Wall Street Journal: More ‘Tofu Buildings’? String of Collapses Causes Alarm in China

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

June 19, 2015

A spate of building collapses in China has left more than two-dozen people dead in recent weeks – and the country’s authorities are sounding the alarm.

Chen Zhenggao, China’s housing minister, this week ordered that old buildings be put under intensified checks and renovated if they are deemed to pose a safety risk.

“Especially with the start of the rainy season, you can’t allow a moment’s delay,” Mr. Chen said during an emergency meeting Wednesday, according to a statement posted by the ministry on its website. He added that cities need to invest more money, bring in private funds for the renovation of shabby structures, and ensure that people take responsibility for safety of buildings.

The move follows a series of startling collapses in several Chinese cities since May 20 – one in the northern city of Tianjin and three in southwest China’s Guizhou province, one of the country’s poorest regions. In the wake of the incidents, China’s online social networks have been flooded with chilling pictures of exposed apartment buildings still standing amidst rubble.

In Guizhou’s provincial capital Guiyang late last month, heavy rainfall resulted in a landslide that caused a nine-story building to collapse, killing 16 people.

A little more than a week later, a seven-story building collapsed in Guizhou’s city of Zunyi, with no fatalities. A nine-story building collapsed days later in the same city, resulting in 4 dead and 3 injured. And on Tuesday, a two-story bathhouse collapsed in Tianjin, leaving six people dead and six injured.

The statement on the ministry’s website did not specify whether China’s central government would be allocating more money or resources to the renovation of old buildings. Many of China’s Internet users also voiced skepticism at the ministry’s orders.

“Here’s an excuse for a new round of city-building,” one user wrote on Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter, airing a common complaint that local officials in China often pursue needless construction projects in order to line their own pockets with money from developers.

Progress on the standard of construction in China is still wanting, with construction workers also bearing risks.

Structural failures and collapses are the most common cause of death or injury for construction workers, according to China Labour Bulletin, a labor rights group.

Many people have complained about lax construction practices, especially in the smaller cities where towers are often built by unskilled migrant workers. The moniker “tofu buildings” came about after an earthquake in Sichuan 2008 caused school buildings to collapse but left other nearby structures intact. In 2009, a nearly-finished 13-story apartment building in Shanghai tipped over entirely, due to excavations that led to a weakened foundation, according to local press. One worker was killed.

–Esther Fung. Follow her on Twitter @estherfung.

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