By Michael Lelyveld
A deadly bridge accident in China’s northeast Harbin city has brought personal tragedy and a grim reminder of problems that the country will face from its building binge of the past several years.
The collapse of an elevated ramp to the Yangmingtan Bridge on Aug. 24 killed three people and injured five as trucks plunged to the ground, raising questions about the quality of China’s construction projects.
The 1.8-billion yuan (U.S $296-million) bridge over the Songhua River in Heilongjiang province had only been open to traffic since November. It was at least the sixth major bridge collapse in China since July 2011, the official Xinhua news agency said.
It also cast doubt on the government’s pledge to enforce building standards after the magnitude-7.9 earthquake that hit Sichuan province in May 2008, killing thousands of students in dozens of destroyed schools.
Less than a year after the quake, China’s massive 4-trillion yuan (U.S. $658 billion) stimulus program in 2009 spurred a construction boom unprecedented in speed and scale.
But safety and quality have suffered, often with fatal results.
Most recently, four workers died on Aug. 25 when a fire brigade office collapsed during construction in Guangzhou, capital of coastal Guangdong province.
One day later, Xinhua reported that 28 officials were punished for another building collapse in Guangdong’s Shanwei City that killed six last November.
New roads and highways have repeatedly failed. In one case, the surface of Tianding Expressway in northwest Gansu province has sunk away so often after a year in service that drivers have called it “jelly-built.”
Corruption is frequently cited as the cause of corner-cutting in construction. Public anger has risen along with the risks.
“Tofu engineering work leads to a tofu bridge,” said one blog posting cited by The New York Times after the Harbin accident, despite official suggestions that overloaded trucks were at fault.
Rapid construction has often produced disasters, as in the July 2011 crash of two high-speed trains that killed 40 people and forced a freeze on new rail projects. The collision in eastern Zhejiang province’s Wenzhou city was blamed on bad signaling systems.
Aside from the dangers, flawed construction has saddled China with continuing energy costs, since many projects may have to be redone.
In 2010, a senior official of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development told Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily that over half of the country’s housing structures would have to replaced within 20 years.
“Only those homes built after 1999 are likely to be preserved in the longer term,” said Chen Huai, director of the ministry’s policy research center.
The official English-language China Daily quoted housing Vice Minister Qiu Baoxing as saying that Chinese buildings can only last 25 to 30 years, compared with an average life span of 74 years in the United States and 132 years in Britain.
Most of China’s new housing also falls short of the government’s energy and environmental goals.
Last year, the housing ministry’s chief planner, Tang Kai, said that 95 percent of new buildings are “energy-guzzling,” Xinhua reported. Only “a very small share” can be considered energy efficient, Tang said.
Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert and associate fellow of the London-based Chatham House policy institute, said that shoddy construction shows “the continuing inability or unwillingness of local governments to enforce building codes.”
In addition to safety concerns, Andrews-Speed cited “the cost in terms of energy and raw materials of rebuilding or refitting these inefficient, relatively new buildings.”
Since buildings account for an estimated 30 percent of China’s total energy use, the country could be paying the price for years, if they are not replaced or repaired.
The government has yet to disclose energy efficiency data for the first half of the year, but it recently re-released its 2011 figures, showing that conservation fell short of official goals.
Last year, energy use per unit of gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the value of a country’s economic activity, fell 2.01 percent, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), far short of the pace needed to meet the government’s five-year target of a 16-percent cut by 2015.
Total energy consumption climbed 7 percent in the biggest jump since 2007, Bloomberg News said.
On Aug. 29, National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) Minister Zhang Ping said that the “energy intensity” index had dropped in the first six months of 2012, but he did not say how much.
It is hard to estimate how much energy has been wasted by slapdash construction, but substandard projects are likely to take a continuing toll.
In an unusually strong commentary on Aug. 28, Xinhua blamed the government for failing to improve safety and building practices, citing a recent series of accidents including the Harbin collapse and a bus crash in northwestern Shaanxi province that left 36 dead.
Public complaints have been mounting ahead of the upcoming ruling Chinese Communist Party National Congress, where new leaders are expected to be chosen.
“Such man-made disasters deserve more attention from the government as the [Party] gears up for a key national congress later this year. And, for much of the general public, the more fatal accidents occur, the greater the government’s credibility is undermined,” Xinhua said.
The push for rapid economic growth has also come in for criticism.
“Over the years, many local officials have been single-minded in pursuing gross domestic product growth, ignoring the government’s basic function of protecting the people and heeding calls from the public,” said the commentary.
“This obsession with GDP data should not come at the cost of the people’s safety,” it said.