[ Controversy Over Shanghai Apartment Fire Compensation ]
After a long-burning fire that two weeks ago decimated a downtown apartment building and killed dozens, nearly 200,000 Shanghai residents went to pay their respects to the victims—partly out of mourning, and partly out of disgust at the official corruption and incompetence that contributed to the deaths.
With the death toll standing at 58, mourners, witnesses and bloggers suspect that systemic fire code violations did much to contribute to the tragedy. The mass mourning and laying of wreaths at the site took place on Nov. 21, the seventh day since the fire and a day when, in traditional Chinese beliefs, the spirits of the deceased return home.
The Nov. 15 conflagration that ravaged the 28 story apartment building, whose residents were primarily retired teachers and their families, started around 1:00 p.m. when welding sparks set fire to the nylon netting draped over the bamboo scaffolding around the building, according to state media. About 70 others were injured while dozens remain missing, reports say.
It was the first time in recent history that a large number of Shanghainese, stereotypically self-centered and politically indifferent, spontaneously gathered to mourn the deaths of strangers. What brought people out was not just sympathy, but the demand for truth and justice.
The authorities started and concluded an investigation with unusual speed: Within 24 hours of the fire the investigation team from Beijing announced the arrest of eight unlicensed welders who, according to Xinhua News Agency, were to blame.
This news enraged the city, bloggers writing that the welders were merely being used as scapegoats. “[Hearing about the arrest] we can be nothing but indignant,” said a widely copied blog authored by Taiqil on www.tianya.cn. “We can’t help asking: Who hired the workers? Who is the contractor? Who granted them the project? Is there a supervision system? … In the end, the welders, representatives of the underprivileged, are made the scapegoats.”
A Sina.com blogger Rainie Swan quoted a victim’s sister who spoke at the makeshift funeral: “With or without a license, welding sparks appear… Please do not blame everything on the workers.”
Many assert that the real causes of the fire and the high number of casualties were unsafe materials, lax supervision, illegal subcontracting, and a blocked rescue passage—all byproducts of malfeasance and corruption on the part of officials and developers in the construction industry.
Flammable and Toxic Materials
Shanghai Fire Department Deputy Chief Zhu Liping said the building was covered with flammable materials, including polyurethane foam insulation, bamboo scaffolding, nylon netting, and an exterior paint. The foam used to insulate the building releases highly toxic hydrogen cyanide when burned, deadly if breathed in, he told state media.
The scaffolding was built for an exterior renovation project funded by the Shanghai municipal government. The fact that the renovation was conducted without removing the 156 households in the building was a major safety hazard, Zhu said in the interview.
Chinese attorney Li Jingli told The Epoch Times that the fire department is required by law to approve and inspect the safety standards of all major construction projects. Therefore, the fire department is responsible for their implementation. “But the fire department is part of the police system, so the police would not hold them accountable,” Li says.
According to official Chinese media, the renovation project was contracted to Shanghai Jing’an Construction Corporation by the Jing’an District Construction and Transportation Committee. It was subcontracted to Shanghai Jiayi Building and Renovating Co.
Though Jiayi, established in 1987, has in the past been disciplined for safety violations, it won over 60 government construction bids between 2007 and 2010.
Jiayi, in turn, subcontracted the project to allegedly unqualified individual subcontractors, who in turn hire part-time laborers to do the actual work, Chinese media say.
Shanghai human rights attorney Zheng Enchong, one of 42 state-certified attorneys supervising the bids for large and medium size construction projects, said systematic corruption has made illegal subcontracting a common practice in the Chinese real estate industry.
The Jing’an Construction Corp. is actually a subsidiary of the Construction and Transportation Committee, and also the major shareholder of Jiayi, Zheng said. “The bidding process was just a show. Why were so many high level officials found guilty of real estate related corruption? Because all the bids were phony.”
Multiple subcontracting allows all three companies to skim off profit, Zheng said, which resulted in the low budget allocated to the subcontractors at the end of the food chain. To turn a profit these workers use the cheapest materials, like flammable insulation foam.