20080311-bridge broken in baotou, china daily, env news.jpg
Partially collapased bridge in Baotou
Corruption, poor planing and shoddy construction have plagued infrastructure projects. Former Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji referred to the problem as "bean curd projects." With the vast infusion of government money and waves of a national infrastructure building, the problem has gotten much worse.

Collapsing bridges, roads, dikes, buildings and dams are a serious problem in China. Dikes are filled with mud instead of concrete. Half finished skyscrapers lean dangerously to one side. Buildings lack proper foundations. Bridges are constructed with flawed designs. An estimated 33,000 dams and dikes need to be reinforced. Between 1949 and 1999. 3,200 dams failed

In Chongqing alone 1,600 people have died as a result of shoddy construction. Forty people died after falling 460 feet when the steel-and-concrete Rainbow Bridge over the Qijang River near Chongqing collapsed. An investigation uncovered faulty welding, $12,000 in bribes given to officials to overlook problems and allow project to exceed its budget. Some of the siphoned-off money was used to build a karaoke parlor with scantily clad girls. Less than a week later, another bridge collapsed in Fujian Province, killing seven people In both cases government officials were arrested on charges of corruption and using shoddy materials.

In June 2007, two officials were sentenced to jail for allowing a blind contractor to build a bridge that collapsed during construction and injured 12 people in the Bujia township in Jiangxi Province. Part of the court ruling stated that the two officials “were in charge of road management and supervision” and “did not ask the contractors to provide certificates guaranteeing their proficiency.”

See Man-Made Disasters

Poorly Built Roads and Bridges in China

The $52 million 1½-mile-long Zhaonoa Mountain bridge, built over the Yong River in Ningbo, was scheduled to open in October 1999. A month before its opening date the bridge started to shack and sway. Inspectors found large cracks caused by a design flaw due to underestimates of stress support in such a large structure. The bridge's debut was postponed and large sections of it had to be rebuilt.

In January, 1999, two bridges collapsed in different areas, killing 47 people and injuring more than 30 others. In Chongqing in Sichuan, a footbridge collapsed, killing 40 people. See Above.

Road construction can be very shoddy. Sections of the Third Ring Road in Beijing collapsed in 2006 and again in 2007. Once, 18 days after a new 43-mile-long, $43 million highway opened huge potholes opened up and sections of the road buckled. Rubbish was found inside a barrier supposed to be made of solid concrete. Investigations uncovered widespread corruption, the us of substandard cement and slipshod workmanship. Many roads are unfinished because of lack of funds.

In June 2004, a bridge connecting the cities of Panjin and Yingkous in the northeastern Province of Liaoning Province collapsed, sending vehicles plunging into the Liao River below

In June 2007, a section of the Jiujiang Bridge in Guangdong Province collapsed after not was struck by a sand-laden boat. The bridge was packed with cars and trucks.

Bridge Collapse in Fenghuang

In August 2007, a bridge under construction collapsed in the tourist town of Fenghuang in Hunan Province, killing 47 people, most of them construction workers who were removing scaffolding from the 268-meter-long, 42-meter-high bridge, which spans the Tuo River

An estimated 123 workers were at the site at the time of the accident. Eight-six were rescued. The bridge had four decorative stone arch and was scheduled to open a month later. It was built without steel reinforcement rods because builders wanted to use traditional stone-and-concrete methods. Authorities prevented journalists from investigating the accident, raising suspicions that officials might have allowed shoddy construction materials to be used.

One witness told AP, “I was riding a bike with my husband and we just passed underneath the bridge and were about 50 meters away when it collapsed. There was a huge amount of dust that came up and it didn’t clear for about 10 minutes. On the rescue effort one nearby residents said, “There were arms and legs were broken, only linked with skin.”

Infrastructure Safety Concerns in China

A train crash near Wenzhou in eastern China that killing 40 people and injuring 177 in July 2011 brought attention to safety concerns about China’s infrastructure. The train collision was one of several high-profile public transportation accidents in China around that time. A few days earlier 41 people were killed when an overloaded bus caught fire in central Henan Province. Earlier in July an escalator at a new subway station in Beijing collapsed, killing one person and injuring 28. The week before four bridges collapsed in various Chinese cities. [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times July 24, 2011]

Signaling the official concern over growing public unease, the government issued a directive a fews after the train crash calling for “intensified efforts in preventing major deadly accidents.” The discussion of accidents in China, however, is haphazard. In an unusually frank editorial in People’s Daily this month, a commentator said that many disasters were covered up but that the country needed “zero tolerance for concealing major accidents,” like a large oil spill that was hidden from the public for more than a month.

