Sichuan

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Yesterday, China Media Project’s David Bandurski published a post that highlights the best of what CMP does: muckraking in the China media and blogosphere, in this case regarding school construction in Sichuan. If CMP isn’t already on your RSS feed, we encourage you to add them. In the meantime, Bandurski kindly agreed to let us re-post this piece on the suppression of findings regarding shoddy school construction in Sichuan.

By David Bandurski

China Economic Weekly, a spin-off magazine of the official People’s Daily, ran an important story Monday about the collapse of school buildings in last year’s Sichuan earthquake. But the story, posted initially to People’s Daily Online, was removed by day’s end, a sign that some important officials at least were not pleased.

The original URL for the story at People’s Daily Online is now replaced with a tell-tale trace: “The page you wish to view no longer exists.”

Nevertheless, this is a story to keep your eyes on and one that amply illustrates the complexity of China’s media environment. Where did the story come from? Why was it allowed to appear at all?

The story’s jumping-off point is an academic study on construction quality in the quake zone launched last year by Tsinghua University, but it makes much more explicit the findings of the study as they are relevant to the problem of school collapses.

The story, by reporter Zhou Haibin (周海滨), uses the numbers in the Tsinghua study to make it clear that schools surveyed by a team of experts suffered far more crippling damage in the quake than did government buildings. For example, while 44 percent of government buildings studied were still deemed usable, having sustained little seismic damage, only 18 percent of school buildings studied were still deemed structurally sound.

The article quotes the author of the paper, professor Lu Xinzheng (陆新征) of Tsinghua University’s Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Project Research Center, as saying that . . .

. . . the severity of school collapses in the quake owed not to [the inadequacy of] our nation’s earthquake mitigation means and objectives. The problem [he says] is the [failure of] application of these preventive means and objectives in particular regions. He says that owing to China’s national characteristics (我国国情) and limited national [government] strength, the level of seismic resistance [for buildings] in many local areas was as low as .5 to 1.0 when it should have been 1.5 to 2.0.

The long and short of it: negligence by local government officials.

Lu Xinzheng runs a decent personal website in both Chinese and English, which includes PDF downloads of much of his research over the last few years. There’s contact information too, but we’re supposing the news has already cycled past the earthquake anniversary so far as those editors back in New York and London are concerned, right?

Anyhow, a list of Lu’s recent earthquake-related research is here. One of the most interesting papers is a study of the structural weaknesses of buildings in last year’s Wenchuan earthquake. In this study, Lu and his colleagues write about the notable thinness (and hence weakness) of vertical supporting columns in frame structured buildings in Sichuan, which either buckled or broke when the quake struck.

“In the Wenchuan earthquake, most of the many frame structured buildings that either were damaged or collapsed were of this sort, particularly spacious and open buildings that were purely frame structured (most of which were school classroom complexes, see figure 8),” Lu and his colleagues write.

Fortunately, yesterday’s story from China Economic Weekly has not disappeared altogether. As of 10:51am today the story was still available at Qingdao News.

The article’s headline also appeared today in a list of “recent news” in the Chongqing section of People’s Daily Online, and the link was still active, taking readers to this Chongqing page with the full text of the report.

A search in the WiseNews Chinese news database suggests the story also ran yesterday on CCTV’s international website, and on the website of China News Service.

A partial translation of the China Economic Weekly story follows:

Seismic Investigation Team Reveals Causes of Severity of School Collapses in the Wenchuan Earthquake
China Economic Weekly
Zhou Haibin (周海滨) reporting from Beijing and Sichuan

This reporter recently received a copy of an academic paper called “An Analysis of Seismic Damage Caused to Structures in the Wenchuan Earthquake,” written by a seismic investigation team from Tsinghua University, Southwest Jiaotong University and Beijing Jiaotong University. Of the 54 government buildings that the investigative team studied, 13 percent (or 7 buildings) were deemed to have been irreparably damaged [by the quake]. Of the 44 school buildings that they studied, this ratio was 57 percent (or 25 schools), more than four times the level [of damage] seen with government buildings.

Numbers reveal damage to be most serious among school buildings

After the earthquake struck on May 12 last year, Tsinghua University arranged for a team of relevant experts to travel to Sichuan, and they teamed up with civil engineers (土木结构方面专家) from Southwest Jiaotong University and Beijing Jiaotong University, making a series of three investigations into seismic damage to structures [in the earthquake zone].

The investigative team classed structures sustaining seismic damage into four categories: 1) usable, 2) usable pending repairs, 3) use to be ceased, and 4) immediate demolition. Buildings were divided into types according to their purpose: school, government, business, factory, hospital and other public buildings.

According to the statistical chart provided in the paper, China Economic Weekly has determined that 44 of the 384 structures studied were school buildings. The numbers provided in the chart reveal that of the 44 school buildings studied, 18 percent (or 8 buildings) were deemed usable, 25 percent (or 11 buildings) were deemed usable pending repairs, 23 percent (or 10 buildings) were labeled “use to be ceased” (unusable) and 34 percent (or 15 buildings) were recommended for immediate demolition.

In comparison, the percentages in all categories for the 54 government buildings were: 44 percent usable (24 buildings), 43 percent usable pending repairs (23 buildings), 9 percent “use to be ceased” (unusable) and 4 percent for immediate demolition (2 buildings).

The paper also points out that schools and industrial structures suffered more serious seismic damage due in part due to the functionality of their designs. Schools suffering seismic damage were largely structures of masonry, with large-spanning rooms, large openings for doors and windows, projecting corridors, and in some cases no allowances made for quake resistance, so that their earthquake resistance was low. Factory building were also largely masonry structures, usually of small scale and spaces consisting predominantly of parking areas where there were few personnel. For this reason, little consideration was given [in factory buildings] for earthquake resistance, and seismic damage was rather severe.

Government buildings mostly used reinforced concrete frameworks, and seismic damage to these was minimal . . .

Ever since the quake struck, public opinion in China and overseas has turned to the issue of construction quality in the quake zone. Addressing concerns about “tofu engineering” [shoddily built structures], Sichuan’s acting vice-governor Wei Hong (魏宏) said in answer to questions from reporters that the collapse of schools in this major earthquake was the unavoidable result of natural disaster.

The author of this paper, professor Lu Xinzheng (陆新征) of Tsinghua University’s Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Project Research Center, believes that the severity of school collapses in the quake owed not to [the inadequacy of] our nation’s earthquake mitigation means and objectives. The problem [he says] is the [failure of] application of these preventive means and objectives in particular regions. He says that owing to China’s national characteristics (我国国情) and limited national [government] strength, the level of seismic resistance [for buildings] in many local areas was as low as .5 to 1.0 when it should have been 1.5 to 2.0.

Images and the full text of the above article are available at the China Media Project website.

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