tianjin-explosionby Maurizio Marinelli


Urban transformation in China constitutes both a domestic revolution and a world-historical event because it represents the largest construction project in the planet’s history. The growth of cities can be considered as the most successful political campaign launched by the Chinese Communist Party in the post-Mao era: it underpins the country’s economic transformation from historic socialist planning to capitalist organisation of production, while maintaining a strong character of State planning, since the State is firmly behind both the creation of new cities and the merging of existing ones. Urbanization, promoted as a metonymy of global modernity, is progressively transmogrifying the physical and mental mapping of the Chinese territory and its people. According to a study by McKinsey Global Institute, rural to urban migration will create 400 million new urbanites by 2020. By 2030, there will be 1 billion Chinese living in cities, with more than 221 Chinese cities with a population over 1 million. By 2025, the GDP generated by cities will rise to 95% and China’s total population living in cities might reach 70%, which would indicate an accelerated trend towards a progressive reversal of population distribution in 1978, at the beginning of the ‘Reform and Opening-up’ era, when the rural population fraction was 80% of the total.


tianjin-binhai-mapThe three crucial areas of urban transformation in China today are: the Pearl River Delta in the south, which started developing in the 1980s, the Yangtze Delta in the east, whose development accelerated in the 1990s, and the Bohai Bay in the north, centred around Beijing and Tianjin, which started developing in the early 2000s. Earmarked as a strategic component of the 11th Five Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2006–10), Bohai Bay is now a rising northern economic powerhouse that rivals both the Pearl and Yangtze River Deltas, and a competitive port cluster has developed around the port-city of Tianjin – the metropolis that is striving to re-establish its pre-Communist era status of industrial capital of the north-east.


Tianjin has a population of 15.2 million people, and the third largest urban area, after Beijing and Shanghai. Tianjin has traditionally been the port of Beijing, 120 km to the north-west. A popular saying encompasses the relation between history and urban transformation: ‘If you want to understand 5,000 years of Chinese civilisation look at Xi’an, 1,000 years look at Beijing, modern China look at Tianjin’. The city of Tianjin occupies a highly unique position in modern China: it represents an unparalleled microcosm of the world in the late-imperial and republican eras, encompassing both the apogee and the decline of the age of imperialism (1860–1945). In the second half of the nineteenth century it became the most important commercial city in Northern China, having been opened as a treaty port in 1860, as a consequence of the Treaty of Beijing that the defeated Qing Government was forced to sign at the end of the Second Opium War (1856-60). Between 1860 and 1945, Tianjin was the site of up to nine foreign-controlled concessions, functioning side by side, as well as being temporarily, home to a multinational military government (1900–02). British, French, and American concessions were established in Tianjin in 1860. Between 1895 and 1901 other concessions were ceded to Japan (1895), Germany (1898), and Russia (1901). With the signing of the Boxer Final Protocol in September 1901, following the repression of the Boxers’ uprising, even countries that did not yet hold concessions elsewhere in China such as Austria-Hungary, Italy and Belgium all succeeded in establishing self-contained concessions with their own prisons, schools, barracks and hospitals. France, Great Britain and Japan took advantage of the post-Great War situation and enlarged their holdings. Ruth Rogaski argues that Tianjin’s distinctiveness deserves the appellation hyper-colony: ‘drawing attention to the potential implications that arise when one urban space is divided among multiple imperialisms’ (Rogaski 2004, p. 11). This useful definition should be read in relation to Sun Yatsen’s claim that China was a ‘hypo-colony’: China was ‘the colony of every nation with which it had concluded treaties; each of them is China’s master. Therefore China is not just the colony of one country; it is the colony of many countries. We are not just the slaves of one country, but the slaves of many countries.’ (Sun Yatsen, 1923)


Through co-existing concessions Tianjin showcases the idealised national experiences and identities of nine foreign countries, and offers a unique opportunity to analyse the various styles of urban governance which were used by the colonial powers to organise, promote and expand their commercial interests, both in China and throughout the region. Between 1860 and 1945, Tianjin became the second largest industrial and commercial city in China after Shanghai, the largest financial and trade centre in the north, as well as one of the most vibrant commercial centres in Asia.


