Summer of discontent
An economic downturn, a chemical explosion and the arrests of lawyers and members of the media marked a tumultuous summer in China.
Several spatial sciences PhD candidates from China say that while there are zoning laws on the books, inspection and management of industrial facilities often fall short.
However, Lei Jiang from Yantai says that an explosion like that in Tianjin would ‘absolutely not’ happen in Yantai since it has little in the way of heavy industry.
RUG economic and social history instructor Martin Uebele says that China’s economic slowdown is to be expected after such a long period of unlimited growth.
But the Chinese government’s response to the stock market changes suggests the communist party is struggling to keep the economy under control.
The detention of financial reporter Wang Xiaolu also raises concerns of growing pressure on the media, according the former China correspondent Garrie van Pinxteren.
Reading time: 7 minutes (1,538 words)
Every PhD candidate follows the rules of scientific objectivity, but there are some events that force the emotional and intellectual sides to collide. The catastrophic explosion at a chemicals facility in the eastern Chinese city of Tianjin was one of those moments for Jing Wu, a PhD candidate in the department of spatial sciences.
‘When I heard about the explosion, I was shocked’, she says. ‘We were very sad because we are Chinese, and it’s something that is happening in our country.’
But immediately after that emotional response, Jing’s mind moved on to what could have caused it. It is well known among the Chinese PhD candidates in the spatial sciences department that their government is ultimately responsible for every construction and zoning decision made in the country. ‘Decisions like identifying which area is a residential community and which is an industrial one – this kind of planning must be approved of by the government’, Jing says.
‘In front of the tiger’
‘As scientists and researchers, maybe we think this [zoning] is unrealistic and stupid, but the government has the powerful right to say that you have to listen’, Jing continues. ‘So for us, we are probably objective through our research, but when we are facing the government, we feel quite small in front of the power, in front of the tiger.’
According to Lei Jiang, another spatial sciences PhD candidate who is researching economical geography and is actually from Yantai, the campus where the RUG will be operating is highly unlikely to be the site of any similar disasters. ‘No no no no no, absolutely not’, he says.
‘Yantai is very safe. You never hear bad news from Yantai because we do not have heavy industry’, he says. While there are several industrial zones in Yantai housing companies such as LG, GM, Hyundai, and Foxconn, Lei says that they are predominantly located in the west of the city, in the Yantai Economic and Technological Development Zone. The China Agricultural University campus is in the Laishan district, otherwise known as the university district, roughly 50 kilometres away. Lei adds that he is extremely proud of his hometown and is excited about the RUG’s plans to develop a campus there.
Lack of supervision
Still, Jing says that while hearing about industrial accidents anywhere in China is shocking, it is sadly not a surprise. And there have been several much smaller industrial accidents in Shandong province in recent months, including a gas explosion at a hotel in Qingdao in May, a fire at a chemical plant in Zibo in August and another incident at a petrochemical plant in Rizhao in July. But in one of China’s largest provinces with nearly 100 million people, an accident happening within its borders could still mean a distance comparable to that between Groningen and Brussels.
What happened this summer?
Although Beijing pulled off the unprecedented feat this summer of becoming the first city ever to win the right to host both a summer and winter Olympic games, that was one of precious few good news stories in a season where several high profile disasters shook the country.
More than a hundred human rights lawyers and advocates across the entire country were detained by police in an apparent intimidation stunt in July. The province of Shandong, where Yantai is located, was targeted in the crackdown: at least 17 individuals – 16 lawyers and one activist – were taken into police custody in June and later released after questioning.
Around the same time, the seemingly unstoppable economy faltered, which the government responded to by temporarily preventing shares from being traded on the stock market. Global markets responded in kind and wavered dramatically for weeks. The government eventually blamed a financial journalist for causing the downturn.
In August, 161 people died and thousands became homeless in the city of Tianjin, a sister city of Groningen, after a massive chemical fire caused two huge explosions in a densely populated neighbourhood. Tianjin is 600 kilometres away from the location of the University of Groningen’s planned international branch campus.
