A Major Disaster in China Destroyed Sichuan's Schools. Here's Why.

Schools in China are more vulnerable to earthquakes than we thought.
Maia Mulko
Earthquake in Sichuan Province, 2008Seoul Fire and Disaster Headquarters/Wikimedia Commons

The 2008 earthquake happened 13 years ago, but the families of the more than 5,335 students who died will never be able to forget it. Neither will the children who were left with permanent and life-altering injuries (such as amputations), after almost 7,000 classrooms collapsed during the 7.9 magnitude Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan, China. 

Although many other buildings were damaged that day (including 5.5 million houses), and at least 68,712 people died (the real death toll may have been much higher), Chinese citizens and some civil engineers reported the bad design and a lack of seismic fortification in these schools, noting that most older buildings in the zone received only minor damage. Almost immediately, people began to wonder why the schools were so horribly affected. 

Sichuan earthquake collapsed kindergarten
A collapsed kindergarten in Jiangyou, Sichuan. Source: Archey Firefly/Flickr

Liang Wei, executive vice president of the Urban Planning Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University, wrote in an independent magazine that, “Buildings strictly built to the specifications of civil planning would not collapse during an earthquake. Any building that collapsed instantaneously must have failed to conform to civil planning standards. Either the design was unfit, or the engineering was unfit”. 

The scandal was just beginning. 

'Tofu-Dreg' projects

In 1998, China’s Premier Zhu Rongji visited flood dykes on the Yangtze River. He publicly said that they looked as weak and porous as 'tofu dregs' — the bits leftover from the tofu-making process. Inadvertently, the Premier was coining a term that would be used to describe a common and unfortunate issue in China. In fact, after that episode at the Yangtze River, the term “tofu-dreg” came into widespread use as a metaphor to describe shoddy construction, often as a result of corruption. 

Yingxiu Collapsed Building
Source: David and Jessie Cowhig/Flickr

In the case of Sichuan, Education Ministry officials and contractors were accused of skimming money from the school construction budgets to keep it for themselves. With less money to spend, the officials were accused of purchasing low-quality materials and hiring unqualified architects and contractors, who charged less, or who had more political ties than knowledge or experience. Others say materials meant for school construction projects were sold by contractors for personal profit. The result was a series of very poorly constructed schools that ended up collapsing on the students’ heads on May 12, 2008, at 2:28 p.m.

After visiting China in 2011, Canadian journalist Lawrence Solomon wrote that people were afraid of these tofu-dreg projects. Specifically, he said, “they fear that a 'tofu dam' might fail, leading to hundreds of thousands of downstream victims."

These people were most likely recalling the Banqiao Dam collapse, one of the most tragic “tofu projects” that eventually took the lives of as many as 230,000 people in 1975. Again, it was a structural failure, thought to have been exacerbated by corruption, that led to the failure of this dam and 61 other dams during Typhoon Nina, flooding a number of towns in Henan Province. This event was later classified as the third-deadliest inundation in history. 

What happened in Sichuan revived this horrible memory and reminded Chinese people that “tofu projects” still exist, even decades later and in spite of the past calamities —evidence of the fact that, oftentimes, corruption kills. 

Yingxiu Elementary School, Sichuan
Ruins of Yingxiu Elementary School, Sichuan. Source: JuliaKao/Flickr

Regrettably, the Sichuan schools case led to the term “tofu-dreg” becoming known internationally because, even though it might not be the deadliest event in China's recent history, it was one of the saddest examples of shoddy construction. 

An alleged civil engineer, who published a blog called the Whiteboard Report under the pseudonym “Book Blade,” described the way many people felt after the disaster:

“School construction is the worst. First, there’s not enough capital. Schools in poor areas have small budgets and, unlike schools in the cities, they can’t collect huge fees, so they’re pressed for money. With construction, add in exploitation by government officials, education officials, school managers, etc. and you can imagine what’s left over for the actual building of schools. When earthquake prevention standards are raised, government departments, major businesses, etc. will all appraise and reinforce their buildings. But these schools with their 70s-era buildings, no one pays attention to them. Because of this, the older school buildings are suffering from inadequate protection while the new buildings have been shoddily constructed”. 

The Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate admitted that prosecution of bribery and corruption cases had escalated in 2010, with most of these cases involving urban development and rural election problems. Additionally, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection disclosed that almost 7,000 officials had been indicted for corruption in construction projects.  

