A brief guide to Tianjin, past, present and future

The blast site at Tianjin. Image: EPA.

The Chinese city of Tianjin was not very well known to Western audiences until around midnight – or to be precise, 23:34hrs and six seconds – on 12 August 2015, when two massive explosions took place in the city’s port.

The detonations were described on weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform, as feeling like earthquakes. The seismographs of the China National Earthquake Centre registered the blasts and evaluated the explosions of a magnitude equal to 2.3 and 2.9 respectively, equivalent to detonating 21 tonnes of TNT.

So far, 114 people have died and 721 have been injured, while more than 6,000 people were displaced. Entire buildings were destroyed – especially the prefabricated structures which function as dormitories for the migrant workers’ precarious lives. Meanwhile many shipping containers collapsed, all the windows of the neighbouring apartment blocks were shattered, and thousands of cars were burnt.

Investigators have identified large amounts of sodium cyanide at the site, a hazardous-chemical storage facility in the Dongjiang Free-Trade-Zone in the Binhai new area, where the company Ruihai International Logistics started operating in 2011.

Recovery efforts in Binhai. Image: Reuters.

Tianjin is part of China’s Bohai Bay area. Earmarked as a strategic component of the 11th Five-Year Plan, Bohai Bay is now a rising northern economic powerhouse that rivals both the Pearl and Yangtze River deltas.

Tianjin has a population of 14.7m people, and is the third-largest urban area in China after Beijing and Shanghai. It has traditionally acted as a port for 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 unique position in Chinese history: it represents an unparalleled microcosm of the world in the late-imperial and republican eras, encompassing both the height and the decline of the age of imperialism (1860–1945). In the second half of the 19th century, it became the most important commercial city in northern China, having been opened as a treaty port in 1860. This was 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).

Tianjin, 1902.

Between 1860 and 1945, Tianjin was the site of up to nine foreign-controlled concessions, or outposts, functioning side by side, as well as being temporarily home to a multinational military government (1900–02). Ruth Rogaski argues that Tianjin’s distinctiveness deserves the appellation of a “hyper-colony”: when one city is divided among a large number of empires.


During that time, 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.

Modern trade hub

Tianjin’s power-holders are acutely aware of their city’s history, but today the city’s hyper-colonial phase is being re-interpreted as marking the beginning of its globalisation. Tianjin’s hybrid cityscape has become a new frontier for experimentation of new models of architecture and governance. Today it's the city with the greatest number of foreign-style buildings in China, and is often referred to as a permanent exhibition of world architecture.

The city boasts the simultaneous presence of different architectural styles in what amounts to a giant, outdoor museum. 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.

Florence? No, Tianjin. Image: Reuters/David Gray.

An important part of modern Tianjin is the development, from 1994 onwards, of the Tianjin Binhai “New Area”. Sitting on the Bohai Sea coast, east of Tianjin’s metropolitan area, Binhai covers an area of approximately 3,000 square km (1,200 square miles), and was consolidated in 2009 into a district. Binhai is officially presented as the “Dragon’s head” of Tianjin: the equivalent of Shanghai’s Pudong New Area, and Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.

Binhai maintains an annual growth rate of 17 per cent, and its GDP effectively outpaced Pudong in December 2010. By the end of 2010, 285 Fortune Global 500 companies had 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.

Today Binhai, which has been recently assigned first-time A3 rating by Moody’s Investors Service, produces around 56 per cent of Tianjin’s total GDP and contributes 30 per cent of the municipal government fiscal reserves.

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 – compared to Shanghai Pudong – of state companies. It is a hub for aviation and aerospace, automotive, petrochemicals, equipment manufacturing, electronics information industries.

Binhai also boasts abundant natural resources, especially oil resources, which total more than 10 billion 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.

Historic transformation

Urban transformation in China represents both a domestic revolution and a world-historical event – it is the largest construction project in the planet’s history. The growth of cities such as Tianjin can be considered the most successful political campaign launched by the Chinese Communist Party in the post-Mao era.

Italian town, Tianjin. Image: Bowen Chin, CC BY-NC-SA.

According to a study by McKinsey Global Institute, rural to urban migration will create 400m new city-dwellers by 2020. By 2030, there will be 1bn Chinese people living in cities, with more than 221 Chinese cities with a population over 1m. By 2025, the GDP generated by cities will rise to 95 per cent, and the total share of China’s population living in cities might reach 70 per cent.


But this expansion must be managed properly. The tragic events in Tianjin have 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”. China has built its megacities – now it’s time to make them liveable, and safe.The Conversation

Maurizio Marinelli is senior lecturer In east Asian history and co-director of Sussex Asia Centre at University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.