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Did Corrupt Building Practices Contribute to China's Earthquake Disaster?

<p>As rescue work continues in the aftermath of the earthquake in China's Sichuan province, many -- including the state-run media -- are asking questions about why so many buildings collapsed, and blame corruption and shoddy construction methods.</p>
May 16, 2008, 8am PDT | Michael Dudley
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"The death toll in Monday's earthquake in Sichuan province is still soaring. More than 40,000 people are dead, missing or buried in the rubble, according to the latest count. And with dangerous cracks appearing in several hydro dams and reservoirs around the earthquake zone, another disaster could be looming.

But while rescue crews fought to reach the victims, awkward questions were being asked about the tragedy. One man, gazing at the corpse of his nine-year-old cousin, said he had disturbing evidence that could explain the collapse of the five-storey Juyuan school building, along with eight other schools in the region.

The man, who gave his surname as Ren, is a 32-year-old steel worker who has worked for a decade in the local construction industry. He said he always knew that the Juyuan school was a disaster in waiting. Local officials, he said, had pocketed money that was budgeted for the school, while a private construction company had saved money by cutting corners on the project.

After the temblor, when he picked up a chunk of concrete from the flattened school, he was appalled by the evidence of shoddy construction. 'It crumbled very easily,' he said.

To boost its profits, the company used iron instead of steel in many parts of the construction of the building, Mr. Ren said. It cut back on the size and number of steel braces in the cement foundation slabs. And it used cheap materials to make the concrete walls, weakening the entire structure.

Many...survivors [are] convinced that corruption played a role in determining which buildings collapsed and which were unscathed. One man pointed to a new building whose first floor had collapsed, even as older buildings around it were intact. 'They used fewer bricks in the new building, so they could earn more money,' he said.

The shoddily constructed buildings are commonly called 'tofu buildings' because of their weak structural condition.

Even the state-controlled media are raising questions about unsafe construction of schools. "

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Published on Thursday, May 15, 2008 in The Globe & Mail
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