Dofu Engineering

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.

The Discussion: 44 Comments

This bridge was built to handle annual 300 year flood but not the daily torture of heavy trucks. Collapse of this bridge gives PRC another good opportunity to invest more in infrastructure, growing the GDP by a few hundred million yuan to replace this bridge.

August 26, 2012 @ 2:42 am | Comment

Only seen the trailer for that Death by China documentary as linked to by Charlie, but it seems to be patently ridiculous. It is misinformed on so many levels. Can’t blame CHina for making cheap labour available, when it is American businesses who have chosen to take advantage of said availability. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. And the market for cheap goods is also sustained by Americans. So blaming China for that is beyond the pail. Besides, if it wasn’t China, it would be some place else in SE Asia.

The bridge thing is a joke like with the other bridges, or with the train crash last year. At least they haven’t blamed foreign technology on this one…yet. But when you have corruption like China has corruption, this is par for the course.

August 26, 2012 @ 3:31 am | Comment

over 23000 cars made from Great Wall and Chery Motors have to recalled from australia because the asbestos engine and exhaust gaskets.

I think part of it is the PRC chinese testing the boundaries and another demonstration of corruption in China. I think it is time to make those who makes shotty engineering accountable…

maybe it is time to re-institute the execution of the entire extended family (up to 9 generations) of the offender to get the message across.

August 26, 2012 @ 5:29 am | Comment

I’m not sure the root cause of this problem is the rush for growth as much as the way that business is done in China. S.K. is on the right track when he talks about corruption. At every part of the chain, someone is taking their cut and either skimping on materials or sub-contracting to someone less qualified or experienced, putting other folks at risk for sake of a little skim.

In addition to the poor quality of construction in many new buildings in China, what also scares me is the thought that many will need to be demolished within a couple of decades and the colossal waste that entails.

August 26, 2012 @ 11:05 am | Comment

Agree about corruption and the way business is done. I also think the rush to pump money into the system via infrastructure spending has made an awful situation much worse.

August 26, 2012 @ 11:50 am | Comment

To nulle,
I read that they “mistakenly” put asbestos-containing parts in those Aussie vehicles. But they make those parts on purpose, and they knowingly put them into vehicles bound for other countries…those without asbestos bans. Also heard they had planned to export to the US and Europe. They’ve seriously shot themselves in the foot before they even started on that one.

August 26, 2012 @ 11:54 am | Comment

I attended a conference of bridge construction and maintenance experts last year and heard some interesting and scary information.

A British bridge repair engineering company gave a talk about Chinese roadways. He cited one example of a provincial bridge authority that contacted his company because a bridge they were managing was deteriorating very quickly and cracks were appearing in the steel supports.

He went to the site and saw extensive signs of wear and tear on the bridge typical of at least 10-15 years use, although this bridge had only been in use for 2 years. He was dumbfounded. While at his hotel overlooking the bridge that evening he heard a crash and noted a flatbed truck carrying metal spools had overturned just after the bridge. Knowing the rough weight of the spools he counted them and estimated the weight of the truck to be about 60 metric tons.

The next day he asked if the bridge authority had a record of the trucks that cross the bridge. They had photo records of every single truck that crossed, as they charge for passage according to weight. The single heaviest truck to cross the bridge was over 140 metric tons. The engineer giving us the talk had a screenshot from the bridge authority to back up his story. You could see the truck, the weight and everything. I think I still have a copy of the picture somewhere.

To put that in perspective, the single heaviest designated acceptable weight on roads in Canada is 65 tons. That is to say nothing about bridges. In the United States it’s about 35 tons. We’re not even talking about bridges, but earthbound solid roads. Not sure what the typical limit is on bridges.

The authority responsible for maintaining the bridge was knowingly allowing vehicles in excess of 100 metric tons to cross the bridge on a regular basis.

