China's Bridges Are Falling Down

Early Friday morning, just before dawn, four trucks were driving on a 10-month-old ramp to a bridge in Harbin, a major city in northeast China, when the deck suddenly tilted and collapsed, sending the trucks crashing to the pavement almost 100 feet below.

Three people were killed, and five were injured. Photos of the accident indicate that the trucks were carrying heavy cargoes, including stones, and were likely overloaded. But accounts by journalists and photos from the scene also suggest serious problems with the bridge itself. Some images show that key structural components were stuffed with sticks, pebbles and bags of unidentified materials.

Nobody in China was surprised by this. Since 2007, China has experienced at least 18 bridge collapses resulting in 135 deaths and untold economic hardship, according to records aggregated by the South China Morning Post, the leading English-language newspaper in Hong Kong. These are not mere footbridges: They are major, expensive spans connecting key corridors. The almost 330-foot-long section that collapsed on Friday, for example, is part of the more than 9-mile-long, nearly $300 million Yangmingtan Bridge, a span that connects the two banks of Harbin, a city of 10 million people.

What is causing this epidemic of collapse? In Harbin, some authorities were quick to blame the overloaded trucks and then -- in an act of revealing bureaucratic cowardice -- to claim that they couldn’t locate the contractors responsible for the span (statements subsequently denied by higher-ups).

China’s netizens, accustomed to bureaucratic double-talk, were hardly inclined to believe the local government’s explanation, no matter what it was. Instead, they turned to what is almost uniformly the explanation for everything that goes wrong in China these days: corruption. “Every time I walk down the street and see a new project about to break ground, I know that several billionaires are about to be made,” wrote Li Chengpeng, a well-known blogger and agitator, on Monday (as translated by Tea Leaf Nation, an English-language blog). “In this country, the completion of an infrastructure project lays the groundwork for the beginning of an anti-corruption project.”

For many Chinese netizens, the fact that the bridge was completed in 18 months, rather than the allotted 36, suggests -- without any proof -- that at least some of the bridge's budget disappeared into somebody’s pocket. That the local government noted, at least initially, that it couldn’t find the contractors responsible for such rapid construction, only added to the suspicion. “The engineering was subcontracted and the financial interests were embezzled level by level,” explains Yao Bo, a popular microblog commentator, in a tweet about the collapse to Sina Weibo, China's leading microblog. “So that, when it comes to identify the team who actually did the job, we can’t know who it is at all.”

Han Zhiguo, an economist with more than 2.5 million followers on Sina Weibo, offered a sarcastic tweet calling the whole matter a "Chinese miracle:"

1. The bridge was slated to be built in three years but was actually finished in 18 months. Such progress can be called a “Chinese miracle.”

2. The bridge collapsed after it has been opened to traffic for 8 months. Such quality of construction can be called a “Chinese miracle.”

Such miracles are not unfamiliar to China. A Monday tweet to Sina Weibo by Exercise Book, the handle for a Beijing-based microblogger with more than 3.3 million followers, references the thousands of children who were killed in poorly built schools during 2008’s Wenchuan earthquake and the widespread belief that government money dedicated to proper building construction had been embezzled. As of Tuesday, it had been re-tweeted more than 21,000 times and generated more than 9,000 comments:

There’s a scene in the new movie Lethal Hostage that happens after a school building collapses. Sun the gang leader asks the school construction foreman, “How much did I give you to build the school?”

“One hundred thousand yuan.”

“How much did you spend?”

“I spent it all.”

Sun takes out his gun and asks again: “How much did you spend?”

“Eighty thousand yuan.”

Sun loads his gun and asks: “How much did you really spend?”

“Fifty thousand yuan.”

"Tell me again.”

"No more than thirty thousand yuan.”

See? Even a gang leader knows that when 70% of a project’s funding is embezzled, the building must collapse.

Nobody is openly suggesting that the Yangmingtan Bridge’s contractors -- or their government supervisors -- embezzled 70 percent of the bridge’s funding. Instead, many netizens are suggesting something even more serious: that the bridge builders in China’s past were more competent, and less corrupt, than the bridge builders of today. On Monday, New Weekly magazine tweeted a nondescript postcard image of an ancient bridge to its official Sina Weibo account, accompanied by this text:

Over the last 1,407 years, this bridge has experienced 10 floods, 8 wars and multiple earthquakes, yet it hasn’t been destroyed. Its foundation consists of just five layers of bricks measuring 1.55 meters high, constructed atop natural sandstone, without steel bars or cement, and it has been repaired only nine times in 1,407 years, and yet has never collapsed and is still in good shape today. It's called the Zhaozhou Bridge, built in AD 605 in Hebei Province, Zhao County, over the Xiao River.

If the picture and caption had been tweeted the day before the Harbin bridge collapse, New Weekly’s five million Sina Weibo followers no doubt would have gleaned the inference. But in light of Friday’s accident, netizens not only understood the underlying message, but also furiously responded, with more than 9,000 re-tweets and 2,000 comments, nearly all of which expressed dismay at what’s become of modern China. “We now spend millions to build jerry-rigged bridges unworthy of our ancestors,” wrote one commentator, drawing out the point that New Weekly wouldn’t -- or, as a highly popular and high-profile media outlet, probably couldn’t -- make on its own.

New Weekly isn’t alone in its sudden fascination with the ancient Zhaozhou Bridge, and its potential as a metaphorical critique of Communist Party corruption and incompetence. Since Friday, Sina Weibo has recorded tens of thousands of tweets mentioning the semi-famous span, with the majority showing far less subtlety in connecting it to the Harbin collapse. Arty Eskimo, the online handle for a Sina Weibo user in Guangdong province, tweeted on Tuesday afternoon, “The Zhaozhou Bridge expresses the wisdom of ancient China’s workers; the collapsing bridge in Harbin expresses the wisdom of modern Chinese officials.”

Sadly, collapsing bridges and schools aren’t even the most common examples of Chinese infrastructure failures over the last several months. Reports of roads collapsing and swallowing up cars are increasingly common. Likewise, China has been plagued by a disturbing and often gruesome epidemic of sidewalks collapsing, sometimes into steam pipes. None of this is likely to improve any time soon, regardless of whether the Communist Party succeeds in its most recent corruption crackdown.

So too, that these accidents have come in the aftermath of a $586 billion dollar stimulus program focused on new infrastructure -- the largest in the country's history -- which China first announced in 2008, only hints at the disasters to come. Harbin’s collapsed bridge was funded in part by that national stimulus, as was China’s troubled high-speed rail system. What are the others? Sadly, these days it seems that the best way to compile a list might be to watch for the next project to collapse.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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