Imagine that your government forced you to have
only one child – under penalty of sterilization, beatings, and/or stiff
fines. Imagine further that your one child is crushed to death during an
earthquake because that same government allowed your child’s school to be built
with shoddy building materials and in violation of numerous building
For many grieving mothers and fathers in China, this
stark imagining has become the harshest of realities. In fact, the real
tragedy of the recent China
earthquake is that a significant number of the deaths and injuries were not the
result of a merciless Mother Nature but rather a lethal combination of
government corruption and entrepreneurial greed.
The quake in question hit Sichuan province on May 12th and registered
a highly destructive 7.9 on the Richter scale. While the official death
toll has already risen to more than 20,000, when all of the bodies are
eventually counted, that toll will likely exceed 50,000. The grim reality
is that many of the dead and injured perished in poorly constructed schools and
homes and other buildings that had no absolutely chance of withstanding the
earthquake’s deadly force.
The problem of shoddy building materials is
endemic in China,
and it is a particularly severe problem with cement and steel. It’s
not that the Chinese don’t know how to properly make these materials.
Rather, inferior cement and steel creep into the construction process because
as a common characteristic of the Chinese business culture and lax regulatory
environment, entrepreneurs regularly skimp on product quality as a way of
A similar problem exists with ultra-lax building
code enforcement. At least on paper, China
has a set of building codes almost as tough as those of the United States or Japan. In practice,
however, the central government’s codes are rarely enforced at the local level
– particularly outside the confines of major cities like Beijing
and Shanghai and particularly in poorer
provinces such as Sichuan.
This problem of local autonomy goes far back
history and its imperial times and is reflected in the ancient Chinese proverb “the
mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” It is a problem that plagues China on
everything from environmental protection and worker health and safety to the
On top of this, China’s extremely weak legal system
makes it virtually impossible for victims to seek any proper redress. Not only
are the laws unclear, but the judiciary is often pro-developer. Moreover,
as a by-product of the repressive nature of the Chinese regime, would-be
claimants are subject to beatings. The result is precisely the kind of shoddy
construction that has claimed so many lives in the recent quake.
Given China’s incredibly dark earthquake
history, there is absolutely no excuse for the government to allow any of
this. In fact, in 1976, China
suffered an earthquake that resulted in the highest number of quake-related
casualties in the last four centuries. This earthquake occurred in
the Tangshen area of China
and damage reached as far as Beijing.
While official statistics place the number of dead at 255,000, the actual
number is more likely to be well above 600,000.
The only close competitor in modern times is the
deadly Sumatra earthquake of 2004 which killed
228,000 – but many of those died not from the quake but the ensuing
tsunami. And it must be noted that the only other quake topping 200,000
in casualites was also in China
– the deadly 1920 Gansu
earthquake. That’s why there is absolutely no excuse for government
officials to condone the type of fly-by-night development process that exists.
There are important lessons in these frank
observations for both a repressive Chinese government in desperate need of
reform and a world increasingly reliant on Chinese manufacturers who are far
too willing to cut corners on safety. Chinese government officials must
come to understand that the brutal suppression of free speech and the lack of
legal protection for Chinese citizens provide the ideal breeding ground for
corruption and greed. At the same time, consumers in the West have
yet another data point to illustrate the deadly hazards of relying on Chinese
manufacturers to provide us with everything from car parts, food, and toys to
pharmaceuticals and, yes, building materials.