James Douglas Crickton looks at the recent explosions in the Chinese port of Tianjin, and considers whether the cause was more than chemical.
So, you are getting ready for your biggest party in years—all dressed up, getting the house in order, cleaning up the cutlery, putting a shine to everything. Like a good host, you make sure the street is clean, the area around is nice, safe and inviting.
And then, boom! The expected but unhoped-for happens. How do you go about salvaging the party? That was the question the Communist Party of China has been struggling with as it attempts to deal with the fallout of the August 12 Tianjin blast.
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Chinese victory in the War of Resistance against Japan and the Fascist powers, the Party organised a big military parade in Beijing on 3 September. As happens in China, factories around the capital were ordered to shut from early August till the end of the event, promising ‘blue skies’ in a city that has just regained its position as the most polluted in the world. Security had been stepped-up, to the extent that parcels and mail packets without clearly identified details of senders and recipients were not allowed into and out of Beijing. The military was on high alert, under the newly installed regional military commander who is a confidant of Party chief Xi Jinping.
With everything seemingly in place, an unexplained explosion in Tianjin, a mere 160 km from the capital, threatened to ruin the Party’s party. With 159 people reported dead, nearly 800 injured and several more missing, the finger of suspicion has been squarely pointed in the direction of a chemicals warehouse. This would have been understandable, but for the fact that the man appointed to investigate the incident was no local official, or even someone at the Centre responsible for industrial safety. Beijing, as an immediate measure, chose the Public Security Minister, Guo Shengkun, to look into the matter. Clearly, someone in the leadership compound in Beijing was concerned about the veracity of the chemicals-warehouse theory. In Beijing’s estimation, there was more to this than met the eye.
In these fraught times, with Beijing having hosted both its September 3 military parade and also the World Athletics Championships (from August 22 to 30), and due to host the sixth Tibet Work Conference later in September, the people need to be reassured. They need to be told that the blast that killed over a hundred was just a case of corruption gone wrong. At such a sensitive time, no one can, and should, utter the Uyghur word.
While Uyghurs are terrorists who are to be criticised in China throughout the year, let there not be any suggestion in the media of even the remotest possibility that they might have been involved in the Tianjin blast. Let us not highlight, for example, that Tianjin has a colony of Uyghurs, and has had for many years. This shall remain the secret of the Party, kept away from the eyes of the world. For to acknowledge any Uyghur role in the blast means that the muscular policies of Xi Jinping have failed, despite a strike-hard campaign that has been underway in the restive Xinjiang province in the north-west of China.
It is this sleight of hand that is behind the seemingly confused response from the local authorities. They were reined in from investigating too closely-the Centre had to have a look first, decide what was and wasn’t true, and even more importantly, reach a conclusion on what should be the disseminated ‘truth’.
Gaining a consensus on this disseminated ‘truth’ took over a week-the Mayor of Tianjin, the man who should have been at the forefront of all efforts, made his formal appearance only on 19 August, a full week after the incident. Weibo chatter on China’s version of Twitter spoke of Uyghurs, but traces of such posts were cleared post-haste-we don’t want unauthorized thoughts proliferating cyberspace, the powers-that-be seemed to be saying, especially as we are drafting a draconian cyber-security law.
As if this was not enough, another explosion occurred on August 17, this time in far-off Bangkok. Sadly, the world beyond China’s borders could not be controlled as easily as that within. So stories emerged about how this was retaliation for Thailand having sent back 109 Uyghurs to China a month earlier. How the temple, the site of the blast, was frequented by Chinese nationals, and thus an attractive target for the Uyghurs to show their disgruntlement with both China and Thailand over the deportations. So plausible is this scenario, and so close to the bone does it cut, that the Chinese Embassy in Thailand felt it necessary to counter the very idea of it-not with the certitude of someone who knows, but by conjuring up smoke and mirrors. The Embassy disingenuously insists that there was no Uygur involvement in the incident, while also stressing that they are awaiting the results of the Thai investigations.
The problem for China in all this is that, having played up the Uyghur threat for months, it is now faced with a situation where it is natural to link the intense blast in Tianjin, as well as the Bangkok explosion, to this group. However much it might deny it, Beijing knows that its demonisation of the Uyghurs has come back to haunt it. It must face up to the fact that the suppression of the Uyghurs has been behind these explosions, whatever the Party propagandists say.
Saving the Party, it seems, is more important for China than saving the party. Covering up the facts behind the explosion in Tianjin carries within it the seeds of further action by the Uyghurs, and Beijing is providing enough opportunities. And let us not forget: October 1 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the setting up of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by China-another attractive occasion for those straining for freedom.