Environment & Health HKFP Voices

Unreal city, real people: The untold story of Tianjin

Just before midnight on August 12, 2015, a massive explosion tore apart the port of Tianjin, killing over one hundred people, leaving thousands homeless, contaminating an urban area with toxins, inflicting billions in damage, closing the tenth-largest port in the world, and casting a shadow over one of north China’s success stories.

Western media accounts have described the explosion as “shaking Tianjin” or “striking Tianjin city,” or have told audiences that Tianjin is primarily a port city and built a narrative around an explosion in the “heart of the city,” but the actual scale and organization of Tianjin Municipality is generally missing from these stories. Tianjin may be a bustling metropolis of 15 million people on paper, but that sketch of the city is, strictly speaking, unreal.

tianjin blast aftermath

Aftermath of the Tianjin explosions. Photo: ENCS.

Historically, the name Tianjin dates back to the 15th century Yongle Emperor, and meant, “The Place Where the Son of Heaven [the Emperor] Crossed the River.” For hundreds of years before that, Tianjin had been a port city called Zhigu on the Grand Canal. Yes, Tianjin was historically a port city, but those ports were mainly on the Haihe, Tianjin’s “Sea River.” The muddy coast where the port of Tianjin now faces the Bohai Sea was strategically important, but did not take on economic significance until Tianjin became a Treaty Port in the 19th century.

From the Republic of China through to the present-day People’s Republic of China, Tianjin has been a Chinese municipality. Municipalities are different from cities in the English sense of the word, as they encompass both an urban core and a belt of rural townships and edge cities. Originally, Tianjin was the capital of Hebei Province, but when the PRC established it as a direct-controlled municipality—that is, a city controlled by the central government in Beijing and given equal status to a province—Tianjin was spun off as an independent city, albeit one with an area of more than 4,500 square miles.

Tanggu's view of Tianjin Port.

Looking at Tianjin Port from Tanggu. Photo: Matthew Stinson.

To put this in an American perspective, Tianjin municipality is about the size of Connecticut, or twice the size of Delaware. Yet again, the word “city” misleads more than it informs. The urban area of Tianjin is only 67.5 square miles, roughly the size of Washington, D.C. The port of Tianjin is about the same distance from the city center of Tianjin as Miami is to the center of Homestead, Florida, or similar to the distance between the center of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

There’s another interesting (and arguably annoyingly confusing) set of political subdivisions of Tianjin’s geography that gets lost in most headlines. The port of Tianjin is part of the sprawling, 880 square mile Binhai New Area, a district-level administrative unit, created in 2009, which includes the edge cities Tanggu, Hangu, and Dagang. Tanggu is further subdivided into Tanggu town and TEDA, the Tianjin Economic Development Area, which sits adjacent to the port. Tanggu is distinct from downtown Tianjin, with its own climate, history, and topolect. TEDA, for its part, is more like Shenzhen: it has few actual “locals” and instead draws its population from all over China and all over the world.

TEDA’s large expat population reflects the fact that by 2015, Tianjin was home to more Fortune 500 companies than Shanghai. This was by design, not by luck. From the Hu Jintao years on, Beijing has wanted a northern economic hub that could balance against Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta and the political and economic factions of Shanghai.

Through liberal tax policies and aggressive reclamation of land at the coast, China laid the foundation for Binhai to become the fastest-growing region in north China. Much of Tianjin’s economic success since 2005 can be attributed to the Binhai district, and TEDA in particular. A few years ago, Chinese from other cities derided Tianjin as the “biggest village in China.” That joke stopped making sense once the muncipality boasted the largest per capita GDP in the country.

TEDA factory workers, pictured in 2005.

Garment workers are pictured at a factory in TEDA in 2005. Photo: Matthew Stinson

Given the relative newness of the Binhai district, it is naturally less famous than TEDA itself. Since its designation as a Special Economic Zone in 1984, TEDA has long been an economic showcase for Tianjin, famous for its wide avenues, conspicuous green spaces, and high-tech industry. When city planners in the Tianjin city government want to “sell” foreign investors on Tianjin, they take them to TEDA, which is effectively a city within a city within a city.

Motorola opened its China factory in TEDA in 1993 and set the standard for companies in the area. One friend recalls that everyone in Tianjin in the 1990s was jealous of the “big green lawn” in front of Motorola. Other companies, foreign and domestic alike, followed suit; during a factory tour in 2005, one Chinese manager in TEDA boasted to me that his garment company had the “most beautiful factory in China.”

While China’s government has declared the port and TEDA distinct entities, residents of Tianjin see both the port and TEDA as the same kaifaqu (development area). Binhai is linked to downtown by several highways, but the main corridor is along the Binhai Light Rail, Line 9 of Tianjin’s metro, which ends at the now-destroyed Donghai Road Station. Much of Tianjin city’s sprawl follows the path of Jintang Highway and Jin Bin Avenue, both of which lead to the Binhai kaifaqu. Hundreds of thousands of Tianjiners commute back and forth between Binhai and the city every week, and many own one apartment in the kaifaqu and one in the city.

The loss of the Donghai Road Station has meant the closure of all of Line 9 for the foreseeable future, cutting off Binhai from the rest of Tianjin for most commuters. Those with private cars or work shuttle buses can continue to commute as normal, but HSR and taxis are prohibitively expensive alternatives to the light rail service, while long-distance buses are unreliable for commuters. Note that because trains cannot be serviced properly at the end of the line, the damage to Donghai Road Station has even affected Line 9’s operation in downtown Tianjin. Furthermore, both Tianjin Pipe Corporation, part of the Binhai Steel Group, and the Tianjin branch of IKEA depend on Line 9.

Binhai Light Rail

The Binhai Light Rail train going through Dongli District, 2005. Photo: Matthew Stinson

Even after Motorola began to wind down its operations in Tianjin and their “big green lawn” became the stuff of legend, TEDA was considered one of the cleanest, most developed, most beautiful parts of Tianjin. That reputation endured for 30 years — until the Tianjin port explosion. This, for Tianjin people, adds much to their shock at the destruction of the port and the neighborhoods in TEDA.

Although Binhai is by all rights another city, it’s still Tianjin. Tianjiners ask, if one of the most well-run parts of their municipality could be devastated by a sudden convergence of misfortune, greed, and negligence, what does that say about the rest of Tianjin?

Unreal city, real people: The untold story of Tianjin