China’s Dangerous Tofu Projects
Image Credit: Flickr / kalmyket

China’s Dangerous Tofu Projects


The term “tofu project” was first coined by Premier Zhu Rongji in 1998, who said on a tour of flood dykes on the Yangtze River that they were as flimsy and porous as tofu dregs, the leftover bits in the tofu-making process. The term – and the problem – gained national traction after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where 20,000 of the almost 70,000 victims were schoolchildren who died in collapsed school buildings, which were later proven to be hastily and shoddily built.

Four years later, the problem of “tofu projects” remains. 

In July 2010, anger over shoddy construction erupted in an area hit hard by the Sichuan earthquake when a building intended to be a new home for earthquake  victims collapsed (or was demolished, according to state sources) just a few weeks before completion.

In November 2010, 53 people were killed in a high-rise apartment building fire caused by an unlicensed welder. And last month, a car accident in Jiangsu Province revealed that a dam built atop of a Yangtze River tributary was filled with reeds instead of steel beams.

Such “tofu projects” are likely to remain critical problems for preexisting and structural reasons.

For a start, projects are often rushed for impending state anniversaries. For example, ahead of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, 2011, a number of construction projects opened, including the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge. However, a CCTV report just days after the bridge opened showed missing and unsecured bolts and gaps in the guard rail. In 2007, a bridge in Hunan Province, intended to open in time for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the local prefecture, collapsed during construction, killing 64 people.  These projects, known as “tribute projects,” have gained a great deal of negative attention in China.

Why is the quality of some of these structures so poor? Corruption and graft undoubtedly play a role when project money is skimmed off the top for and by officials, leaving less funding for quality materials, qualified staff, and acceptable workmanship. Additionally, projects are often granted to companies that have more political ties than qualifications. In January, the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate disclosed that bribery and corruption cases increased in 2010, with urban development and rural election issues involved in the majority of cases. From January to August 2011, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that 6,800 officials had been prosecuted for corruption in infrastructure projects. 

Local governments, meanwhile, have massive incentives to promote rapid and unfettered growth, and often turn a blind eye to construction standards. For one, local governments rely on the revenues arising from construction, including land sales and transfer fees.  In 2010, total land transfer revenues totaled 3,000 billion RMB ($464 billion), which was more than 70 percent of local government revenues.  For another, local officials are promoted based on the growth rates of their jurisdictions.

But there’s a reason the “tofu project” conversation should be restarted: new measures to combat this problem have recently emerged.  After a State Council meeting on January 12 of this year, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine announced that they would establish a “blacklist” of businesses reported for quality issues and “shoddy practices.”

This followed a move last year by Shanghai’s government, which issued new regulations intended to strengthen construction supervision, including the registration of construction managers and workers. Indeed, in 2009, Shanghai also launched a major crackdown on construction fraud, netting nearly 2,000 people for construction-related offenses from December 2010 through March 2011. 

There have also been some interesting developments in legal reform. The Tort Liability Law became effective on July 1, 2010, and places strict civil liability for construction collapses on contractors and developers. Ostensibly, this would allow affected parties to sue contractors and/or developers, and would provide an incentive for contractors to insure that their buildings are safe.

Ultimately aside from the danger to human life, “tofu projects” create credibility issues for the government, undermining citizens’ belief in the reliability of government to create safe infrastructure. 

And the issue also offers an interesting case study of center-local relations, since many of these issues arise at the local level.  At this point, there are far too many counterincentives for rapid construction (mostly at the local level) for there to be an effective central response – officials are rewarded for growth, and large infrastructure projects give local governments status. Sadly it will therefore probably take more accidents like those I described to create sufficient political will to clean up and prevent so many of these projects happening in the future. 

February 22, 2012 at 03:46

“If it bleeds, it leads.” Sad, but true. In the United States (at least), it seems that most “feel good” stories are local or involve the animal kingdom (to be honest, I do love a good animal story); see the US edition of Time that had “Animal Friendships” as the cover story. Actually, feel good stories usually focus on individuals, not organizations, companies, and certainly not government. To be honest, I am part of the problem, at least when it comes to TV news, I usually turn the channel to another news program when a “fell good” story comes on….unless it is about a dog.

February 18, 2012 at 10:57

China has a huge learning curve ahead of it yet. Let’s see what the US has: the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge – all still standing, along with other buildings built in the 1920s. The UK still has water pipes in use when Dickens was alive.

Not all of China’s buildings are bad, but there’s a fair portion and it’ll cause problems. Many such buildings will only last 25-30 years; some are so bad, they’re torn down after a decade.

The Bird’s Nest already has rust on it. Much of the hyped high-speed rail network is a train wreck waiting to happen.

February 13, 2012 at 16:30

Granting that The Diplomat likes to bang the “Bad-China” drum, if you read the entire article, Ms. Cary says some very positive things about steps that the Central government is taking to bring construction quality problems into line. This was a fairly balanced report.

Editors, we need to keep some perspective: China is not the only country in the world that has ever had shoddy construction problems: the US had their share of these issues as well. The only difference is that China is going through its learning curve now as opposed to 50 years ago (something to be expected given the arc of its economic development.) This is also the case for issues like corruption, which the US has had aplenty, and recently as well. Look no further than the NYPD for a host of high-profile examples in the last 40 years.

February 12, 2012 at 06:47

Just get used to it for the future, the audience of this publication is Western so the spin would be predictably directed towards them.

The-Diplomat is trying to outdo The Economist who are leaders in this.
TD is quite timid compared to them at the moment.

Nam Nguyen
February 11, 2012 at 11:26

Well, that is the problem with most news agencies these days. Generally speaking people arent really that interested in positive heart-warming news. Controversies and scandals sound much better. The coverage of US news by CNN and Fox are all the same as it is here.
Marketing executives know this best – fear is the factor that most likely affects people.

February 11, 2012 at 11:11

Hate to tell you this but the Diplomat’s correct about this. It’s a common problem in China; many new, and expensive condos deteriorate at an alarming rate within a few years; buildings literally age in dog years, with 5-year-old high rises literally appearing as 30 years old. If there’s anything to complain about the article, it’s that the instances listed are ones I’m already aware of.

Let me elaborate: (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Be sure to also check out the readers’ comments!)

Buzz Coastin
February 11, 2012 at 10:33

First of all, the news is hardly ever about good news; that includes China.

Secondly, there are good things to say about China, but their “tofu” projects and their ma ma hu hu (马马虎虎) approach to building and manufacturing is appalling.

China has adopted the look of modernity, but it has a long way to go before it is a modern country.

February 10, 2012 at 19:06

Does the The Diplomat ever post anything positive on China? It’s not like China is all doom, gloom, failure, suffering etc. If that were the case, China would not be where it is today.

Well, there only seems to be negative news on China in the Western media these days.

I am sure there are plenty of bright and interesting news on daily life, successes and achievements, culture, etc that you can report on. Unless you do that, you risk alienating many readers with fair and honest intentions.

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