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Tianjin disaster crews fight to neutralize site amid anger in China

A family member of a missing firefighter from the recent explosions at a chemical warehouse protests outside a hotel where authorities are holding a press conference in Tianjin on August 16, 2015. Furious, frustrated and fearful, relatives of the missing in the giant explosions in Tianjin besieged officials demanding answers on their loved ones's fates - only for security to intervene instead.

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Specially trained disaster crews are racing to neutralize a toxic cocktail of chemicals at a Chinese disaster site before rain falls and potentially causes more devastation, as scores of people – mostly first responders who charged unawares into the nightmarish scene – remain missing in Tianjin.

The desperate work was set against seething anger in China against what people are calling the "Pinocchio" version of events put forward by officials, and widespread questions about the bent rules and systemic failures behind one of the worst man-made disasters in the country's modern history.

The death toll now stands at 112, after massive explosions from a warehouse filled with deadly chemicals scorched the port area of the sprawling city on the shores of Bohai Bay not far from Beijing last week. At least 95 are unaccounted for missing, 85 of them firefighters.

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang came to the site Sunday, leading a moment of silence and standing for photos as the country's leadership seeks to demonstrate competence and compassion. But his visit was met with bitter jokes that, until Sunday, the air in Tianjin was too toxic for the top leadership to breathe.

Mr. Li visited a Tianjin fire station and called the firefighters "all heroes" who "deserve the respect of the whole society."

At the explosion site, meanwhile soldiers dressed in heavy breathing masks and trained in "nuclear biochemical detection" were dispatched to the toxic remnants of a warehouse that once contained at least 100 tonnes of sodium cyanide – far in excess of what was allowed at the site, Chinese media reported – and calcium carbide. The latter can create noxious gases when it mixes with water, and crews were racing to clean up stockpiles before the next rain.

Online, meanwhile, authorities struggled to cleanse a raging conversation that attacked the official response and the system that had allowed such a disaster to happen. Social-media users shared photos of families rallying behind a giant handwritten banner demanding  details about the missing: "Either we see them alive or see their bodies," read one.

Anger emerged in hashtags calling the situation "A real life Pinocchio" and demanding "Tanggu explosion truth," a reference to the Tianjin neighbourhood where the blasts left a gaping crater.

"We demand the truth, and strict punishment to comfort the victims!" wrote one person on China's Facebook-like Weibo site.

"People are casting doubt on the credibility of official information," said Lynette Ong, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who studies the political economy of development in China. "While [Chinese President Xi Jinping's] government can get tough on information control, its credibility isn't improving. The consequence seems to be the opposite."

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Local media, too, have pushed the boundaries of government criticism, with the Beijing Times asking why state television has continued to cut away from press conferences once questions begin.

Journalists at those press conferences gave some insight into why: Facing a barrage of inquiries, propaganda officials often gave no response, saying only, "Let me check." Local security personnel have also sought to physically obstruct foreign media from speaking to family members of the missing.

Access to public registry websites has also been blocked, although on Sunday the National Enterprises Credit and Information System revealed information on Ruihai International, the company that owns the exploded warehouse. It listed the chairman as Li Liang, a man identified by overseas Chinese media as the nephew of Li Ruihuan, a Tianjin-born former Politburo member and chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

The disaster's aftermath has raised numerous questions about how Ruihua was able to store such large volumes of dangerous chemicals closer to residential neighbourhoods than Chinese law allows, raising suspicions of high-level corruption.

On Sunday, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the top prosecution body in China, launched an investigation into "possible illegal acts, such as abuse of power or dereliction of duty and deal with those acts which may constitute crimes," the Xinhua news agency reported.

The first blasts in Tianjin came exactly 1,000 days since Mr. Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee, the day he ascended to the pinnacle of Chinese power. Some seized on the series of explosions as a symbol of "his imminent downfall, which took the blast victims as his burial sacrifices," said Rose Tang, one of the leader of the student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and now a biting critic of the Chinese regime.

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"Such blasts and accidents are inevitable because of the corruption and absence of rule of law and democracy."

The Communist Party of China has long held a grand bargain with its people that allowed the party to ruthlessly maintain power in exchange for providing an ever-improving standard of life.

But waning growth – its effects keenly felt, particularly as house prices falter – has raised scrutiny, and public criticism, of the ways life has also degraded.

With "this sort of man-made enormous tragedy, combined with China's slowing economy and the increasing revelations of extreme corruption of Party and military leaders, people may start to question whether the existing political institutions are really good enough for China," said Charles Burton, an associate professor of political science at Brock University who specializes in China.

With a report from Yu Mei

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