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The Costs of Corruption By: Reuben F. Johnson
The Weekly Standard | Thursday, May 22, 2008

THE DEVESTATION AND DEATH toll from last week's earthquake centered in China's Sichuan province continues to rise. The quake registered a 7.9 on the Richter Scale (and has been reported as an 8.0 magnitude on some Chinese television networks--roughly equivalent to a 600 megaton explosion) and is the worst in China in three decades. The death toll is officially over 34,000 and rising by the hour, and some reports list as many as 100,000 persons still missing.

But long after the thousands are dead and buried, China will be coping with two major issues that are the long-term fallout from this horrific human tragedy

One is that the corruption that is endemic with construction projects in almost any dictatorship has turned out to be a casebook example of how bribe-taking and the general greed of local authorities in China is worsening--and showing just how catastrophic the consequences of these practices can be.

In the city of Dujiangyan, which is closest to the quake's epicenter, the UK's Guardian newspaper reports residents there furious over the shoddy workmanship and substandard materials used in many of the buildings that collapsed around their families. Many of them blame local officials for selling off the high quality materials that should have been used in these buildings and putting the money in their pockets. The same government functionaries then signed off on certifications that these structures were built according to local codes and ordnances, even thought that they knew them to be incapable of surviving even small tremors.

"The contractors can't have been qualified. It's a 'tofu' [soft and shoddy] building. Please, help us release this news," one local resident pleaded with the Guardian's correspondent.

City residents were particularly angered by the collapse of the Juyuan High School, pointing out that this much newer building folded like a house of cards while considerably older structures--most conspicuously local PLA offices and other government buildings--were left standing.

"About 450 [students] were inside, in nine classes and it collapsed completely from the top to the ground. It didn't fall over; it was almost like an explosion . . . why isn't there money to build a good school for our kids?" shouted several at the site. "Chinese officials are too corrupt and bad. These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn't collapse--the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don't have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster--this is done by humans."

Other news outlets reported that at the same school site some of the same locals present took out their frustrations on Chinese troops that had been sent in to try and dig out collapsed buildings as part of the relief effort. Soldiers were told to go away and that "we do not need you here."

To put this into perspective, one should remember that these provincial Chinese cities are not like Beijing or Shanghai, where the local populations have long become accustomed to seeing large numbers of foreign expats, nor are they as cosmopolitan in their outlook. For people in such places not to shun contact with foreigner reporters, but instead seek them out and ask that the international press denounce their local party officials--and at the same time tell military units participating in the rescue operation to get lost--is no small measure of the anger that the earthquake survivors are now feeling.

What has taken place over the last decade--and the reason that 10-year-old buildings collapsed and 20-year-old ones did not--is that "each generation of Chinese leaders in the central government is successively weaker than the previous generation," said a Beijing-based analyst. "Local authorities feel increasingly emboldened to act in their own personal, self-interests and are far less afraid to take bribes and engage in other abuses of their position. All of these feeds the resentments of the local population."

But as furious as the people living in Sichuan province are there is an entity that has even less to be happy about--the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

Significant damage has been done to China's defense industry by the earthquake, specifically the Chengdu aerospace complex that is just northwest of the city and comprises a large production facility, the largest military aircraft design center in all of China, and a jet engine production plant. This conglomerate designed and now produces the Jian-10 (J-10)/FC-20 single-engine medium weight fighter that is considered to be the most advanced in China's inventory, and the FC-1/JF-17 lightweight fighter that is produced in cooperation with Pakistan.

Like many Chinese and Russian production centers that are located far from major cities like Moscow, Beijing, or Shanghai, Chengdu is also dotted with multiple, smaller defense enterprises that design or produce many of the on-board systems that actually make the modern-day fighter aircraft effective in combat. Among these are the chief Chinese design centre for airborne electronic warfare systems and radar warning receivers.

This enterprise, the Southwest China Research Institute of Electronic Equipment, houses the AC999 Electronic Warfare Analysis Center, which is one of the more important laboratories for all branches of the PLA. Its function is to collect, analyze and interpret all varieties of electronic emission (ELINT) signals and then distribute the results of that analysis as a finished intelligence product to commands and the user community within the PLA.

Analysis of adversary electronic emissions and development of countermeasures to neutralise them is among the most sensitive data that exists within any military establishment. It is also critical to the survival of aircraft and other platforms in an age of advanced radars and other sensors. Damage or loss of this facility could pose real problems for the PLA's future plans for modernization.

However, chances are that these defense industrial establishments were built to a higher standard and suffered less damage than the schools, apartment houses, and other buildings that have been seen in television broadcasts since the quake struck. But, how many skilled specialists or personnel critical to these enterprises who may have been lost in the quake is another issue.

One of the most important Chinese research centers that is reported to have incurred significant damage is the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Centre (CARDC) in Mianyang, which is not far from Chengdu.

CARDC was built with excessive paranoia about security and survivability from being attacked from the air in mind, so some of its wind tunnels and other facilities are located underground. Mianyang is even closer to the epicenter of the quake than Chengdu--and powerful earthquakes destroy any underground structure--so these facilities are now damaged to the point where they may be irreparable and must be rebuilt. This could take years and is a considerable setback for Chinese aeronautical science.

No government could do in the way of enforcing building codes or mandating use of exotic, shock absorbing materials that could create totally earthquake-proof designs. There is no certainty involved in designing something that can be impervious to the whims of Mother Nature. But what is certain is that the increasing corruption among local party and government officials in China has conspired to exacerbate the consequences of an already massive human tragedy.

Reuben Johnson is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.

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