to work at Lianhetech factory near Tianjiayi, said business owners were cozy with regulators, and employees in the industrial zone were almost always informed days before inspections took place.

“This is about corrupt officials and money,” Zhong said

Last week, near the blast scene, police roughed up and detained reporters as well as Zhang Wenbin, a well-known environmental researcher.

Xi was on a trip to Europe — where he pitched billions of dollars in Chinese investments to Italy and France — when the crisis struck, and he called on the government to “strengthen guidance of public opinion.”

Government censors immediately scrubbed searches for “Xiang­shui,” by far the most searched term on the social media platform Weibo, according to the censorship monitor Free­ The comments that remained overwhelmingly praised the government’s emergency response.

Circling the streets in Wangshang this week, Gao, the local resident, pointed out collapsed ceilings and metal doors in front of every home that caved inward like crumpled tinfoil.

Her tone stiffened when she spotted groups of local Communist Party officials wearing hard hats walking through the wreckage to offer residents external repairs.

“They’re forcing us to fix our windows and paint our facades so they can show higher-ups how they’ve done reconstruction,” Gao said. “But how do we dare to sleep in our homes with cracks in the walls? They’re putting makeup on a corpse.”

To 'get rich is glorious'

Frustration threatened to boil over on March 26, when more than 500 people rallied outside a hotel a few miles down the road from Wangshang, where officials were staying to demand relocation and compensation.

After one official chided the protesters for demanding payment and cautioned them against challenging the Communist Party, a wall of paramilitary police closed in to seize and disperse the crowd, according to eyewitnesses, including Gao, and video they recorded on their smartphones.

Hours later, the Xiangshui county government appeared to relent, promising affected residents the option to relocate, according to state media. Many were not satisfied with the sum being offered; others admitted it was difficult to move away despite the risks.

One resident, who gave his surname as Gu, said almost every family he knew had already sent their children away to live with relatives. His children had gone, too, but he and some of the neighborhood men were going to stick around. It’s the only home he’s known.

“You don’t see children in the street, do you?” he said. “If our generation dies, we die. If we choke on poison gas, so be it. But the children, if you can save one, you do that.”

On March 27, the Ma family gathered around a table to consider the legacy of the smoldering industrial zone.

Ren, the deceased matriarch, had worked for years as a factory cleaner for around 2,000 yuan, or $300, per month. It was decent pay, better than laboring on the family’s 1.3-acre farm, said Ma.

“It’s not that there hasn’t been economic benefits, but it’s not worth it,” Ma concluded. “Who dares to live here?”

Outside, the village’s main drag was emptying as migrant workers headed home and residents sought refuge elsewhere. Across the street, a red government banner fluttered stubbornly against a whitewashed wall.

It reads: “To shake off poverty and get rich is glorious.”

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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