Slippery slope to disaster

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 12:00am

Bad building techniques and poor safety standards, a wet summer and an unusually large number of underground installations mean the August 16 pavement collapse that claimed the lives of 15 people was one of many ground subsidence incidents that occurred in Harbin last year.

According to the official Harbin Daily newspaper, there were 'around 100, small and large' subsidence incidents in the city in July and August, after heavy summer rains. The newspaper printed numerous pictures of cracked walls in apartment blocks and collapsed floors.

None led to the loss of as many lives as the August 16 incident, however.

Citing a government investigation, the newspaper said up to 80 per cent of the problems happened above some kind of underground facility, although it did not provide further details.

The municipal consultative committee report particularly blamed the phenomena on greed for profit that led to safety standards being compromised.

'The profit drive, rushing the job, scamping work and stinting on materials, transgressing building procedures and regulations, failing to fill in holes properly and creating dangerous spaces around underground construction' were key reasons cited in the report.

A further factor cited was the peculiarity of the northern Chinese climate with its wide temperature swings at certain times of the year, which puts stress on construction materials and road surfaces.

In a separate report, the Beijing Youth Daily quoted an internal document compiled by the Heilongjiang Province Construction Group - the company building at the Fendou Road site where Chang Siyuan and Li Liang died - as saying that a burst pipe near the entrance to the air-raid shelter flooded the facility and weakened wall supports, causing the collapse.

Locals blame poor construction on poor leadership, pointing to ongoing scandals among city and province-level officials.

On December 29, a former vice-mayor of Harbin, Zhu Shengwen, committed suicide in prison in his fifth year of a 17-year sentence for corruption.

But Zhu said a confession was extracted from him under torture, a claim that has led the office of the United Nations Commissioner of Human Rights to call for an investigation.

In October, Tian Fengshan, a former mayor of the city, was investigated for corruption in the same real estate case that saw Zhu arrested.

Analysts say corruption is especially bad in China's northern provinces, including Heilongjiang, because they have the most state-owned-enterprises now being privatised, leading to many opportunities for illegal activity.