China must improve quality of construction or face scepticism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 2:22am


Reputation is everything in the construction industry. China's quest to move up the economic value chain by becoming the world's civil engineer has taken another knock as a result of an accident. Three people were killed and five injured last Friday when an approach ramp on the longest bridge in north China, at Harbin , collapsed. An investigation will determine the cause, but it is likely to be put down to either one or all of an embarrassingly familiar list: design flaws, rushed building schedule, poor quality materials, corruption or lax safety standards.

Bridge collapses are regular occurrences on the mainland; that of the ramp to the 15.4-kilometre Yangmingtan Bridge was at least the 18th since 2007. What sets it apart from others, though, is that the project was hailed on its completion last November as a "Harbin miracle" for its scale and the speed with which it was built. Construction was to have taken three years, but it was opened just 18 months after work began.

A preliminary inquiry concluded that the four trucks on the ramp when it collapsed were heavily overloaded, their combined weight exceeding the design capacity by almost 10 times. Overloaded vehicles are commonplace on mainland roads and traffic authorities often ignore rules in favour of fines. But that is not cause to hurriedly absolve engineers, who should make allowances in designs for road, environment and weather extremes, or a sub-contracting culture in the building industry that aims for projects to be completed at the lowest cost to meet deadlines set for convenience rather than practicality. Poor workmanship using inferior materials and inadequate oversight means accidents are waiting to happen.

Disaster and tragedy too often result, as with the bullet train crash in Wenzhou last year. The accident grabbed international attention, raising doubts about the nation's construction prowess. But of abilities, there is no doubt - the Three Gorges Dam, Olympic Games venues and Beijing's airport terminal have showcased what state-owned companies can do. Among international contracts have been mines in Congo, Brazilian rail systems, huge apartment complexes in Saudi Arabia, and bridges in San Francisco and New York.

More and bigger projects will require confidence, especially from safety-conscious Western nations. Without the highest standards at home, the world will be wary about Chinese engineering and construction firms.