Sichuan schools corruption scandal

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The extent of the earthquake

After the May 12, 2008, earthquake in the Chinese province of Sichuan, there was a series of allegations of corruption against officials involved in the construction of schools in regions affected by the quake. It gained momentum in May and June 2008, and the allegations culminated in protests from grieving parents of children who died in the earthquake as a result of the collapse of various schools in the quake zone.

The scandal eventually became a focal point of reporting on the earthquake rescue efforts, with Chinese civil engineers, bloggers, activists, and foreign media bringing attention to the allegations. Various discussions reports alleged that local government officials and construction companies were negligent in the construction of schools, and that they ignored civil engineering standards, saved materials and took shortcuts while pocketing the difference.

Despite initial openness to independent reporting and foreign media, the Chinese government attempted to downplay the issue and suppress criticism.[1] Additionally, local government attempted to entice grieving parents into monetary compensation in exchange for their silence. While Chinese authorities were initially praised by international media for its rapid and effective response to the earthquake,[2][3][4] the school construction scandal severely undermined the initial positive reactions, particularly among Western media. Postings about the scandal flooded Chinese online portals and discussion boards, and popularized the phrase "tofu-dreg schoolhouses" (Chinese:豆腐渣校舍). The internet activism resulted in a pledge by the federal government to conduct investigations into the allegations, but it was ostensibly not followed up with any substantial action.


Over 7,000 schoolrooms collapsed in the course of the earthquake, mostly in rural areas,[5] reportedly leading to the death of nearly 5,000 students (though some parents believe the real figure is twice that officially cited[6]) and the injury of over 15,000 students.[6] The total death toll of the quake was around 70,000 people, with some 375,000 injuries. A month after the quake, nearly 20,000 people remained missing, while five million were rendered homeless.[7]

The disproportionate number of school collapses led to open discussions that they were not built to adequate standards. The grieving parents and critical journalists pointed out that "hundreds of schools collapsed instantly — even newly constructed ones — while older buildings nearby were often unscathed."[6] This, in turn, has led to allegations of corruption on the part of Education Ministry officials and contractors who were said to be complicit in constructing the school buildings dangerously below government-mandated standards, while pocketing the remaining surplus.[6] On May 26, Wang Xuming, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, stated that the ministry would complete a reassessment of school buildings in quake zones and that those who had cut corners on school construction would be “severely punished.”[8] Some parents protested what they argued, one month after the event, amounts to government inaction.[9]

Analysis and opinions[edit]

Factors in building collapse[edit]

The earthquake has caused collapse of more than 6.5 million buildings and damaged some 23 million more. Four factors determine the damage to a particular building, according to geologist Liu Jie (Chinese: 刘杰), Director of Earthquake Prediction Department of (China's) Center for Seismic Monitoring Station Network under the China Earthquake Administration (CEA), who arrived in the quake zone on the same day as the main quake. Besides the quake's magnitude and intensity in the area, the location of the building played an important role. In some towns that Liu surveyed, all buildings sitting on the earthquake fault line collapsed, while buildings tens of meters away did not. Building structure was also a factor. Buildings with larger spans tend to collapse more easily. The fourth factor was the quality of the building. If a building's designed fortification intensity is above the quake's intensity at the location, the collapse of a building can be definitively attributed to its engineering quality, Liu explained. On the other hand, if the quake's intensity exceeds the designated code, it would be hard to determine whether the earthquake engineering quality is the deciding factor of its collapse.[10]

Modes of building collapse[edit]

Despite these factors, some Chinese civil engineers expressed a different view and joined the public in criticizing the initial official attribution of school collapses. According to Caijing, "earthquake intensity exceeding the designed resistance does not mean that buildings built to quality specifications will definitely collapse. Even if they collapse, there are different ways by which they collapse and variation within building design. Such collapses should not necessarily lead to heavy human casualties."[11]

Buildings strictly built to the specifications of civil planning would not collapse during an earthquake. Any building that collapsed instantaneously must have failed to conform to civil planning standards. Either the design was unfit, or the engineering was unfit.[12]

