China jails former head of safety watchdog for 15 years for graft

BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Friday jailed the former head of its safety watchdog for 15 years for graft, the state broadcaster said, wrapping up an inquiry launched after deadly blasts in 2015 killed nearly 170 people in the city of Tianjin, where he worked.

Yang Dongliang, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, attends a meeting in Beijing, China, March 7, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

Regular mishaps, from factory fires to mine cave-ins, have boosted public concern about China’s relatively lax safety standards, which the government has pledged to improve.

Yang Dongliang, former head of the State Administration of Work Safety, who spent much of his career in the port city, was suspected of violating law and party discipline and sacked days after the blasts in a warehouse storing hazardous chemicals.

A court in Beijing found Yang guilty of abusing his position, including when he was former vice mayor of northeastern Tianjin, by accepting bribes to grant contracts to companies, China Central Television (CCTV) said.

In 1999, a property developer gave Yang an apartment in a new development complex that he failed register with the authorities.

The court reduced his sentence because Yang confessed and took steps to return bribe money and assets to the state treasury, CCTV said.

State media did not mention the blasts. Yang could not immediately be reached for comment.

The company operating the chemical warehouse that blew up in August 2015, injuring hundreds, did not have the license needed to handle and store dangerous materials for more than a year, state media said at the time.

Yang’s agency, the State Administration of Work Safety, said on its website he signed a directive in 2012 allowing companies to function without a license to work with dangerous chemicals as long as they had a license governing port operations.

Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed after the Tianjin blasts that the authorities should learn the lessons paid for in blood.

The explosions in the world’s 10th-busiest port forced the evacuation of thousands of people from a large industrial site and nearby residential areas after toxic chemicals were detected in the air.

There were about 700 tons of deadly sodium cyanide in the warehouse at the time, the government said.

Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Clarence Fernandez