Compare that to how well toll booths are managed in China…

August 26, 2012 @ 2:30 pm | Comment

I think it is time to make those who makes shotty engineering accountable…

But then the government would also have to take action against those that allow or encourage the corruption to boost economic statistics – officials and politicians. The Chinese government is still unwilling or unable (I’m not sure which is worse) to really take action against corruption within its own ranks, apart from when the odd case provokes a particularly strong public reaction.

August 26, 2012 @ 6:27 pm | Comment

A few years ago, economist Huang Yasheng argued that while investment in India was only 50 percent of China’s, their investment created eighty percent of the growth China got. One problem is that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in China don’t get access to bank loans the way the big and state companies do – quite in general, the state appears to be neglecting that sector – not because the party wouldn’t know better, but because they and the SMEs aren’t personally connected. When capital is provided by the state in large amounts – the provincial investment companies (i. e. the provincial governments, in the end), had to incur huge debts during the Chinese stimulus programs -, allocation becomes the problem. Even if the infrastructure building makes some sense (it won’t make perfect sense, usually, when most of the public funding focuses on infrastructure), and even if the buildings aren’t shoddy, the real (potential) growth drivers still remain neglected.

As for the cases of corruption, they are ugly, and probably what angers Chinese citizens most. But it isn’t what makes China’s political system outstandingly vile, in my view. You’ll find corruption in many developing countries and regions, and it seems to be part of every history of economic growth. What’s really outstandingly bad about China’s political system is the continuous brainwashing of what they like to call “public opinion”.

August 26, 2012 @ 6:30 pm | Comment

Leave it to Red Star to find an example of a bad US bridge to make it all equivalent — our infrastructure is just as doufu-ish as China’s. And his example reeks. The bridge red star foolishly refers to was built in 1967 and collapsed in 2002 — 40 years! The Chinese bridge came tumbling down after nine months. Only my fenqing friends can see a parallel. (And no, the US bridge should not have collapsed and was the result of a design flaw. But that is incredibly rare, and it took 40 years, not 40 minutes.)

August 27, 2012 @ 3:16 am | Comment

@ Richard

Oh, Richard, you just don’t get it! It’s like I explained on The Diplomat, if you point out the flaws in something/someone else, it negates whatever flaws you may have. It’s like how, if I went to the hospital after being shot in the head, the first thing I would do would be to point out a person with polycystic kidneys and all my troubles would just vanish. See? Logical.

August 27, 2012 @ 4:20 am | Comment

The bridge red star foolishly refers to was built in 1967 and collapsed in 2002 — 40 years!

Built in 1968, performs like a rock to this day.

American infrastructure is the best in the world? Stop joking me.

August 27, 2012 @ 4:40 am | Comment

Hong Xing, you are so precious. So the fact that one bridge in China lasted as long time somehow makes up for the nine that collapsed in one year? Are you nuts?

Sure, American infrastructure is badly in need of refurbishing. But few in any American bridges are collapsing though many need work. Let’s do a graph of construction fuck-ups in China va. the US, of the percentage of buildings and bridges that collapse. Guess what you would find?

Buildings in the US must undergo strict construction codes. American buildings and bridges tend not to collapse.

August 27, 2012 @ 4:44 am | Comment

Submitted on 2012/08/27 at 4:40 a
“American infrastructure is the best in the world? Stop joking me.”

Hong Xing, my dear, whoever said such a thing? No one. American infrastructure needs a lot of work

Unapprove | Reply | Quick Edit | Edit | History | Spam | Trash

August 27, 2012 @ 5:30 am | Comment

The 77 year lease hold rule is of little consequence, since most high rises have a life expectancy of about thirty years.

And remember, when buying an apartment, give the floor the marble test. The other rule of thumb. If you don’t have any electrical/wiring or plumbing problems in the first two years, you are a happy camper.

August 27, 2012 @ 9:50 am | Comment

Bottom line is a lot of provincial CCP 1 percenter family members with “engineering” consultancies get rich off these bridges and highways, for sure.

