The gleaming new construction going up in Shanghai is often taken as a metaphor for the “new China.” But some residents of Shanghai might put a different spin on this common thought.
On June 27 at approximately 5:35 a.m. in Shanghai an almost completed 13-story apartment building that is part of the Lotus Riverside Court development simply toppled over. There was no earthquake or typhoon to cause this. The collapsed building was in one piece, but rested on its side. It looked like a toy a child had pushed over.
One worker died in the collapse.
As is often the case in today’s China, the bloggers are the best sources for what is really happening. Of course, China’s blogosphere is a virtual world filled with all kinds of characters—the noble and the selfless blog right beside the vicious and the corrupt. The regime keeps on retainer at a rate of pennies a blog a huge crew whose job is to push the official viewpoint. And there are the run of the mill fakes, cheats, and con artists.
But blogging gives the ordinary Chinese citizen a chance at dignity in a system designed to deny him any voice, and a chance to speak to the world, albeit anonymously, the truth he knows, in a system built on lies. Blogging is an act of revenge on corruption and tyranny that the individual otherwise feels powerless to confront.
In the case of the Lotus Riverside Court building collapse, some bloggers posted messages about a report on the Japanese News Network (NNN). The messages show screen shots of a TV report in which the chairman of the Japan Structural Consultants Association held a photo of the collapsed building.
According to the bloggers, the chairman said that judging from Japan’s standards, the posts of the building are “too few and too thin.” He is also quoted saying that, in Japan where there are frequent earthquakes, the posts would be around 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) in diameter; but those of the collapse building are about 50-60 centimeters (about 2 feet); in addition, those posts are all hollow, where they should be solid.
Bloggers who had worked in the construction industry explained the collapse at the Lotus Riverside Court by telling tales of putting up buildings with rebar that was far too thin and of using cement that was substandard.
These stories, of course, were found to be true on May 12 2008, when the Sichuan earthquake leveled school buildings, likely killing thousands of school children (the regime has arrested grieving parents who have tried to make a comprehensive list of the dead, and the true, total death toll of school children remains unknown), while official government buildings survived the earthquake seemingly without a crack in them. The bloggers began referring to the “tofu waste” construction going up in China.
Other bloggers explained how this kind of building can be approved. After the construction begins, the building inspector is taken out for a big meal by the developers. Perhaps at the meal the inspector is slipped a red envelope with a little bit of cash, but the bribe is not the point. The inspector has to know who is behind the building project. The dinner invitation is an “offer he can’t refuse.”
The Lotus Riverside Court is a development of 11 identical buildings, with move-in dates set for next May. The buyers of apartments in the non-collapsed buildings are protesting. They have a lot of money invested in apartments in which they may never live. The apartments sell for about US$2,100 per square meter (3.2 square feet), according to the Associated Press.
The developer claims that there is no problem with any of the other buildings in the complex, but scaffolding has appeared around each of them, apparently for inspectors to work from.
The news today is that measures are being taken against the developer and the contractor. This is always the way in today’s China—when corruption bursts into the open with a spectacular failure, someone is made to pay. But these very public investigations are for show and nothing fundamental changes.
This investigation will doubtless document how the foundations of the Lotus Riverside Court are rotten, but the real foundations of the collapse will not even be looked at.
In China, farmers often keep a separate patch of vegetables grown only for their family—they don’t want to eat the vegetables they ship to the market. Middle class families often import baby formula from relatives overseas—how can they trust that the baby formula labeled as coming from Australia is not in fact made in China?
Everyone in China seeks security. As individuals each seeks what is good for his or her own family. But they do so within a system of lies and corruption that has been built by the Chinese Communist Party. Until that foundation is exposed and replaced, there will be no safe home for the residents of the Lotus Riverside Court, or anyone else in China.
Additional reporting by Zhou Meihua