Tricky numbers

Back in 2008, civil engineer “Book Blade” had not only denounced the inadequate state of school construction but also claimed there had been insufficient disaster preparedness by the government, which authorities were reluctant to admit. 

"Book Blade" specifically mentions an interview broadcast on the provincial Shanghai TV channel DragonTV, in which an assistant manager of Shanghai’s Disaster Prevention and Rescue Office is asked why so many Sichuan schools collapsed. Book Blade describes how the official immediately blames the earthquake’s magnitude. However, the show host then argues that there’s an undeniable difference between the rates of collapsed buildings in the richest provinces versus the ones in the poorest provinces.

To this is added the disproportionate number of crumbled schools in these areas and the lack of credible official statistics regarding the death toll. A 2009 report by Amnesty International, entitled "Justice Denied: Harassment of Sichuan earthquake survivors and activists", outlined how officials in the province detained parents and relatives for trying to get answers about how their children died. 

Silence tribute Sichuan earthquake
Urumqi high school students pay silent tribute to Sichuan earthquake victims. Source: Ccyber5/WikimediaCommons

In June 2008, the police broke up protests by grieving parents of dead students who were demanding an investigation and the right to sue. The Amnesty report details how parents were placed under surveillance to stop them from pursuing their cases. To try and reduce the political fallout, parents were given a lump sum and 100 yuan (£11) per month in supplementary benefits.

But some of those who continued to complain were punished. Liu Shaokun, a school employee who took photographs of collapsed schools and posted them on the Internet, was sentenced to a year in a labor camp, although he was later released due to international attention on the case. 

He wasn’t the only one who was detained for speaking up about the Sichuan earthquake. A former teacher who wrote an essay about his experience with the earthquake was also detained. Huang Qi, an activist who criticized the government's response to the earthquake on a website, was sentenced to three years in prison

Some Chinese news organizations did take a more aggressive approach to the issue of the school collapses, even though they were ordered to stop. Foreign journalists trying to interview parents were detained and had equipment broken by security officers. 

Is it still happening?

Recent examples of tofu-dregs projects include the Pavilia Farm in Hong Kong, a residential development described by South China Morning Post as an “unprecedented blunder” after concrete tests revealed the usage of the wrong concrete mix. The development was demolished before claiming fatal victims and the entire construction team was fired. 

In 2020, the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province, the world's largest hydroelectricity dam, was reportedly in danger of collapsing due to exceptionally high flood waters. During its construction, there had been allegations of corrupt officials taking bribes from unqualified contractors, and Beijing revealed that nearly 100 cases of 'corruption, bribery and embezzlement' related to the project were being prosecuted.

In May 2021, Shenzhen’s SEG Plaza skyscraper was evacuated after it started shaking inexplicably. The building was constructed more than two decades ago, when Shenzhen was turning from a small fishing village into a city. Although there have not been allegations of corruption or poor construction, it was built at a time when construction took place at incredible speed, and an investigation into the cause of the shaking is ongoing. 

Nonetheless, some in Shenzhen are concerned that the rapid pace of building may have led to “tofu construction”. Other issues involve “tribute projects,” where construction is rushed to be completed by an important date. 

For example, the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge was inaugurated in 2011, in time for the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. At its opening, Chinese media reported finding incomplete crash barriers, missing lighting, and loose nuts on guard rails. Reports blamed workers' haste to finish the bridge in time for the anniversary.

Other projects suffered from poor design. In 2007, the Fenghuang highway bridge in the southern province of Hunan collapsed, killed more than 28 people. Initial investigation indicated the bridge construction had been rushed to completion, suffered from poor quality construction, and had been built of stone and concrete, rather than steel.

Legally, there have been some improvements since the Sichuan earthquake. In 2009, the Shanghai government arrested around 2,000 people accused of construction fraud. In 2012, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine established a blacklist of companies accused of “shoddy practices”. 

However, the problem is not necessarily in making new laws, but in enforcing the laws — even when it involves the authorities. 

Dujiangyan, 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.
An elderly woman is rescued after being trapped for over 50 hours. Dujiangyan, 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. Source: miniwiki.org/Wikimedia Commons

Thinking about Sichuan's tragedy, we can only consider these words from Book Blade:

“Earthquake disaster support cannot rely on imminent earthquake prediction, but on mid-term and long-term forecasts, good seismic fortification of buildings, government emergency plans, and disaster aid materials.”

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