Wall Street Journal: Tianjin Blast Victims Protest for Better Compensation

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher

By CHUN HAN WONG
Sept. 17, 2015 

TIANJIN, China—A month after chemical explosions drove them from their high-rise apartments, some residents from the damaged Paradiso compound were meeting with local officials to discuss compensation when a fellow homeowner barged in.

“We’re really in bad shape,” the intruder—known by a nickname, Ah Qiang—blurted out before leading officials on a tour of the Paradiso, a condominium complex less than a mile from the blast site.

Since the Aug. 12 blasts, which killed 173 people and damaged more than 17,000 homes, homeowners like Ah Qiang have staged protests to press officials over the destruction of homes they had worked hard to buy. As in any public Chinese dispute, the government responded with persuasion and coercion as they scrambled to head off broader unrest.

But the scale of the disaster—quickly evident from the massive fire cloud over Tianjin the night of the explosions—and its impact on thousands of middle-class residents in a showcase city for urban development have tested the traditional Chinese playbook for defusing public anger.

One owner in the Paradiso complex said she felt “bitterly disappointed” by the treatment of residents affected by the blasts.

“When the 2008 Sichuan earthquake happened, we were impressed by news reports about how the government moved to swiftly assist the victims and resettle them,” she said. “Now we are the victims, and we’ve finally seen for ourselves how the government actually handles disasters—unresponsive and irresponsible.”

Many of the homeowners had never been to a street protest before the blasts. One of them was Zhou Changfen, a 43-year-old single mother, who borrowed from her parents and used her savings from desk jobs to buy a high-rise apartment in the Paradiso and an Audi A6 sedan. She paid more than 1.2 million yuan (about $188,000) to buy and furnish the home, where she lived with her 18-year-old son and her parents. She used the Audi to pull in around 5,000 yuan a month as a chauffeur for wedding parties.

Ms. Zhou was in her living room when she heard the explosions less than a mile away. Then the shock waves came, shattering her windows. A piece of debris struck the back of her head, knocking her out. She regained consciousness an hour later after her parents took her down more than 20 floors. She is still recovering from her wounds—a gash to her head and impact injuries to her left leg and torso.

She was one of hundreds who took to the streets after the blasts to demand that authorities buy back their apartments. “Our home, bought with our hard-earned money, has been destroyed,” she said. The blast also damaged her Audi.

Many residents said they didn’t want to go back even if their homes were repaired and the area cleaned of hazardous chemicals.

Homeowners sought out neighbors from their own compound at the protests. Many had never met before the blasts. Now they were forming discussion groups on messaging apps like WeChat and QQ and researching government payouts to victims of other disasters.

By the end of August, local authorities offered to buy back apartments at a marked-up price. Owners could also have their homes repaired free of charge and get a smaller cash payout.

That offer was good enough for Fang Qi, 35, an employee at an auto-parts maker, who agreed to sell his apartment for 130% of either the purchase price or the assessed market value, whichever was higher. “I’m busy with work, and don’t have the time and energy to negotiate with the government,” he said.

But others say the 130% formula doesn’t cover the equity built up in their apartments, and that even a payout based on market prices the day before the blasts wouldn’t suffice for them to buy and furnish an equivalent home.

Some owners pointed to a 2010 high-rise fire in Shanghai, after which they said victims were paid 1.69 times the market-assessed value of their apartments.

“The question is what we’re using as the base for deriving the 130% payout,” said Zhou Yan, a 40-year-old apartment owner at the Paradiso. “Housing prices in the area had appreciated significantly since we first bought the apartments there seven to eight years ago.”

Local authorities have pressed owners to accept the government’s offers, according to homeowners from several housing compounds. And some state-company workers said their employers urged quick settlements over compensation. “The government is trying to bully us into submission, using our employers to pressure us,” said one homeowner who works at a state-owned company.

According to one notice reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, a state-owned firm asked employees “not to cross legal red lines, to relay any problems to the company, and to follow reasonable and lawful pathways.” Communist Party members are barred from joining petitions, the notice said.

“The combination of ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ has been a hallmark of the authoritarian Chinese regime,” said Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, who studies social unrest in China. Making payouts to victim families to pacify them is commonly termed “buying stability” in Chinese, she said.

One resident said she doubted the local officials have the residents’ interests foremost at heart.

“The government wants us to sit down, negotiate and study their compensation plans, so that we won’t be out there protesting on the streets,” she said. “They’re just stalling, buying time for the problem to die down.”

The Tianjin explosions came just a few weeks before a grand military parade in Beijing and President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the U.S.

The sensitive timing of the disaster may have prompted officials to be extra cautious in trying to quell unrest, said Carl Minzner, professor of law at Fordham University and an expert on Chinese law and governance. “They like to keep things discreet and from mushrooming,” often with cash incentives and subtle coercion, he said.

Officials have offered an unusually large payout to relatives of the 104 firefighters killed in the blast—a move that labor-rights advocates say is instructive of the government’s selective approach to postdisaster settlements. “A lot of media attention was focused on the young, poorly trained and poorly paid firefighters who died. As a result, the government was prepared to make a big pay-out in order to stifle any suggestion that it was dishonoring the firefighters’ sacrifice,” China Labour Bulletin said in a note.

Apartment owners said officials offered them an additional 20,000 yuan in compensation if they signed up to the government’s payout plan by Sept. 3.

Propaganda officials for Tianjin’s Binhai New Area, where the blasts occurred, said local authorities acted quickly to assist affected residents in restoring their lives and homes, provide compensation in accordance to principles of “openness, fairness, and equitability,” as well as offer avenues for homeowners to express their concerns and demands. The officials, however, didn’t comment on the government’s methods for securing residents’ consent for its compensation plans.

A notice on a local government website said that by Sept. 3, about 9,420 households had signed government agreements regarding their damaged apartments.

When Ah Qiang and the officials returned from their tour, the meeting with Paradiso homeowners started. Only select residents’ representatives were allowed in.

Ah Qiang—a lean man in his late 30s—parked his black Volkswagen SUV outside the building, and rigged a pair of speakers on top of his car to blare the Chinese national anthem on loop. He paced and smoked as he waited, trading views and barbs with fellow homeowners.

After the meeting, the Paradiso owners huddled to discuss their next move. Some advocated continuing talks with officials. Others urged more drastic action.

“We don’t have to play to the rules set by the government,” said one bespectacled representative dressed in an olive-green polo shirt. He suggested talking to lawyers or the media. “This way, we have a chance of breaking out of the government’s game,” he said. “Filing a lawsuit is the absolute last resort.”

Ah Qiang was having none of it.

“What you’re saying is officious talk—I don’t like listening to it,” he said, interrupting the discussion midway. “I’ve held out for more than 20 days, standing outside the door. I just want to know, after one, two, three rounds of talks, what did you achieve?”

Ms. Zhou, the wedding driver, mulled the government’s compensation plan for several days. Her son was just starting classes at university, and she needed the cash. On Sept. 3, she signed her agreement.

“What’s the use of me getting all worked up about it? What can an ordinary person do?” she said. “I’ll just follow the party.”

Ms. Zhou has sent her Audi for repairs and hopes to get back to work soon.

“I consider myself lucky when I compare my fate to those who lost their lives in the explosions—the firefighters and policemen,” Ms. Zhou said. “But we residents, too, have suffered greatly. We’ve lost our homes, the fruit of a lifetime’s labor.”

Write to Chun Han Wong at chunhan.wong@wsj.com

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