TIANJIN, China — One partner was the son of a local police chief, the other an executive at a state-run chemicals firm. After meeting at a dinner party, they started a company here to handle the export of the most dangerous chemicals made in China, promising "outstanding service" and "good results."
Within two years, Rui Hai International Logistics had built a reputation as the go-to place for businesses looking to ship hazardous materials to customers abroad, a niche market that had been dominated by sluggish state enterprises.
Rui Hai offered lower prices, a no-hassle approach to paperwork and quick government approvals. Business was brisk. It seemed like another success story for the Binhai New Area, a thriving economic development zone established here by the ruling Communist Party around one of China's busiest seaports.
Now more than two weeks after explosions at its warehouses leveled a swath of that district, killing 158 people, injuring more than 700 and leaving millions here fearful of toxic fallout, Rui Hai has become a symbol of something else for many Chinese: the high cost of rapid industrialization in a closed political system rife with corruption.
In interviews with more than a dozen of Rui Hai's former clients and associates — and unusually critical reports in China's state-controlled news media — a picture has emerged of a company that exploited weak governance in one of the party's showcase economic districts and used political connections to shield its operations from scrutiny.
Rui Hai began handling hazardous chemicals before it obtained a permit to do so, and it secured licenses and approvals from at least five local agencies that conducted questionable reviews of its operations. Local authorities outsourced one safety review required for a storage permit to a private contractor that Rui Hai selected and paid.
As much as 3,000 tons of hazardous chemicals were stored at Rui Hai on the night of the explosions, including 700 tons of sodium cyanide, deadly in a dose of less than a tablespoon, and 1,300 tons of fertilizer nitrates, more than 500 times the amount used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Rui Hai's shipping yard covered more than 11 acres, but clients said it routinely packed huge volumes of different volatile chemicals together in haphazard fashion instead of storing them separately, at safe distances and in smaller quantities as recommended in the industry.
"Nobody wanted to stand in their way," said one chemicals exporter in Tianjin, who asked not to be named to protect his business from reprisal, when asked why regulators took no action.
The catastrophe in Tianjin has stunned a nation inured to living with one of the worst industrial safety records in the world. By the government's own count, more than 68,000 people were killed in such accidents last year — nearly 200 every day, most of them poor, powerless and far from China's boom towns.
But the Aug. 12 blasts at Rui Hai were different, because they occurred so close to middle-class neighborhoods in one of China's most prosperous cities, a modern metropolis of 15 million just a half-hour ride from Beijing on gleaming high-speed trains. And they unfolded nearly in real time online, with dramatic video footage shared widely across social media before censors could stop it. Criticism of the party's management of the economy had already been on the rise, with growth at its slowest pace in a quarter-century and the stock market reeling since early summer. Now the explosions have prompted broader questions about whether party officials who operate with few checks on their authority can pursue development without endangering public health and safety.
"From the blasts to the botched government response, everything about this disaster is outrageous, which is why people are so furious," said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing. "It was a man-made disaster that could have been prevented, and it has exposed a range of systemic problems, from the lack of regulation for handling hazardous chemicals to the collusion of business and corrupt officials."
Trust in the government could erode further if evidence emerges that local officials overlooked and concealed the dangers posed by Rui Hai and other facilities in the Binhai New Area.
As recently as 2013, Chinese academics warned of "many unacceptable environmental risks" in the district, citing the growing chance of accidents from the storage of dangerous materials so close to residential neighborhoods and singling out the area where the Rui Hai facility was located. That warning, and others like it dating to at least 2008, were ignored.
"In terms of official neglect and mismanagement, what happened in Binhai is just the tip of the iceberg of what's happening across China," said Wu Yixiu, a campaigner for Greenpeace. "Local governments are putting economic growth first and keeping residents in the dark about the dangers of these facilities."
China's top leaders have promised a transparent investigation into the disaster, and nearly two dozen local officials and Rui Hai employees have been detained or placed under investigation. But the government has thus far been silent on crucial questions, including what exactly caused the blasts. Nor has it addressed reports that firefighters in the district were unprepared to deal with a chemical fire and may have triggered bigger explosions or released toxins by spraying water on the blaze.
"We had no idea it was a warehouse for dangerous goods," said Quan Li, 25, a firefighter who was buried under debris when the fire department's building collapsed in the blasts. Speaking by phone from a hospital bed, he said the department had drafted a risk-management plan this year that identified the most dangerous sites in the port.
Rui Hai, he said, was not on the map.