BEIJING -- With the death toll rising from Wednesday's blast in Tianjin's warehouse district, Chinese authorities are reeling from accusations of an inadequate response.
According to Tianjin city officials, 56 had died as of Friday evening and 721 were hospitalized. Those numbers are expected to climb. Another small explosion occurred at the scene on Friday.
Authorities have been slow to resolve the situation, and citizens and independent-minded media outlets are crying foul. Censors are having a hard time keeping a lid on the inconvenient criticisms spreading across social networking sites, leaving the government of President Xi Jinping struggling to find a solution to the problem.
Many are pointing to insufficient enforcement of safety rules. Transportation stations and residences were near the warehouses containing chemicals, reported Beijing News. Because Chinese regulations say those structures should be located at least 1 kilometer away, it appears the newspaper is obliquely questioning city authorities' governance.
Several media outlets are reporting that firefighters put out a conflagration that occurred at the warehouses before the explosion. Some chemicals become more flammable if they come in contact with water. On Internet media, where government supervision is lax, accusations have surfaced that 21 firefighters died because of errors in the initial response.
The disaster is also raising questions about a lack of transparency. Since Thursday evening, city officials have held intermittent press conferences where all they do is emphasize the efforts being put into fire and rescue operations. When it comes to the death toll or the cause of the explosion, they give evasive responses then end the questioning.
Theories abound on the Internet of possible ties between top management of Rui Hai International Logistics, the company that owns the warehouses, and city officials. People are also spreading news that poisonous substances such as cyanide compounds exceeding standard levels were detected at the scene. Officials have failed to respond to those allegations in a satisfying manner during press conferences.
Whenever major accidents happen in China, the Communist Party's publicity arm sends out notices controlling media reports. It is no different this time around as the party sent out a notice to the media Thursday at dawn. It reportedly said, "use Xinhua News Agency articles," referring to the official mouthpiece of the party.
On Thursday afternoon, China's office charged with supervising Internet activity ordered the Henan Province newspaper Zhengzhou Evening News to close its WeChat account for a week for spreading false information about the explosion on social networking sites.
"When there is a huge explosion in a city as big as Tianjin, they can't suppress the spread of various information on the Internet," said a Chinese reporter. There are also videos released unofficially on social media showing the press corps asking city officials why they will not allow coverage of the accident scene.