Lesson from Tianjin: China has built its megacities—now it’s time to make them livable and safe

A drone flies over the site of last week’s explosions at Binhai new district in Tianjin, China.
A drone flies over the site of last week’s explosions at Binhai new district in Tianjin, China.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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The Chinese city of Tianjin was not very well known to Western audiences until around midnight, or—to be more precise—at 23:34 and six seconds, on Aug. 12, 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 tons 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 – while many shipping containers collapsed, all the windows of the neighboring apartment blocks were shattered, 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.


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 14.7 million 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, 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 (1856-1860).

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 (1900–1902). 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 centers 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. Tianjin today is 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.
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%, 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% of Tianjin’s total GDP and contributes 30% 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.

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

But this expansion must be managed properly. The tragic events in Tianjin have fueled 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 civilization” and create a “beautiful China.” China has built its megacities—now it’s time to make them livable and safe.