Fears that transparency and safety have become secondary to other concerns was present in many Weibo postings. One blogger in particular posted an eloquent appeal for more care and caution in China’s rapid development: “China, please stop your flying pace, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morality, wait for your conscience! Don’t let the train run out off track, don’t let the bridges collapse, don’t let the roads become traps, don’t let houses become ruins. Walk slowly, allowing every life to have freedom and dignity. No one should be left behind by our era.”

Four Bridges Collapse in China in a Single Week

Between July 11 and July 19 2011, four bridges crumpled in China. CNN reported, “A tour bus plunged from a collapsed bridge in China, leaving one person dead and 22 injured, the official news agency Xinhua reported, citing local authorities.The accident occurred about 8:50 a.m. in the Fujian province city of Wuyishan. The bus was carrying 23 people, a spokesman with the city's committee of the Communist Party of China told the news agency.Images from the scene showed the bus crumpled on the ground, below what looks like nearly a clean break in which half of the bridge broke away from the other half. It's not known what caused the bridge to collapse.

It was the second bridge to collapse that week caused by an overloaded vehicle. In Beijing a truck overloaded with sand caused a bridge to collapse, leaving a scene that looked like the aftermath of an earthquake. The vehicle, which was weighed down with 160 tons of sand, crushed the Baihe bridge in Beijing's Huairou district.The 230 metre structure can only support 55 tons and crumpled under the weight of the lorry as it tried to cross. Nobody has been reported injured but the driver was detained for questioning. The 230-meter bridge is said to have been one of the longest rigid frame bridges in the capital.

Afterwards engineers were assigned to check every one of the city’s 1,924 road bridge in the capital for faults and cracks. Transport authorities in Huairou were quick to deny speculation that the bridge, built in 1987, had shown cracks before the accident. Officials said the latest maintenance check in 2006 resulted in repairs being made to minor surface damage and a reinforcement of the structure.A new bridge with higher safety standards will be built in three months, the city transport bureau told Beijing News.

The truck driver, identified by authorities only as Zhang, is now in criminal detention and has been fined 50,000 yuan ($7,740). He may still face further punishment."Trucks that are overloaded are never allowed to enter the city. They have always been our top target," Jiang Jing, a Beijing traffic management official, told China Daily. Since overloaded trucks often travel on routes that avoid national roads, Jiang said they stand a better chance of evading inspection teams.

Villagers told Beijing News that the collapsed bridge is in a gray area when it comes to police checks. "There have been four or five of them (overloaded trucks) every hour at night these past two months. We did not see anyone interfering," said a nearby resident quoted by Beijing News.

Truck Goes off Bridge in Hangzhou, Avoiding Seven Meter Crack

Also in July 2011, a heavily-loaded truck fell off the No 3 Qiantang Bridge in Hangzhou Zhejiang Province as it swerved to avoid a seven meter crack in the road, caused a section of a bridge to collapse. Describing the scene at accident a few days later, Leo Lewis wrote in the Times of London, “All along the bridge are 10 centimeter scars where joints have slipped out of alignment and the shoddy concrete edges have eroded away. Finally, there is the 50-strong team of construction workers carrying-out the $9 million emergency repair work that the whole debacle has triggered. [Source: Leo Lewis, Times of London, September 3, 2011]

The truck, which was authorized to carry 34 tons, was carrying 100 tons of steel plates. The truck driver apparently swerved out of the way of a vehicle that had a tire stuck in the crack in the bridge. The truck then toppled over the side of the bridge as it collapsed. According to one report: The truck toppled over the side of the bridge but the driver managed to jump out before it crashed to the ground. He sustained a minor head injury but was released from hospital after treatment.

The builder of the bridge, the Hunan Road and Bridge Construction Group, has won a number of national engineering prizes. Lewis wrote: “The July accident was not the company's first: in 2007, two of its other bridges collapsed, one at the cost of 64 lives. But what is starting to worry both the Chinese authorities and the general public is that the trouble is not restricted to HRBC and its flawed creations: bridge collapses are starting to have the feel of a pandemic. On top of that the bridges that collapsed have many things in common with thousands of other bridges across the country.

