By David Bandurski — There is now much less coverage in China’s traditional media of shoddy school construction and its devastating effects during the Sichuan quake. Media have, however, turned to more general coverage of a series of related issues, including inadequate government oversight of the construction industry (leading to the problem of “tofu construction”) and poor disaster preparedness. ” [Frontpage Image: John R. Chapin sketch of the Great Chicago Fire, from Harper’s Weekly, 1871.]
When open criticism of the powers is a sensitive matter, allegory can prove a powerful tool. And one of the most interesting pieces to appear today, a rehashing by the official China News Service of an article in Hong Kong’s Wen Hui Bao (文汇报), compares the May 12 Sichuan earthquake to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.


The implications of the passage below, which follows the article’s lead paragraph, can hardly be mistaken — that is, negligence in 1871, and negligence in 2008:

If Chicago had not had only 185 firefighters at the time, and only 17 fire engines, had its safety and warning system been more systematic and scientific, and had the government and city residents had a stronger sense of prevention, then the losses that year would have been much less significant. In the same way, if buildings in Sichuan, particularly school buildings in the disaster area, had been built with more care to quake resistance, and had city residents and students received better and more effective earthquake preparedness education, then the costs of the earthquake would have been much lower.

On the problem of poor-quality construction and its systemic causes, one of the best examples today comes from The Beijing News, which has a lengthy report on page B12 called, “Construction quality issues point to ‘unspoken rules’ in the industry.
The report outlines a series of problems and scenarios, using specific cases to illustrate each point. It begins:

For years now, construction quality has been a problem concerning both home buyers and industry experts. And although, according to this reporter’s investigation, few severe cases owing to problems with principal building structures have occurred in Beijing, bad plumbing, detached walls and other structural quality issues routinely crop up, so that instances of rights defense among homeowners have not slackened. In order to once again draw attention to the issue of construction quality, we hope to bring out the unspoken rules that exist in the construction industry by writing about how various quality issues emerge at various points in the real-estate development process, so that we can reflect on the abnormalities that still exist in the real-estate sector.

The report points out, for example, that there is an urgent need to strengthen government oversight of construction projects, and that the present inspection system lacks the proper personnel and resources. In addition, the deterrents to illegal behavior are not sufficient, according to industry insiders:

Only a small portion of developers who initiate projects against regulations act with impunity, but there are a large number of violators who approach the Commission of Urban Planning directly to ‘admit their errors’ (承认错误), and those who show sufficient remorse can fudge their way through by paying only a minimal fines and earn their check and acceptance permits (竣工验收表).
We can see from the disciplinary actions undertaken by the Municipal Commission of Urban Planning that fines are the most common form of disciplinary action. But fines are actually a limited deterrent for real-estate developers. Some industry insiders believe that in cases where developers defy regulations, hearings should be held, and other disciplinary measures should be considered in addition to fines, including return of the site to its original state, in order to exercise more pressure [on developers to comply].

For an interesting look at officially registered violations of construction code, readers might explore this portion of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning website, which provides company names, registration numbers and specific code violations.
[Posted by David Bandurski, June 6, 2008, 6:15pm HK]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

Latest Articles