China’s leadership ‘infuriated by Tianjin government’s attempts to underplay death toll of blasts’
The Communist Party's top leadership was infuriated with the Tianjin government's attempts to underplay the death toll of the twin blasts that rocked the port city more than two weeks ago, and which has now risen to 145, the South China Morning Post has learned.
The revelation came as prosecutors yesterday criminally detained 11 senior officials and port executives for alleged negligence in connection with the disaster.
Hours after the explosions struck a warehouse storing hazardous chemicals on August 12, authorities put the initial death toll at 14, but the figure was quickly raised to 44, as news of the disaster spread and its scale became apparent.
Sources said that less than a week later, the party's propaganda department called a meeting with a handful of selected media to encourage them to look into the company that ran the facility - Ruihai International Logistics.
On August 19, Xinhua published an investigative report that quoted company executives who had been detained by the police as saying they had good connections with government officials. The article surprised many since Xinhua is rarely aggressive in its reporting on major accidents on the mainland, given its status as the state-run news agency.
"The top leadership of the party was dissatisfied with how the Tianjin authority handled the blasts at first, and that's why we have state media digging into the company," the source said.
A Tianjin port police source earlier told the Post officers had been called to help recover bodies from the disaster scene but the bodies were not being added to the official death toll at that time.
The latest round of detentions includes officials at the Ministry of Transport, Tianjin's municipal government and its port authority. Among them are city transport chief Wu Dai, Tianjin Port Group president Zheng Qingyue, as well as officials from the Binhai New Area, where the warehouse was located.
Officials from the city's transport commission have been accused of illegally issuing business licences and failing to address illegal work carried out by Ruihai. Tianjin Port Group, which is responsible for the port's operations, was accused of poor management and failing to rectify safety risks at Ruihai.
Wang Jinwen, a Transport Ministry deputy inspector, was detained for alleged abuse of power, Xinhua reported.
Also detained were Gao Huaiyou, Tianjin's deputy work safety administration chief, and Wang Jiapeng, Tianjin's deputy customs chief.
Police had earlier detained another 12 people including Ruihai owners Yu Xuewei and Dong Shexuan.
Song Tianyi, a family member of a firefighter who died in the explosions, called for the harshest punishment. "If they are not sentenced to death, my brother and I cannot die in peace," Song said.
Sixty-three firefighters have been confirmed dead and another 17 remain missing.
Dozens of homeowners whose properties were damaged by the blasts staged a rally outside the Tianjin municipal government office yesterday demanding a concrete plan for the government to buy back their flats.
"We have received calls from police and the neighbourhood committee to persuade us to stay in the area, but who dares to? I don't believe those assessment reports," one homeowner, who gave his surname as Wu, said.
Other residents said they were encouraged by the latest round of detentions.
"I see this as a signal that officials will be punished, regardless of how elite they are," said Zheng Lin, another property owner. "We were worried that they would not."