Built to last?

After latest Sichuan quake, recriminations grow

Built to last?

On the spot quickly: Li Keqiang

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Ya’an a mere eight hours after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit the Sichuanese city last week. Striking so close to the anniversary of the much deadlier quake in the same province five years ago, it was inevitable that comparisons would soon be drawn to the earlier disaster.

Evidently, some lessons have been learned. For one thing, military forces were mobilised much more swiftly for the rescue effort and there is general agreement that the official response was better coordinated. But one thing hasn’t changed in the aftermath of the disaster. The Chinese are asking the same question they did in 2008: are our buildings safe enough?

After 196 more deaths, they’re also pondering why earthquakes of similar magnitudes seem to prove more fatal in China than elsewhere. Making just such a point, the 21CN Business Herald showed a series of aftershock photos contrasting the devastated area in Sichuan with the scene in Japan after the higher-magnitude earthquake that preceded the Tohoku tsunami two years ago.

One of the most discussed photos of all featured a newly-built residential building in Ya’an, which had collapsed. The Japanese comparison was telling. A small cruise ship was shown atop a two-storey building, beached there by the tsunami that followed the quake.

“This small house not only stands tall after being hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and some 6 metre sea waves. It can even withstand a 109-tonne ship,” the caption reads.

Posted on an internet forum, one contributor then responded with another picture of a more than one hundred year-old house that had survived the Ya’an quake without a scratch.

“Perhaps we should also learn from Chinese architects in the Qing Dynasty,” the netizen wrote.

Picking random photos from the debris may not be a particularly scientific way to reflect the fuller picture. But Chinese media are again questioning whether ‘tofu buildings’ – or cases of shoddy workmanship – are the real culprit in the high casualty tolls in Sichuan.

Even before the 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan (which killed nearly 90,000 people) new buildings within the seismic zone were supposed to adhere to special resistance standards, the Economic Observer reports. The earthquake zoning map has been updated since first publication in 2001 and new buildings in Lushan and Baoxing – the epicentre of the latest Ya’an quake – were required to have a ‘Level 7’ resistance. Public premises like hospitals and schools in all counties should have been be built to even higher resistance levels.

The question is whether these standards were met. The provincial government has admitted that 66,000 homes collapsed as a result of last month’s quake, while more than 169,000 were severely damaged. However, the authorities have also tried to claim that not a single building built after 2008 “collapsed fully” this time.

That is a key distinction, since local governments promised not to cut corners during the reconstruction processs in the wake of the Wenchuan disaster and to enforce higher safety standards province-wide.

CBN reckons quake-resistance in Chinese buildings is still too low, and that construction firms are cutting corners on costs, although the Economic Observer says that local governments don’t deserve all the blame. Rural counties – the ones worst hit by the recent tremor – have sent most of their working age residents to coastal cities as migrant workers. That leaves the elderly and the young behind, and they lack the means to upgrade their homes to withstand serious tremors. Some older residents have even refused to be moved to earthquake-proof buildings in newer areas. Local authorities can’t force them out unless their homes are “decrepit”, the newspaper said.

That means that, when the next quake strikes, we can probably expect it to prove once again to be highly destructive. More buildings will collapse, and more people will die.

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