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China’s Dangerous Tofu Projects

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China Power

China’s Dangerous Tofu Projects

Corruption and graft have created a significant problem with many Chinese construction 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.