I’ve been Internetless most of this week, which is a smart thing to be every once in a while. But it does mean I’ve missed some very cool stories. Almost a week old is Custer’s excellent post on a film that is truly guilty of China-bashing. Mark’s China Blog has a typically excellent post on Mao’s War Against Nature. And this story in the NY Times caught my attention:
One of the longest bridges in northern China collapsed on Friday, just nine months after it opened, setting off a storm of criticism from Chinese Internet users and underscoring questions about the quality of construction in the country’s rapid expansion of its infrastructure.
A nearly 330-foot-long section of a ramp of the eight-lane Yangmingtan Bridge in the city of Harbin dropped 100 feet to the ground. Four trucks plummeted with it, resulting in three deaths and five injuries.
The 9.6-mile bridge is one of three built over the Songhua River in that area in the past four years. China’s economic stimulus program in 2009 and 2010 helped the country avoid most of the effects of the global economic downturn, but involved incurring heavy debt to pay for the rapid construction of new bridges, highways and high-speed rail lines all over the country.
Xinhua blamed the collapse on overloaded trucks, the same excuse it gave for the other six major bridges in China that have collapsed since 2011. Isn’t it safe, however, to say that something is terribly wrong here? Wouldn’t you think the bridges were designed to withstand the weight of heavy trucks?
Weiboers have referred to the catastrophe as yet another example of “dofu engineering,” and they are right. I’m all for improving infrastructure, but this is an example of a scramble to build as quickly as possible, and China is paying a very heavy price (the cost of the bridge was some $300 million).
Back to the beginning of this post: the film Charlie rightfully lambastes, at least based on its incredibly idiotic trailer, is all about China stealing jobs and making shoddy, dangerous goods. When I read about bridges crumbling, I have no choice but to think there is at least a partial element of truth when it comes to construction, from apartment buildings simply toppling over to schoolhouses collapsing in an earthquake like a house of cards. This latest disaster is emblematic of a rush for growth for growth’s sake, to use the money the government is generously allocating to build as much as possible while ignoring even basic standards of quality. If this is what China’s growth is based on, we’re all in trouble.
These projects are dazzling at first glance, but many are literally built on sand and speak to the folly of rushing to spend government money. This was the strategy, successful so far, for China to buy its way out of the global financial crisis. But eventually it will be time to pay the piper, and a lot of that money will have been wasted, and even some lives.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.