A major disaster in China has destroyed Sichuan schools. That’s why.

The 2008 earthquake occurred 13 years ago, but the families of more than 5,335 dead students will never be able to forget it. Nor did children who were left with permanent and life-changing injuries (such as amputations) after nearly 7,000 classrooms collapsed during the 7.9 magnitude Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan, China.

Although many other buildings were damaged that day (including 5.5 million houses) and at least 68,712 people died (the actual death toll could have been much higher), Chinese citizens and some civil engineers reported poor design. and the lack of seismic fortification in these schools, noting that most of the older buildings in the area received only minor damage. Almost immediately, people began to wonder why schools were so badly affected.

A collapsed kindergarten in Jiangyou, Sichuan. Source: Archey Firefly / Flickr

Liang Wei, executive vice president of the Institute of Urban Design and Research at Tsinghua University, wrote in independent magazine that “Buildings built strictly to civil planning specifications will not collapse during an earthquake. Any building that collapsed instantly must not have met civil planning standards. Either the design is inappropriate or the engineering is unsuitable. ”

The scandal was just beginning.

Tofu-Drag Projects

In 1998, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji visited the Yangtze River floods. He said publicly that they looked as weak and porous as the “tofu sludge” —the pieces left over from the tofu process. Inadvertently, the prime minister coined a term that would be used to describe a common and pitiful problem in China. In fact, after this episode of the Yangtze River, the term “tofu-drag” came into widespread use as a metaphor for describing shoddy construction, often as a result of corruption.

Yingxiu building collapsed
Source: David and Jesse Cowig / Flickr

In the case of Sichuan, education ministry officials and executives were accused of collecting money from school construction budgets to keep for themselves. With less money to spend, officials were accused of buying low-quality materials and hiring unskilled architects and contractors who charged less or who had more political connections than knowledge or experience. Others say the materials used to build schools were sold by contractors for personal gain. The result was a series of very poorly constructed schools, which eventually collapsed on the heads of students on May 12, 2008 at 2:28 p.m.

After visiting China in 2011. Canadian journalist Lawrence Solomon writes that people are afraid of these tofu projects. More specifically, he said, “they fear that a ‘tofu dam’ could fail, leading to hundreds of thousands of casualties down the chain.”

These people probably remember the collapse of Banqiao Dam, one of the most tragic “tofu projects” that eventually killed 230,000 people in 1975. Again, this was a structural failure that was thought to be exacerbated by corruption. , which led to the collapse of this dam and 61 other dams during Typhoon Nina, flooding a number of cities in Henan Province. This event was later classified as the third deadliest flood in history.

What happened in Sichuan revived this terrible memory and reminded the Chinese that “tofu projects” still exist, even decades later, and despite past disasters, proof that corruption kills.

Yingxiu Primary School, Sichuan
Ruins of Yingxiu Primary School, Sichuan. Source: JuliaKao / Flickr

Unfortunately, the case of schools in Sichuan led to the term “tofu drag” becoming internationally known because, although it was not the deadliest event in recent Chinese history, it was one of the saddest. examples of shoddy construction.

An alleged civil engineer who published a blog called the report on the whiteboard under the pseudonym “Book Blade” describes the way many people feel after the disaster:

“School construction is the worst. First, there is not enough capital. Schools in poor areas have small budgets and, unlike urban schools, they cannot collect huge fees, so they are pushing for money. With construction, add exploitation by government officials, education officials, school managers, etc. and you can imagine what’s left of the actual school building. When earthquake prevention standards are raised, government departments, large enterprises, etc. everyone will appreciate and strengthen their buildings. But these schools with their buildings from the 70s, no one pays attention to them. As a result, older school buildings suffer from inadequate protection, while newer buildings are shoddy.

The Beijing Municipal Public Prosecutor’s Office acknowledged that the prosecution of bribery and corruption cases escalated in 2010, with most of these cases related to urban development and the problems of rural elections.. In addition, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection revealed that nearly 7,000 employees have been accused of corruption in construction projects.

Cunning numbers

As early as 2008, the civil engineer Book Blade not only condemned the inadequate state of school construction, but also said that the government was insufficiently prepared for disasters, which the authorities are reluctant to acknowledge.