Zhang, a PhD candidate researching population mobility and ethnic minorities, says that all cities in China are required to build their industrial zones at least 10 to 20 kilometres away from residential areas in the interest of safety, often deliberately ending their public transportation services well short of any potentially hazardous areas. But as urbanisation continues apace in China with roughly 57 per cent of residents living in metropolitan environments nowadays, the cities inevitably sprawl towards the industrial areas, eating up the safe distance as more housing is built to accommodate the population.
Even though there are official rules governing zoning and construction projects in China, Bo and Jing both acknowledge that lack of supervision and enforcement of those measures is part of what led to the Tianjin explosion. Bo says that the distance itself is not what is dangerous, but rather the inability to guarantee that a facility is safe through management and inspection.
That is where Jing sees the biggest problems as well. ‘We have to stick to the law and the rules. The government should be open to the society and the public to let people know what they are doing. They are always hiding. The planning process is not transparent, and many people are complaining about this.’
Despite a similar lack of insight into the thought processes behind the government’s response to the stock market declining, Martin Uebele, a lecturer of economic and social history at the RUG, is not alarmed by recent economic developments.
‘As the Chinese economy comes from a very low level, then of course you have double-digit growth’, he says. ‘As it goes to higher levels of per capita income to a kind of mid-income country, then seven per cent growth in absolute terms is still a lot.’
China’s growth since the early ‘90s in particular is one of the greatest success stories in history, Uebele says. ‘If you look at it relative to the United States or European countries, it’s still catching up at an enormous speed. But catching up also means that the speed will not always be the same and it will decline at some point’, Uebele says.
Yet knowing for certain whether or not the Chinese economy is actually growing as much as the official figures suggest is difficult. ‘Seven per cent growth might still be a fantasy figure – I guess nobody knows. I think the government itself doesn’t know. It’s extremely difficult to pull together those numbers and come up with a relatively accurate figure.’
Garrie van Pinxteren, a visiting senior research fellow at the Clingedael Institute for International Relations, agrees that China isn’t on the verge of an economic collapse, but she does suggest that the government may be panicking after realising that the economy is not ultimately under their control.
Van Pinxteren is also an instructor in the RUG’s journalism school and spent ten years in China working as a correspondent for NRC Handelsblad and NOS. She says the fact that Wang Xiaolu, a financial journalist, was effectively forced to take responsibility for causing the recent financial troubles in China is a disturbing development.
She says that media censorship used to be reserved for journalists who sought to cover ‘taboo subjects’ like human rights and Tibet. ‘There was space for the media in other subjects, especially in finance, economics and the environment. That freedom was there because the Chinese government believed that these were areas that would need openness and possibility for reform’, Van Pinxteren says. ‘This arrest seems to convey that a lack of freedom of the press now extends itself more strongly to matters relating to the economy and finance.’
Social media is also increasingly scrutinised: if a message is considered to be a rumour and is shared by 500 people, the person who wrote it is seen as having committed an offense. ‘If it’s read by 5,000 people, then you’re also in trouble’, she says. Up to 200 people were ‘punished’ for ‘spreading rumours’ in the aftermath of the Tianjin explosion and the economic decline.
Bit by bit
The government’s apparent lack of control of the economic fate of China has also eroded the confidence of the Chinese people. ‘I think the current government has been badly damaged by what happened this summer,’ Van Pinxteren says. ‘[President] Xi Jinping projects this reputation of being an incredibly strong leader that can lead China into more power and more prosperity, but now, people are thinking, is he really that strong?’
Van Pinxteren worries about the implications of this stricter approach on other forms of free expression, including within academia. ‘I think it might be part of a more general tendency where universities and professors bit by bit lose their freedom to touch on any controversial subjects. If the stock market itself became a controversial topic, then I think that would also effect the way that you can teach at any university in China, including a university founded partly by a foreign partner.’
Given the instability of the stock market and the government’s unpredictable response, Van Pinxteren can’t help but question what the economic conditions in China could mean for plans for a foreign university partnership. ‘I think that education in general will continue to be prioritised, but whether foreign education will still be a priority I find less certain.’