Time for China to start a “Highway Patrol” in the lines of California? In addition to enforcing speeding and psycho driving (they’ll be quite busy in China) laws, they are responsible for ensuring free flow of traffic (clearing accidents/spills by the fastest means possible), manning scales and inspection stations, anti-smuggling and overall safety. Not like the usual Keystone Kop setups in place now that just hang out near toll stations and randomly shake down some poor sap driver from bumf**k Qinghai.

August 27, 2012 @ 12:29 pm | Comment

@Richard – Even more ironically, the Nanjing Bridge has been plagued with problems. Last I checked (2007) cracks had formed in the structure of the bridge due to the poorly mixed concrete used during its rushed construction, and only cars with a ‘苏A’ (i.e., Nanjing) license plate could use in an effort to reduce damage from vibration. But then, of course, I know this because I lived in Nanjing and had to use the bridge.

Edit: Apparently there was a large-scale renovation in 2009, but this caused massive cracks to appear which then had to be filled in, see here:

August 27, 2012 @ 2:19 pm | Comment

Red Star was gone for a while, and now he’s back. Looks like he went for some tu quoque refresher training with the mother ship in the time he was gone. I can’t say that’s terribly good use for one’s time, but I guess it’ll have to suffice for someone like Red Star.

Let’s see…ok, so people criticize China because a bunch of bascially brand-spanking-new bridges have collapsed recently. So Red Star finds a US bridge that collapsed after 40 years, and tries to suggest “see, US is just as bad”.

Forgiving the unnecessary tu-quoques, but after simply pointing out the idiotic “logic” of comparing a 40 year old bridge with a 9-month-old one, the brilliant Red Star comes back with “hey, China has a bridge that lasted more than 40 years…without collapsing!!!”. Whoop-dee-doo, Red Star. The problem obviously isn’t the fact that 40 year old bridges exist in China; the problem is that it is more the exception than the rule.

“American infrastructure is the best in the world? Stop joking me.”
—and of course, the piece de resistance, another tu quoque. Earth-to-Red Star: it doesn’t matter whether American infrastructure is best in the world (who made that claim anyway?) or not, cuz it doesn’t change the fact that China builds crap, likely owing to the institutionalized corruption that comes courtesy of the CCP system.

August 28, 2012 @ 1:37 am | Comment

““hey, China has a bridge that lasted more than 40 years…without collapsing!!!”

Although, because of the haste with which it was constructed in order to please leadership (sound familiar?) It became so dilapidated that traffic had to be restricted so that it wouldn’t shake the bridge to pieces. And when they fixed it (again in a hurry, again to please leadership) it almost made the bridge collapse, so they had to fix the damage that fixing it caused.

But anyway, still solid as a rock.

August 28, 2012 @ 7:52 am | Comment

This post made me LOL.

” we know they are lying, and they know that we know they are lying, and we also know that they actually know that we know that they are lying”

“It’s true, there is a warning sign. It was just installed backwards. That’s a pretty good illustration of the establishment of China’s rule of law.

It’s also a good illustration of everything in China.”

Delicious stuff.

August 28, 2012 @ 11:31 am | Comment

Although, because of the haste with which it was constructed in order to please leadership (sound familiar?) It became so dilapidated that traffic had to be restricted so that it wouldn’t shake the bridge to pieces. And when they fixed it (again in a hurry, again to please leadership) it almost made the bridge collapse, so they had to fix the damage that fixing it caused.

But anyway, still solid as a rock.

Yes, it is still solid as a rock. If it’s not, it would’ve collapsed like that Minnesota Bridge.

August 29, 2012 @ 7:32 am | Comment

While these Tofu projects MUST be investigated and the engineering team and the local officials punished according to due process of law, these do not detract from the tens of thousands of bridges, tunnels, buildings, airports, roads that do get built according to construction codes and do service hundreds of millions of travelers and businessmen and farmers and do put China on an economic growth trajectory a class above that of its third world peers (India bridges and roads anyone?).

So yes, these individual projects need to be investigated, it does not alter the narrative that China has seen an absolute incredible build-out of its infrastructure over the past decade, and its speed AND quality is unparalleled in the world.

Infrastructure is fine under the CPP.