— Liang Wei (梁伟), Executive Vice President of the Urban Planning Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University

Seismic fortification for schools in the quake zone[edit]

A post-quake survey indicated the intensity near the epicenter of the earthquake to be category XI-intensity,[13] far exceeding the seismic fortification intensity of VII-intensity assigned to Wenchuan, Sichuan in GB 500011-2001, a national standard for seismic design published in 2001.[14] Beichuan, center of another XI-intensity area, had been zoned as VI-intensity. (Zoning for Wenchuan, Beichuan and several other cities in Sichuan were subsequently revised to VIII liedu, the second highest rating in the standard.[15])

GB50223-2004, the national standard for classification of civil seismic fortification before the earthquake, specified Class B for schools exceeding 600 in capacity, kindergartens and child care centers exceeding 200, meaning they must be built to at least 1 liedu higher than the zoned seismic fortification intensity of the area. However, it contained a provision to allow low-rise (three stories and lower) schools to be built to meet the area's fortification intensity (Class C).[16] (The government rushed a revision to the standard after the Wenchuan earthquake. GB 50223-2008 has removed both the provision regarding capacity and the one regarding height to require all schools to meet Class B.[17])

In perspective, Yingxiu Primary School had a collapsed four-story building built in 1999, where 3/4 of the 473 students were dead,[18] whereas Xuankou Middle School had several collapsed buildings from 3 to 4 stories built in 2006, where more than 80% of the 1,200+ students stayed alive.[19] Both schools are located in the town of Yingxiu, Wenchuan nearly at the epicenter of the main quake. Beichuan Middle School in Beichuan, where 80% of buildings collapsed, had two collapsed five-story buildings completed in 1998 that were once named "high quality buildings," killing nearly half of its 2,000+ students.[20][21] Following GB50223-2004, Xuankou Middle School should have been built to resist VII + I in seismic intensity. Beichuan Middle School and Yingxiu Primary School could have passed with fortification intensity of VII liedu had they been built after 2004; but because they were built before the publication of even GB 500011-2001, they could be using older standards or none at all.[22]

Attempt to interfere with survey[edit]

In justifying the relatively long time CEA used to produce the intensity diagram of the Wenchuan earthquake, Vice President of International Association for Earthquake Engineering XIE Lili (Chinese: 谢礼立) who was a member of the survey team indicated that "some (local government) may want to make more serious estimations of earthquake damage, so they could obtain more compensation,"[23] hinting attempts to interfere with the survey. The same news article quoted persons in the know who suggested that another motivation for attempted interference would be to boost intensity in order to evade responsibility for not following seismic design codes. Despite later denial by CEA that the published intensity reflected such interference, MA Zongjin (Chinese: 马宗晋), Chairman of the National Expert Committee for Wenchuan Earthquake who is also the Chairman of the National Expert Committee for Disaster Prevention, openly confirmed that "some local workers wanted to increase (report of) local damages or seismic intensity"[24] in a press conference sponsored by the State Council State Council Information Office of the PRC.

Suppression of dissent[edit]

In July 2008, local governments in the Sichuan Province coordinated a campaign to silence angry parents whose children died during the earthquake through monetary contracts. If the parents refused, officials threatened that they would receive nothing. Although Chinese officials have advocated a policy of openness in time before the Olympic Games, the pressure on parents to sign demonstrates that officials are determined to create an appearance of public harmony rather than investigate into the corruption or negligence of the construction of schools. The payment amounts vary by school but are roughly the same. In Hanwang, parents were offered a package valued at US$8,800 in cash and a per-parent pension of nearly US$5,600. Many parents said they signed the contract, even if no real investigation ensues. Furthermore, officials have continued to use traditional methods of silencing: riot police officers have broken up protests by parents; the authorities have set up cordons around the schools; and officials have ordered the Chinese news media to stop reporting on school collapses.[25]