Reasons Behind the Chinese Bridge Collapses

Leo Lewis wrote in the Times of London, “Behind the accidents, say analysts, are features of the Chinese economy that could eventually become its undoing: huge corruption, praise of construction speed over build quality, and the failure to realise the gnawing, long-term cost of both these issues. [Source: Leo Lewis, Times of London, September 3, 2011]

Explanations for the various bridge collapses tend to focus on the way in which the contracts to build them are distributed. Via virtually non-existent tender processes, local governments hand out projects to companies they themselves own. The work itself, however, is sub-contracted down an often bafflingly long chain of smaller companies, with bribes paid at each level and successive layers of cash creamed from each strata. By the time the first shovel of cement enters the mixer, the actual budget that remains allows for only the cheapest labour and often inferior materials.

In many cases, wrote Victor Shih, a professor of political science at Northwestern University in a recent article, the "parasitic" chain" of companies can involve several doing no work, but receiving a "rent" for their connections. Suggestions of corruption relating to the No 3 bridge are not new. Chinese media openly reported its failure to pass safety checks in 1997, with prominent engineers flatly refusing to have their names associated with any sign-off. A year later, a quality standard was granted, without any discernible changes being made to the bridge.

Looming over the whole scene is the increasingly troubling question of local government debt in China: economists are exercised about how far dangerously high levels of indebtedness have been masked, how many of the estimated 14.2 trillion yuan of loans to local government entities will turn bad even if the global economy limps back to health, and how the world's second-biggest economy will react if the brakes are suddenly applied to fixed-asset investment, accounting for about 70 percent of gross domestic product.The concern is that in the country's unprecedented spree of infrastructure construction and other spending local governments have already taken themselves close to the danger zone on debt: that line will inevitably be crossed if decades of shoddy work now require billions of yuan to put right.

And, unlike the money that can cheerfully be borrowed to finance projects such as bridges, stadiums, and high-speed rail lines in whose glorious light local party bosses can bask, raising the money to fix pre-existing venality and sloppiness holds zero appeal. The potentially colossal bill for repairing what China did not build right in the first place, say economists, could be the fault line on which the local debt problem starts to totter.

In many cases, that scenario is well under way. Last week, a report suggested that more than a quarter of Chinese cities are at risk of flooding because 40,000 reservoirs are nearing the end of their functional life. Repairs have been ordered, but banking sources are already warning that local governments could find themselves badly short of funding when it comes to financing the "boring" side of construction.

Officially documented corruption on China's cherished high-speed rail network has already been linked - at least in the public's mind - with the fatal crash in Wenzhou this northern summer. The entire network may be forced to make punishingly expensive repairs just to convince the public that the lines are safe. And, even then, many of the lines are unlikely ever to pay for themselves.

Teenager Killed in Beijing Escalator Accident

In July 2011, Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “A teenage boy has been killed and dozens of people were injured when they were thrown off an escalator that suddenly changed direction in a busy Beijing subway station. The accident happened on one of the capital's newest lines, prompting concerns that China's recent rush to build public transport networks may have led to declining safety standards. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, July 5, 2011]

The 13-year-old boy who died was on his way to Beijing zoo when the up escalator suddenly went into reverse, according to domestic media reports.Witnesses described a strange grinding noise from the shifting gears and then a tumult in which riders at the top of the escalator fell to the bottom in less than two seconds. The boy and the other riders were thrown down the metal stairs and into a heap at the bottom. Twenty-eight people were taken to hospital, including the dead boy's father and sister. Two were described as being in a serious condition.

The railway operator said an investigation was under way into the cause of the breakdown at Beijing zoo station. The government has ordered checks on elevators at other stations. Line 4, on which the station where the accident occurred is located, is one of the most modern. Completed in 2009, it connects the university district to the south of the city. Commuters were horrified at the safety failure. "This is unbelievable. This is the most basic thing and they can't even do it well. I am very disappointed by Beijing's public transportation system," said Olivia Li, a student at Renmin University who often takes Line 4.

Image Sources: Nolls China website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2011

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