Houses of cards

Collapsed building draws attention to problem of shoddy construction

Houses of cards

Not exactly built to last...

For years, tourists have flocked to Pisa to gape at a dangerous building – the leaning, twelfth century bell tower.

Shanghai now has its own modern equivalent – the Lotus Riverside Apartment in Minxing district. Unlike in Italy, this building is now horizontal.

The collapsed apartment block has fast become one of Shanghai’s hottest tourist attractions.

The structure, part of the 11 building Lotus Riverside Court development, toppled onto its side but remained almost completely intact (many window panes were unbroken).

The collapse is now under investigation, with a worker crushed to death by the building.

A local government spokesman has confirmed that nine people from the company developing the tower have now been detained. “They are being held in one place, and helping with our inquiries. There’s no proof of criminal activity, so we can’t arrest them, “says Chen Zhiqiang from the Minhang district propaganda bureau.

Quality problems have long plagued construction in China, though they seem to be more prevalent in rural areas and smaller cities.

When school buildings were flattened by last year’s devastating Sichuan earthquake while nearby structures stayed upright, parents blamed shoddy work for creating “tofu-dreg” buildings.

More recently, a viaduct in Zhuzhou in Hunan province collapsed and killed nine people.

Not the sort of problems expected in more sophisticated Shanghai, and Chen has denied that Lotus Riverside was another case of poor workmanship. “No one is calling this a tofu-dregs building. If it was a tofu-dregs construction, it would have fallen apart when it collapsed, yet in this case, it collapsed in one piece,” Chen says.

Those who had already put money down on apartments in the collapsed block are not convinced. Last Sunday, hundreds of angry homebuyers stormed the reception office of the local government demanding compensation.

Wang Xuetong, one of the homebuyers, was outraged: “This is my first apartment. We are from the countryside and we’ve been working very hard to buy it.” Wang expects the government to demolish the flats, and build new ones for those affected. “The quality of these ones is too bad,” he said.

The reason for the collapse did not take long to emerge: the construction firm was cutting corners. The catalyst for the disaster was the piling of mud 10 metres high against one of the walls. This mud was removed from below the building to make the car park. The weight of this mud, combined with heavy rains caused the structure to topple.

But why was the mud not moved? Well, it was going to be used for the complex’s lawns, and by not moving it the constructor saved about Rmb6 million ($730,000).

The debacle has embarassed the local government, as the media is reporting that several local government officials were shareholders in Shanghai Meidu Property Development, the company that developed the Lotus Riverside residential complex.

China News Service confirmed that Que Jingde, the second largest shareholder of Meidu, also turns out to be the assistant to the party secretary in Meilong town. Meilong previously owned the state enterprise that was privatised in 2001 to create Meidu.

So the case is reigniting controversy on the nature of the relationships between government officials and property developers in general.

“It is no secret that the construction industry is one of the most corrupt. It has brought a fortune to many rent-seeking public servants,” claimed a recent China Daily editorial.

Nor is poor construction a new phenomenon. Back in 2006, the former deputy minister of construction, Liu Zhifeng, admitted the average longevity of a building in China was only 30 years.

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