On July 25, 2008, Liu Shaokun (刘绍坤), a Sichuan school teacher, was detained for disseminating rumors and destroying social order. Liu's family was later told that he was being investigated on suspicion of the crime of inciting subversion. Liu, a teacher at Guanghan Middle School (四川省德阳市广汉中学), Deyang City, Sichuan Province, traveled to heavily hit areas after the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, took photos of collapsed school buildings, and put them online. In a media interview, he expressed his anger at “the shoddy ‘tofu’ buildings.” Liu was detained on June 25, 2008 at his school. He was ordered to serve one year of re-education through labor. Under RTL regulations, public security authorities may issue an order to anyone to serve up to four years of RTL without trial or formal charge. After being denied several visits, the family turned to international human rights organizations, who reported the case and urged the government to release him, which drew attention in the international community. On September 26, 2008, Liu was finally released to serve his sentence outside of RTL.[26]

Chinese human rights activist Huang Qi was also detained.[27] Huang Qi is an active rights defender in China. he established an Internet service company in October 1998 to help search for missing people, and launched a website called Tianwang Xunren on June 4, 1999. Huang Qi was arrested on June 3, 2000, and sentenced to five years imprisonment on May 9, 2003 by the Chengdu Intermediate People's Court for the crime of inciting subversion of state power.[28] During the Sichuan Earthquake, Huang Qi's work and his website were widely reported by media to help find missing people to unite family members. He also wrote many articles about families who lost their children.[29] Although initially tolerating independent reporting, China's security forces have begun to clamp down on dissent and public complaints.[29] According to Human Rights In China, sources inside China said that on the evening of June 10, 2008, Huang Qi, Pu Fei, a volunteer for Tianwang, and Zuo Xiaohuan, a former teacher at Leshan Teachers College were missing after they were forced into a car by unidentified individuals.[28] In the afternoon of June 12, 2008, Lawyer Xu, Tianwang's legal counsel, went to the Jinyang Police Station of Chengdu to file a missing persons report.[28] The police reportedly told Xu that Huang Qi has been detained, and that the related legal procedure notice would be sent to his family but refused to disclose the grounds for Huang's detention. Huang Qi's 74-year-old mother, Pu Wenqing, said that the family had not received any notice from the police over the past few days.[28]

On June 12, a BBC journalist was briefly detained in Dujiangyan due to "danger of further aftershocks," and was advised to vacate the city.[30] On June 17, a Hong-Kong-based human rights group reported that a retired professor, Zeng Hongling, was detained for "subversion" after publishing a critical essay titled ""My Personal Experience in the Earthquake."[31] On June 20, two foreign journalists were detained for "working behind police cordons" at the site of a protest by parents in the town of Wufu.[32]

Li Chengpeng wrote an article on the construction of schools in Beichuan in 2008,[33] and in a 2012 column published by The New York Times stated that man named Gou Yandong had been responsible for the building of six schools that did not suffer damage in the earthquake, but that Gou had since been forcibly treated for non-existent mental health problems.[34]

Delayed inquiry[edit]

Although the central government was initially praised([35][36]) for its response to the quake (especially in comparison to Myanmar's ruling military junta's blockade of aid during Cyclone Nargis), it has seen an erosion in confidence over the school construction scandal.[37][38]

