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Sichuan schools corruption scandal

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Title: Sichuan schools corruption scandal  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Weiquan movement, Corruption in China, Ai Weiwei, Tangjiashan Lake
Collection: 2008 in China, 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Corruption in China
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Sichuan schools corruption scandal

The extent of the earthquake

The Sichuan schools corruption scandal was a series of allegations of corruption against officials involved in the construction of schools in regions affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. 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 and 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 Beijing to conduct investigations into the allegations, but it was ostensibly not followed up with any substantial action.


  • Background 1
  • Analysis and opinions 2
    • Factors in building collapse 2.1
    • Modes of building collapse 2.2
    • Seismic fortification for schools in the quake zone 2.3
  • Attempt to interfere with survey 3
  • Suppression of dissent 4
  • Delayed inquiry 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7


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

Factors in building collapse

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 quake zone the same day of 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

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]

Seismic fortification for schools in the quake zone

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

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

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 8,800 USD in cash and a per-parent pension of nearly 5,600 USD. 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

  1. ^ "Police break up protest by parents of China earthquake victims", The Guardian, June 3, 2008
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  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", Globe & Mail, June 17, 2008
  7. ^ "Parents of China quake victims express anger", Associated Press via Google, June 12, 2008
  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. ^
  11. ^ 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. ^ 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. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ Standards cited in this article do not contain provisions about mandatory seismic retrofit.
  23. ^ 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. ^ 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, "China Presses Hush Money on Grieving Parents," New York Times, July 24, 2008,
  26. ^ Human Rights in China, "Press Release: Family Visits Still Denied to Sichuan School Teacher Punished after Quake-Zone Visit," July 29, 2008,
  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,
  29. ^ a b The Guardian. "Dissident who criticised quake response detained."
  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
  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", Bureau of International Information Programs, May 20, 2008
  36. ^ "Mourning rallies Chinese behind quake relief", 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. ^ Chinese: 我们还在仔细地思考和调查这个问题。


See also

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]

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]

Delayed inquiry

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]

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]

Chinese human rights activist [28]


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