“Book Blade” specifically mentions an interview a broadcast on the provincial Shanghai TV channel DragonTV, in which an assistant manager of the Shanghai Disaster Prevention and Rescue Service was asked why so many Sichuan schools collapsed. Book Blade describes how the employee immediately blames the force of the earthquake. At the time, however, the host of the show claimed that there was an indisputable difference between the percentage of collapsed buildings in the richest provinces and those in the poorest provinces.

Added to this is the disproportionate number of schools that have fallen apart in these areas and the lack of reliable official statistics on the number of deaths. 2009 report international amnestyentitled “Rejected Justice: Harassment of Sichuan Earthquake Survivors and Activists,” describes how provincial officials are detaining parents and relatives to try to get answers about how their children died.

Silence paid tribute to the Sichuan earthquake
Urumqi high school students pay their respects to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake. Source: Ccyber5 / WikimediaCommons

In June 2008, police broke up protests, grieving parents of deceased students who demanded an investigation and the right to a trial. The Amnesty report details how parents are placed under surveillance to prevent them from prosecuting their cases. To try to reduce the political consequences, the parents received a lump sum and 100 yuan (11 pounds) a month in additional benefits.

But some of those who continued to complain were punished. Liu Shaokong, a school official who photographs destroyed schools and publishes them on the Internet, was sentenced to a year in a labor camp, although he was later released due to international attention in the case.

He was not the only one detained to speak about the Sichuan earthquake. Former teacher who wrote an essay about him an attempt at the earthquake was also detained. Huang Qi, an activist who criticized the government’s response to the earthquake on a website, was sentenced to three years in prison.

Some Chinese news organizations have indeed taken a more aggressive approach to the collapse of the school, although they have been ordered to stop. Foreign journalists try to interview parents were detained and the equipment was broken by security officers.

Is it still happening?

Recent examples of tofu sludge projects include the Pavilia Farm in Hong Kong, a residential building described by South China Morning Post as an “unprecedented blunder” after specific tests revealed the use of the wrong concrete mix. The development was destroyed before fatalities were claimed and the entire construction team was fired.

In 2020, the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei Province, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, was in danger of collapsing due to extremely high floods. During its construction there were accusations of corrupt officials taking bribes from unskilled contractors, and Beijing revealed that nearly 100 cases of “corruption, bribery and embezzlement” related to the project are being prosecuted.

In May 2021, the SEG Plaza skyscraper in Shenzhen was evacuated after it began to shake inexplicably. The building was built more than two decades ago, when Shenzhen was transformed from a small fishing village into a city. Although there are no allegations of corruption or poor construction, it was built at a time when construction was proceeding at an incredible pace and an investigation into the causes of the shaking is ongoing.

Nevertheless, some in Shenzhen are concerned that the rapid pace of construction may have led to the “construction of tofu”. Other issues include “tribute projects”, in which construction is in a hurry to be completed by an important date.

For example, the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge was opened in 2011, just in time for the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. At its opening, Chinese media reported that they had found incomplete barriers against an accident, missing lighting and loose nuts on the safety rails. Reports accuse workers of rushing to complete the bridge in time for the anniversary.

Other projects suffer from poor design. In 2007 The Fenghuang Expressway Bridge in the southern province of Hunan collapsed, killing more than 28 people. The initial investigation indicated the construction of the bridge was hastily completed, suffered from poor construction quality, and was built of stone and concrete, not steel.

Legally, there have been some improvements since the Sichuan earthquake. In 2009, the Shanghai government arrested about 2,000 people accused of construction fraud. In 2012, the General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine create a blacklist of companies accused of “bad practices”.

However, the problem is not necessarily in the creation of new laws, but in the implementation of laws – even when this involves the authorities.

Dujiangyan, Sichuan earthquake in 2008
An elderly woman was rescued after being trapped for more than 50 hours. Dujiangyan, Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Source: Commons

Thinking of the Sichuan tragedy, we can only look at these words from Book Blade:

“Earthquake disaster support cannot rely on forthcoming earthquake forecasting, but on medium- and long-term forecasts, good seismic reinforcement of buildings, government emergency plans and disaster relief materials.”

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