On May 23, 2008, the government promised an inquiry into the matter.[39] On June 16, the Legal Daily announced that prosecutors were beginning a probe, possibly to be led by anti-corruption investigator, Hu Hong, which, in part, will investigate the collapse of ten schools in Shifang.[40][41] In an official press conference on September 4, 2008, MA Zongjin stated, "We are still carefully thinking about and investigating this matter."[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Police break up protest by parents of China earthquake victims", The Guardian, June 3, 2008
  2. ^ Bouée, Charles-Edouard (2010). China's Management Revolution: Spirit, Land, Energy. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 27.
  3. ^ "Silence on the Square". The Economist. 2009-05-28. Retrieved 2012-02-24. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Sutherland, James (2010). The Ten-Year Century: Explaining the First Decade of the New Millennium. p. 107.
  5. ^ "China anger over 'shoddy schools' ", BBC News Online, May 15, 2008
  6. ^ a b c d "Beijing can't muzzle outrage over deadly collapsed schools"[permanent dead link], The Globe and Mail, June 17, 2008
  7. ^ "Parents of China quake victims express anger", Associated Press via Google, June 12, 2008[dead link]
  8. ^ “China reiterates severe punishment for companies producing substandard building materials,” Xinhua, May 29, 2008,
  9. ^ "Parents in uprising in China quake town", Associated Press via Sydney Morning Herald, June 12, 2008
  10. ^ "Experts explain Great Wenchuan Earthquake (权威详解汶川大地震)" (in Chinese). Sichuan Earthquake Administration (SCEA, 四川地震局). Archived from the original on September 10, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  11. ^ Zhang, Yingguang; Chen, Zhongxiaolu, Yang, Binbin (张映光 陈中小路 杨彬彬) (2008-06-03). "Collapse of schools were due to poor quality of buildings (学校倒塌缘于建筑质量过差)" (in Chinese). Finance and Economics (《财经》). Retrieved 2008-09-30.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)Chinese: 他们指出,地震超过预计强度,并不意味着符合建筑质量标准的建筑物必然倒塌。即使倒塌,由于建筑质量的差异,也有不同的倒塌方式,并不意味着必然造成如此重大的人员伤亡。
  12. ^ Zhang, Yingguang; Chen, Zhongxiaolu, Yang, Binbin (张映光 陈中小路 杨彬彬) (2008-06-03). "Collapse of schools were due to poor quality of buildings (学校倒塌缘于建筑质量过差)". Caijing (in Chinese). Retrieved 2008-09-30.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)Chinese: “如果按照建筑规划严格施工的建筑,在地震中并不会倒塌。凡是瞬间垮塌的房屋,肯定不符合建筑规划要求。要么设计不符合,要么施工不符合。”
  13. ^ "Intensity map of the M8.0 earthquake in Wenchuan (汶川8.0级地震烈度分布图)" (in Chinese). China Earthquake Administration (CEA). 2008-08-29. Archived from the original on 2008-09-08. Retrieved 2008-09-10.
  14. ^ SAITO, Taiki (2008-05-13). "Earthquake design spectrum in Chinese Design Code" (PDF). International Institute of Seismology and Earthquake Engineering (IISEE). Retrieved 2008-09-29. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  15. ^ XU, Zhengzhong; WANG, Yayong; et al. (徐正忠、王亚勇等) (2001). "Code for seismic design of buildings (GB 500011-2001) (partially revised in 2008), Appendix A ( 《建筑抗震设计规范》(GB 500011-2001) (2008 年局部修订) 附录 A 我国主要城镇抗震设防烈度、设计基本地震加速度和设计地震分组)" (in Chinese). Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of PRC (MOHURD, 中华人民共和国住房和城乡建设部). Retrieved 2008-09-29.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. ^ LIU, Yongguang (刘永光) (2005-10-12). "常见的乙类、甲类建筑" [Common Class B and Class A buildings] (in Chinese). Water Resources Engineering Network (水利工程网). Archived from the original on 2009-03-23. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
  17. ^ WANG, Yayong; DAI, Guoying (王亚勇 戴国莹); et al. (2008-07-30). "Standard for classification of seismic protection of building constructions (建筑工程抗震设防分类标准)" (in Chinese). General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine (AQSIQ) and Ministry of Housing ande Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) of PRC. Archived from the original (MS-Word) on 2009-03-27. Retrieved 2008-09-30. Cite journal requires |journal= (help); External link in |publisher= (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  18. ^ "映秀小学校长梦中听见救命声" [Principal of Yingxiu Primary School hears cry for help during dreams] (in Chinese). New Capical Newspaper via (人民网转载《新京报》). 2008-05-21. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