August 29, 2012 @ 7:38 am | Comment

Yes, infrastructure under the CCP is jim dandy, and US bridges fall down all the time. So do our schoolhouses. So do our apartment houses. All of our building inspectors are on the take, pocketing bribes. Most American buildings only last a few years before the fault lines appear and they soon sag and fall apart. If only we did it the Chinese way.

August 29, 2012 @ 7:57 am | Comment

Yes, infrastructure under the CCP is jim dandy, and US bridges fall down all the time. So do our schoolhouses. So do our apartment houses. All of our building inspectors are on the take, pocketing bribes. Most American buildings only last a few years before the fault lines appear and they soon sag and fall apart.

I’m sorry but that’s my experience living here in the US. Most US ‘houses’ are simply not houses, but cardboard boxes constructed using the cheapest composite materials. And this is not just my opinion, my Chinese relatives come here and visit me, and when they enter my house, the first reaction is, ‘you call this a house?’. And my relatives are not some rich people, they are simple farmers living in China’s rural areas. They made some money from selling oranges and all of them build their own houses, with real bricks and stones and masonry, not with cardboard composite materials.

August 29, 2012 @ 8:09 am | Comment

Yes, I agree, and I repeat, our schoolhouses crumble like doufu in earthquakes, our bridges constantly collapse — 11 in the past year! — and apartment houses often simply flip over to one side. And don’t get me going on America’s high-speed railroad and that awful crash.

August 29, 2012 @ 8:11 am | Comment

Within the tu quoques, at least the busted clock acknowledges that the tofu projects, when identified, warrant investigation and potential legal ramifications. Of course, “due process of law” may not mean very much in China under the CCP, but at least he gives it some lip service.

China has built out its infrastructure with great speed. “unparalleled” quality, on the other hand, I’m not so sure.

And maybe the clock-meister needs to get himself a better house.

August 29, 2012 @ 8:34 am | Comment

Yes, all one has to do to appreciate the quality and durability of Chinese houses is visit the countryside. Truly a nation of homes built like brick shithouses (the “building material” often pilfered from obviously durable dilapidated factories or the Great Wall…or an actual shithouse).

August 29, 2012 @ 9:48 am | Comment

Oh Jeez, a bridge which was in so much danger of falling down that it had to be partially closed to traffic is ‘steady as a rock’ to The Clock, and his McMansion is scoffed at by his relatives from the Chinese countryside who, of course, live somewhere better. But hey, why even debate with the guy when he won’t tell us what really happened to the guy he replaced?

August 29, 2012 @ 10:13 am | Comment

Leaving aside the absurdity of the Clock’s anecdote, the fact remains that average residential construction quality to compare incidence/consequences of subcontracting fraud is a logical fallacy of the most basic order…

August 29, 2012 @ 4:09 pm | Comment

“the fact remains that average residential construction quality to compare incidence/consequences of subcontracting fraud is a logical fallacy of the most basic order”

Not if you’re raking money off the cost of constructing your own house it’s not!

Note to The Clock’s buddies (all 0 of them): better give the Saturday-night Ma Jiang session at chez Clock a miss, likely the place could fall apart at any moment ’cause he skimped on the concrete lintels and pocketed the difference . . .

August 29, 2012 @ 6:52 pm | Comment

PS – what happened to Math?

August 29, 2012 @ 6:53 pm | Comment

PS – what happened to Math?

He died, I think.

August 30, 2012 @ 12:25 am | Comment

@T_co – Except the story Clock gave us was total BS – none of it checked out: no dead profs, no messages of condolence, no nothing. He spun us a line.

August 30, 2012 @ 1:51 am | Comment

Tick Tock, comment #25
I take it by this comment then that you are not really successful in the US…given that you apparently live in a shitty house that even your poor, simple, orange selling relatives scoff at….

August 30, 2012 @ 6:08 am | Comment


He faked his death? That’s low. That’s really fucking low.