Tianjin’s concessions covered an area of 15.5 square kilometers, eight times larger than the original ‘Chinese city’, with the riverfront governed by foreign imperial powers. Each concession included a residential area whose planning, road layout and public works system responded to the needs and expectations of its immigrant inhabitants. After the territorial occupation, the concessions became, in a sense, lifestyle showcases for their respective national identities. At the same time, each colonial power avowedly used its concession site to organise, promote and expand the commercial activities of the firms of its own nationality in China and more broadly throughout the region, since Tianjin progressively became a major international trading city with shipping connections to all parts of Asia.



Provence in Tianjin?

Tianjin’s power-holders are acutely aware of their city’s history, but today the city’s colonial phase is being actively re-interpreted as marking the beginning of its globalisation. Tianjin’s hybrid cityscape has become a new frontier for the experimentation of new models of architecture and governance. Tianjin today is the city with the greatest number of foreign-style buildings in China, and it is often referred to as a permanent ‘Exhibition of World Architecture’ (wanguo jianzhu bolanhui), a tag that encapsulates the fact that the city boasts the simultaneous presence of different architectural styles in what amounts to a plein air museum. What is distinctive in the case of Tianjin is the fact that the post-socialist phase coincided with the construction of the master narrative of Tianjin as a globalising city. The historical contingency of Tianjin falling into the ‘third wave’ of China’s urbanization strategy, has contributed to obscure the possible negotiation and any controversial debates on Tianjin’s post-colonial and post-socialist identity. The fact that Tianjin’s urban transformation in the post-Mao era started later than Beijing and Shanghai, determined a specific strategy-making process that unfolded in the context of the municipality administration’s reinvention of the past and rewriting of the city’s history in the name of Tianjin’s ‘beauty’ and ‘charisma’. Chinese citizens and foreign tourists alike, are told that they do not even need to leave China to experience the world: it is enough to visit Tianjin. Over the last decade the urban planning strategy for Tianjin’s former concessions has combined the re-ordering and re-designing of foreign space in concert with Tianjin’s vaunting ambition to promote its globalising identity. Today Tianjin planners are striving to tell a unique story of the city (and especially to tell Tianjin apart from Beijing and Shanghai). This is a narrative that reinterprets China’s transnational history and the city’s architectural past in a novel manner.


An important factor is the development, from 1994 onwards, of the Tianjin Binhai ‘New Area’ (滨海新区). Located on the Bohai Sea coast, east of Tianjin’s metropolitan area, Binhai covers an area of approximately 3,000 sq. km (1,200 sq. mi), and it was consolidated in 2009 into a district (滨海县). Binhai is officially presented as the ‘Dragon’s head’ of Tianjin’s opening up: the equivalent of Shanghai’s Pudong ‘New Area’, and Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. Binhai maintains an annual growth rate of nearly 30%, and its GDP effectively outpaced Pudong in December 2010. Today Binhai produces more than 50% of Tianjin’s total GDP.


Binhai was created by the Chinese Government both as a base for China’s advanced industrial and financial reform, and a base for science and technology innovation, with a stronger presence –if compared with Shanghai Pudong- of State companies. The industries present in this area of are: aviation and aerospace, automotive, petrochemicals, equipment manufacturing, electronics information.


Binhai is an area with abundant natural resources, especially oil resources totalling more than 100 million tons, and 193.7 billion cubic meters (6.84 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas. Aside from its role as a container port, Tianjin is a major industrial base for manufacturing, car-making and petrochemicals. In March 2013 Tianjin Deputy Mayor announced another major success in the process of transforming Tianjin into an international trading hub, with the launch of the Dongjiang Free-Trade zone. Located in the eastern side of Binhai, Dongjiang’s favourable policies would have included, according to Binhai Communist Party Secretary Zong Guoying ‘transit visas, a reduction or exemption in tariffs and streamlined procedures for ships and cargo handling’ (China Daily, 4 March 2013).