  19. ^ "Xuankou Middle School in Yingxiu: 1,200 students and teachers dug potatoes to feed themselves (映秀镇漩口中学:1200名师生挖土豆充饥)". Southern Weekend (in Chinese). China. 2008-05-25. Archived from the original on 2011-07-07. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
  20. ^ "四川北川中学震灾纪实" [Eye witnesses of the earthquake disaster in Beichuan Middle School, Sichuan] (in Chinese). Archived from the original on 2008-09-08. Retrieved 2008-10-01.
  21. ^ "绵阳常务副市长:将鉴定北川中学教学楼质量" [Executive Vice Mayor of Mianyang: (We) shall investigate qualify of buildings in Beichuan Middle School]. First Finance and Economics Daily (in Chinese). 2008-05-26. Retrieved 2008-10-01.
  22. ^ Standards cited in this article do not contain provisions about mandatory seismic retrofit.
  23. ^ LI, Jun (李军) (2008-09-01). "CEA formally releases intensity diagram of the Wenchuan earthquake (中国地震局正式公布汶川地震烈度分布图)". Caijing (in Chinese). Retrieved 2008-09-30.Chinese: 有的受灾地区可能希望将地震破坏程度评估得严重一些,这样可以多争取补助;
  24. ^ "Direct damage of the Great Wenchuan Earthquake amounts to RMB 84.51 trillion (汶川大地震直接损失8451亿)" (in Chinese). Noon News. Xinhua. 2008-09-04. Archived from the original on 2011-07-18. Retrieved 2008-09-30.Chinese: 一些地方的工作人员,都希望把地方的灾害损失或者地震烈度提高一下
  25. ^ Wong, Edward (2008-07-24). "China Presses Hush Money on Grieving Parents". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-08-21.
  26. ^ Human Rights in China, "Press Release: Family Visits Still Denied to Sichuan School Teacher Punished after Quake-Zone Visit," July 29, 2008, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-01-09. Retrieved 2008-10-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  27. ^ "A new China appears amid quake rubble", Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2008
  28. ^ a b c d Human Rights in China, Press Release: Human Rights in China Condemns the Detention of Huang Qi by Police in Chengdu, June 14, 2008, Archived 2009-01-09 at the Wayback Machine.
  29. ^ a b Staff, Guardian (2008-06-17). "World news in brief". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-08-21.
  30. ^ "Shutting us out?", James Reynolds writing on the BBC Blog Network, June 13, 2008
  31. ^ "China detains quake school critic - rights group", Reuters, June 17, 2008
  32. ^ "Parents wait for answers on quake school", Associated Press via Google, June 20, 2008 Archived June 30, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ China Digital Times (2008). Li Chengpeng 李承鹏: The True Story of the Miracle Survival of the Students and Teachers of Longhan Elementary School in Beichuan. Retrieved 27 May 2012
  34. ^ "Patriotism With Chinese Characteristics", Li Chengpeng, The New York Times, 25 May 2012. Retrieved 27 May 2012
  35. ^ "China's government praised for easing media restrictions" Archived 2008-07-03 at the Wayback Machine, Bureau of International Information Programs, May 20, 2008
  36. ^ "Mourning rallies Chinese behind quake relief" Archived 2008-05-20 at the Wayback Machine, Deutsche Presse-Agentur via Monsters and Critics, May 19, 2008
  37. ^ "In Chinese town, quake shakes faith in school construction", Cable News Network, May 18, 2008
  38. ^ "School quake scandal: Bereaved parents accuse China government of allowing shoddy construction", Toronto Sun, June 5, 2008
  39. ^ "Chinese govt promises inquiry into shoddy construction", The World Today via, May 23, 2008
  40. ^ "China prosecutors join quake school collapse probe", Reuters via International Herald Tribune, June 16, 2006
  41. ^ "UNICEF external situation report China earthquake", UNICEF via ReliefWeb, June 17, 2008
  42. ^ "MA Zongjin: Responsibility of school collapses in Wenchuan earthquake still under investigation (马宗晋:汶川地震倒塌校舍责任问题仍在调查)" (in Chinese). State Council State Council Information Office via 2008-09-04. Retrieved 2008-09-30.Chinese: 我们还在仔细地思考和调查这个问题。