August 30, 2012 @ 9:21 am | Comment

Math is a big mystery. I have no idea if he was a professor or if he went to Columbia, though for years his IP address showed he was using the university’s servers. My gut instinct tells me he really is dead, simply because after five years of constant posting it just stopped in its tracks. For the last few months while he was commenting, the comments were simply cut and pastes of earlier comments, and I suspect Math wasn’t the one posting them. The Clock said he died of esophageal cancer, but who knows? I would like very much to know who he actually is/was, and what became of him. We will probably never know.

August 30, 2012 @ 9:38 am | Comment

I’ve seen this MO twice before though – once on the China Daily website and once on Chinasmack, you get this nutcase bombast squealing out jingoistic bullcrap and then one day it just stops. Suddenly, someone appears from the sidelines claiming an intimate knowledge of the person who posted and claiming that they died.

It’s just another psychological tactic designed to elicit sympathy from otherwise hostile commenters and get a foot in the door in terms of ideology. It’s like “China-Bashing” – just another way of forcing us on the defensive.

August 30, 2012 @ 2:24 pm | Comment

The major dilema on SME not getting loans is also tied into the problem of the RMB in general, if banks were allowed to loan at the general world standards we would probably see some pretty extreme shift in interest rate and thus exchange rates quite soon. the scale of which even the PRC’s central bank will probably find very difficult to reign in.

But still, one must take into the context that SME busniess are still considerablly more successful in China than in most developed countries. part of it is tha the requirement floor is generally much lower anyway. many SME developed from family workshop and stuff.

This was largely true in Taiwan as well, a country well known for it’s SME. in the periods that most of them rose up loan restrictions were hardly more accomedating than those in the PRC today. and since it has normalized there isn’t that much clear signs that it actually helps the SME that much. of course the times are changing through all this and the situation differs. But when my Grandfolks managed to turn a family paper cutting workshop into a full scale (small) factory they did it with no bank loans at all.

August 30, 2012 @ 6:02 pm | Comment


The catch with SME access to capital is that for China to get to the next stage of service-led, consumption-driven growth, it needs service-oriented SMEs to grow and consolidate within their own industries and across industry verticals. I agree that SMEs in China and Taiwan, so far, have been able to manage without proper access to bank capital, but that’s because they’re concentrated in a few labor-intensive, export-oriented, manufacturing-focused industries. This leaves them quite vulnerable to international commodity and market shocks as well as forcing a dilemma between economic growth and environmental health.

What China really needs, in essence, is the creation of large, service-oriented, private-sector corporations like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, or Microsoft to drive the next leg of wage and productivity gains. That’s simply not possible without access to cheap loan capital from the banking sector.

August 30, 2012 @ 11:00 pm | Comment

@Richard – Dead? Maybe, maybe not. But a dead professor/lecturer? No, Columbia/NYU would have announced that, and they made no such announcement. Same goes for the nonsense The Clock told us about messages of condolence from the Chinese consolate and elsewhere – no such announcement were made. Clock spun us a line about Math, it would be nice if he would at least tell us the truth.

August 30, 2012 @ 11:22 pm | Comment

FOARP, I have no actual evidence that Math was ever a lecturer or professor. Based on your own research, I am highly skeptical. I always thought he was just another fenqing with a wicked sense of humor and modestly good writing skills who used my site to troll and make mischief. I can’t say he’s dead, only that I think it is very possible based on his sudden disappearance after five years. I don’t trust a word the Clock says, but I can’t see how he benefits from claiming Math passed away. I just don’t know.

August 30, 2012 @ 11:26 pm | Comment

Without a doubt the rushed, shoddy construction and rampant corruption found throughout the Chinese building industry will lead to many more failures. In the US we have a different problem: public unwillingness to deal with crumbling infrastructure not only in bridges, but water systems, too. Check out the following site for an eye-opening discussion about the state of bridges in the US:

September 3, 2012 @ 2:39 am | Comment

How is this news in 2012?

It was barely news in 2002. How many times can we be shocked that 1) China overbuilds for the sake of it and 2) that it does so rather badly?

China ™, truly the story that keeps on giving.

September 3, 2012 @ 11:43 am | Comment

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