China officials calm homeowner protests over Tianjin blast

A resident evacuated from her home shouts slogans while holding images of her damaged house during a rally in Tianjin, China on Aug 19, 2015.
A resident evacuated from her home shouts slogans while holding images of her damaged house during a rally in Tianjin, China on Aug 19, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

TIANJIN (AFP) - Officials in the Chinese port city of Tianjin agreed on Wednesday to negotiate with angry residents left homeless by massive explosions, after a series of protests seeking compensation for their destroyed homes.

China keeps a tight grip on shows of public dissent, requiring public gatherings to have permission and using police to round up protesters, though officials sometimes meet with disgruntled citizens to defuse tensions.

About 150 demonstrators who lost homes in the city's Binhai New Area where the blasts occurred a week ago were caught by surprise on Wednesday, after several officials spoke to them following a press conference by Tianjin mayor Huang Xingguo and others at a luxury hotel.

For days, protesters - under the watchful eyes of police - have been shouting slogans and demanding compensation for their damaged apartments, some just hundreds of metres from the site of the blasts that left at least 114 people dead and hundreds injured.

They have also demanded a meeting with officials to press claims that the government should pay for new apartments.

Several officials emerged after the press conference and approached the demonstration, causing a chaotic scene of screaming and jostling as protesters rushed toward them, as Chinese and foreign journalists recorded the event.

"Buy back!" they shouted repeatedly - voicing their demand for new homes - as officials, including Zong Guoying, the Communist Party secretary for the district, took megaphones to speak.

Officials said they understood the plight of the residents and were concerned about their health.

One proposed that protesters from each affected apartment complex select representatives for talks with district officials.

There were intermittent bursts of anger in response to remarks by the officials, but gradually representatives for some of the apartments were agreed.

But protester Xuan Hong stressed that all the officials had really done was commit to talks.

"Positive, but still no solution," he told AFP.

"I think they already have their solution but I'm not sure they can meet our expectations," he added, referring to the demand to purchase new homes.

Indeed, regarding that, Zong said that it was just one option.

"We have many, many ways", he told AFP amid the scrum as other officials addressed the protest, suggesting that the government, the apartment developers and the owners need to sit down as "partners".

Asked if officials had come out in response to the protests, he said: "This is our responsibility. We are the people's government."

Pressed as to why Huang did not meet them, Zong said that was his responsibility not the mayor's.

"He is in charge of the whole city," Zong said. "I'm in charge of the Binhai New Area."

At the press conference Huang said: "I have leadership responsibility that cannot be shirked."

Premier Li Keqiang visited Tianjin on Sunday to inspect the area, though some online commentators questioned why he took four days to do so.

The scene outside the hotel unfolded as skies cleared in Tianjin. Rain had fallen in the morning and on Tuesday, further raising fears over damage to the environment from the residue of poisonous chemicals.

Around 700 tonnes of highly toxic sodium cyanide were at the site, officials have said, and water could spread it more widely.

Despite the loud demands for compensation, the protesters have also taken some pains to avoid angering officials, unfurling banners stressing that they "love the party" and "trust the government" as well as making sure to show respect for those who lost their lives in the disaster.

"Chinese democracy is different," Zong, the Communist Party secretary, said of Wednesday's scene. "But the Chinese government is working for the Chinese people."