In China’s mad scramble to develop, its cities are rising at an astonishing rate. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they’re already falling apart.

China’s rush toward Western-style development has not brought with it a commensurate culture of quality. Too often, the new structures that look so impressive from a moving car are breathtakingly slapdash up close. Beneath their glitzy veneers of granite, marble and tile, China’s buildings are literally rotten at the core.

Even important public works such as civic parks, freeways and bridges seem hurriedly thrown together, as if only to impress foreigners in distant postcard views. Rampant corruption among government officials isn’t helping matters–at least one new highway bridge collapsed shortly after completion because inspectors had been paid to look the other way.

Given China’s brilliant history of innovation and craftsmanship, not to mention its almost limitless pool of labor, the toleration of such third-rate work amounts to a national disgrace. Hopefully, the government’s avowed anti-corruption drive, combined with better training of the labor force, will improve the situation. If not, China may find itself rebuilding all over again in 20 years.

For centuries, Chinese houses have been built with walls of coarse, locally fired brick. Given the huge demand for housing, this same basic construction technique has been extended to large multistory apartment buildings, though nowadays reinforced with concrete slab floors and columns.

Such massive masonry structures have advantages–they aren’t plagued by common Western bedevilments, such as termites, dry rot, or fire, for example.

Yet their seismic safety remains questionable, especially considering the frenetic pace at which they’re thrown together.

Perhaps more worrisome, Chinese high-rise buildings are typically built of lightly reinforced concrete with partition walls of unreinforced brick.

Although the Chinese plan eventually to begin framing their skyscrapers in steel as we do in the United States, the present scarcity and cost of steel makes that unlikely for years to come. In the meantime, seeing Chinese cities sprouting 30- and 40-story towers of concrete and brick doesn’t inspire much confidence if you’ve ever seen earthquake footage from the Third World.

Despite China’s near-total reliance on seismically vulnerable masonry buildings, its quality control on all but the most prestigious projects remains haphazard at best. The tens of thousands of untrained laborers who flock into China’s cities from the poorer provinces are entrusted with the construction of important projects, yet receive scant training or supervision. Projects are further compromised by the central government’s custom of setting absurdly short completion deadlines, as well as the ever-present specter of corruption. The result is that safety and permanence are often sacrificed to appearances and fast results.

With millions of Chinese living and working in possible earthquake zones, and with vast public works projects such as the Three Gorges Dam posing a potentially cataclysmic threat should something go wrong, there is a great deal more at stake than aesthetic fine points. China is determined to rebuild itself into a world-class nation, but to do so it must first meet world-class standards.

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