DUJIANGYAN, China – Modern apartment buildings and schools crumbled, smoothly paved highways buckled and bridges collapsed – their flimsy construction no match for nature.
As the death toll soars from the powerful earthquake that ravaged central China’s Sichuan province, the scale of the devastation is raising questions about the quality of China’s recent construction boom.
“This building is just a piece of junk,” one newly homeless resident of Dujiangyan yelled Wednesday. Her family salvaged clothing and mementos from their wrecked apartment, built when their older home was razed 10 years ago.
“The government tricked us. It told us this building was well constructed. But look at the homes all around us, they’re still standing,” said the woman, who would give only her surname, Chen.
Three decades of fast growth have remade China, with stunning showcase metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai as well as formerly tiny county towns that are now small cities with office towers and multistory apartment buildings. But as the widespread devastation from Monday’s magnitude-7.9 quake shows, the pell-mell pace has led some builders to cut corners, especially in outlying areas.
“This new economy in China is not going up safely, it’s going up fast, and the two don’t go together,” said Roger Bilham, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “You look at the buildings that fell and they should not have fallen,” he said. “This is a story that has been repeated throughout the developing nations.”
New buildings in Beijing – like the signature “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium for this August’s Olympics – are built to exacting codes to withstand earthquakes. But “anti-earthquake standards are not as strict in places like Sichuan as in Shanghai,” said Ren Bing, an architectural designer at Hong Kong-based China Construction International Co.
Monday’s temblor flattened smaller towns in the disaster zone like Yingxiu, where 7,700 people were reported to have died, according to aerial footage shown on state-run China Central Television. A hilltop view of Beichuan, another hard-hit town, showed entire blocks of leveled apartment buildings.
In Dujiangyan city, where rescuers saved a woman eight months pregnant who was trapped for 50 hours under a collapsed apartment building, there was little evidence of steel reinforcement bars in the concrete rubble.
Other infrastructure old and new suffered as well. Nearly 400 dams, most of them small, were damaged across Sichuan, the government’s economic planning agency said on its Web site. One of the two bigger ones, Zipingpu, had cracks four inches across its top; and though the government said the dam was safe, its reservoir was drained.
China is jolted by thousands of earthquakes every year, at least several of them major ones that cause significant damage and loss of life. Since the 1976 quake in Tangshan near Beijing killed at least 240,000 people, the communist government has tried to improve building standards.
“China has been taking earthquake safety very seriously in the past 10 to 20 years,” said Susan Tubbesing, head of the California-based Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. “From what I understand, the codes China has adopted in the past 20 years have been good, solid, seismic codes.”
Enforcement, however, varies. The building boom that has underpinned much of the stunning growth has also been an invitation for corruption, with officials and developers colluding. Profit margins are thinner on smaller projects in less prosperous places, encouraging developers to cut corners.
In larger cities like Shanghai, authorities generally enforce regulations. But that isn’t always true in smaller cities. And in rural areas, it’s out of the question, says Andrew Smeall, an associate at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York.
“The cost of trying to go back and make sure everything is built to code would be prohibitive,” he said.
It wasn’t just newer buildings that collapsed.
Sichuan, like many parts of China, is dotted with factories left over from Maoist policies of building up industries far from the coasts for strategic reasons.
In Hanwang, the town’s mostly older buildings were flattened or severely damaged by the quake. A newer five-story clock tower, its face stopped at 2:27 – the time the earthquake struck – remained eerily intact.