The port of Tianjin is one of the major hubs in the whole world for oil refining and petrol-chemicals. In 2011-2013 Tianjin was the worlds’ tenth container port in volume. The port of Tianjin is epitomised as China’s ‘Gateway to the World’, and certainly to northern China for the shipment of metal ore, coal, crude oil and automobiles. By the end of 2010, 285 Fortune Global 500 companies had already invested and established branch offices in the Tianjin-Binhai new area. Motorola, Toyota, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, LG, the Maersk Group, BHP Billiton Ltd., to name just a few, all operate here.


Ultimately, Tianjin is currently undergoing a massive renovation program to re-establish its pre-Communist era status as north China’s financial capital. The ambitious task is to claim a distinctive identity in relation to capital Beijing, and to supplement the other role-modelling dynamos of the Chinese miracle, namely Shanghai and Shenzhen.



However, in the last few days Tianjin has made once again the headlines, for another tragic event. It was around midnight on 12th August 2015, or to be more precise 23:34 and 6 seconds and again about 30 seconds later, that two massive explosions took place in the Binhai new growth area of the port-city of Tianjin. Entire buildings were destroyed –especially the prefabricated structures which function as dormitories for the migrant-workers’ precarious lives —, while many shipping containers collapsed, all the windows of the neighbouring apartment blocks were shuttered, thousands of cars were burnt. Everything in a 2 km radius was practically obliterated. According to the data available on Monday 17th August: 114 people died (but 90 are still missing) and 721 were injured (33 in very serious conditions), while more than 6,000 people were displaced because of what the Chinese media has epitomised as ‘Tianjin port 8 /12’: ‘An extremely serious fire explosions incident’ (天津港“8·12” 别重大火灾爆炸事). The exact cause of the explosions is still unclear, but what is clear is that the explosions occurred after a hazardous-chemical storage facility ignited in the Dongjiang Free-Trade-Zone in the Binhai new area, where the company Ruihai International Logistics started operating in 2011. A few minutes after the explosions the website of the Ruihai became suddenly unavailable, but not soon enough to conceal that the company had a list of ‘hazardous products’ stored in its containers: argon and compressed natural gas; flammable liquids; flammable solids and self-combustible goods; oxidizing agents; toxics chemicals including sodium cyanide (used in the mining industry for the extraction of gold and silver from ores); and corrosives.


On Sunday 16tianjin cars2th August, the Chinese police confirmed the presence of the highly toxic sodium cyanide in the storage. Apparently, up to 700 tonnes of the chemical were stored in this single location, which is 70 times the amount legally allowed. The company is under investigation for the possible crime of illegal transportation of chemicals, even though some of the Chinese reports say that all documentation has been destroyed in the fire. What is certain is that the safety regulations have been violated since, according to the Chinese law, there should have been no residential apartment blocks within 1 km of chemical plants and hazardous product storage depots. But who really knew what kind of hazardous products were stored in this area? Not even the firefighters, many of whom lost their lives (at least 39), since they hosed water to douse the flames, but effectively they made the blaze worse, since sodium cyanide is water reactive.


This tragic event has fuelled rising public concerns about China’s environmental safety standards, at a time when the Government continues to proclaim its full commitment to embracing an ‘ecological civilisation’ and create a ‘beautiful China’, raising some serious question about the relationship between the so-called ‘urban revolution’ on the one hand and what the Tianjin Municipal Govrnment can and has to do to make Tianjin liveable and sustainable for its citizens.

Maurizio Marinelli is Senior Lecturer in East Asian History, China-Sussex History Exchange Academic Programme Director; and Co-Director Sussex Asia Centre

Ruth Rogaski, Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

Sun Yatsen, Guofu Quanji (The Complete Works of the Founding Father), (Taibei: Zhongguo Guomin  Zhongyang Weiyuanhui, 1923), Vol. 1, Sanminzhuyi lecture 2:19.

Zhao Yinan, ‘Change of Tide for Tianjin’, China Daily, 4 March 2013.