The Blog

The Costs of Corruption

Chinese government officials are complicit in the earthquake disaster.

12:00 AM, May 20, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE DEVESTATION AND DEATH toll from last week's earthquake centered in China's Sichuan province continues to rise. The quake registered a 7.9 on the Richter Scale (and has been reported as an 8.0 magnitude on some Chinese television networks--roughly equivalent to a 600 megaton explosion) and is the worst in China in three decades. The death toll is officially over 34,000 and rising by the hour, and some reports list as many as 100,000 persons still missing.

But long after the thousands are dead and buried, China will be coping with two major issues that are the long-term fallout from this horrific human tragedy

One is that the corruption that is endemic with construction projects in almost any dictatorship has turned out to be a casebook example of how bribe-taking and the general greed of local authorities in China is worsening--and showing just how catastrophic the consequences of these practices can be.

In the city of Dujiangyan, which is closest to the quake's epicenter, the UK's Guardian newspaper reports residents there furious over the shoddy workmanship and substandard materials used in many of the buildings that collapsed around their families. Many of them blame local officials for selling off the high quality materials that should have been used in these buildings and putting the money in their pockets. The same government functionaries then signed off on certifications that these structures were built according to local codes and ordnances, even thought that they knew them to be incapable of surviving even small tremors.

"The contractors can't have been qualified. It's a 'tofu' [soft and shoddy] building. Please, help us release this news," one local resident pleaded with the Guardian's correspondent.

City residents were particularly angered by the collapse of the Juyuan High School, pointing out that this much newer building folded like a house of cards while considerably older structures--most conspicuously local PLA offices and other government buildings--were left standing.

"About 450 [students] were inside, in nine classes and it collapsed completely from the top to the ground. It didn't fall over; it was almost like an explosion . . . why isn't there money to build a good school for our kids?" shouted several at the site. "Chinese officials are too corrupt and bad. These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn't collapse--the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don't have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster--this is done by humans."

Other news outlets reported that at the same school site some of the same locals present took out their frustrations on Chinese troops that had been sent in to try and dig out collapsed buildings as part of the relief effort. Soldiers were told to go away and that "we do not need you here."

To put this into perspective, one should remember that these provincial Chinese cities are not like Beijing or Shanghai, where the local populations have long become accustomed to seeing large numbers of foreign expats, nor are they as cosmopolitan in their outlook. For people in such places not to shun contact with foreigner reporters, but instead seek them out and ask that the international press denounce their local party officials--and at the same time tell military units participating in the rescue operation to get lost--is no small measure of the anger that the earthquake survivors are now feeling.

What has taken place over the last decade--and the reason that 10-year-old buildings collapsed and 20-year-old ones did not--is that "each generation of Chinese leaders in the central government is successively weaker than the previous generation," said a Beijing-based analyst. "Local authorities feel increasingly emboldened to act in their own personal, self-interests and are far less afraid to take bribes and engage in other abuses of their position. All of these feeds the resentments of the local population."

But as furious as the people living in Sichuan province are there is an entity that has even less to be happy about--the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

Significant damage has been done to China's defense industry by the earthquake, specifically the Chengdu aerospace complex that is just northwest of the city and comprises a large production facility, the largest military aircraft design center in all of China, and a jet engine production plant. This conglomerate designed and now produces the Jian-10 (J-10)/FC-20 single-engine medium weight fighter that is considered to be the most advanced in China's inventory, and the FC-1/JF-17 lightweight fighter that is produced in cooperation with Pakistan.