Modern apartment buildings and schools crumbled, smoothly paved highways buckled and bridges collapsed — their flimsy construction no match for the awesome forces of nature.
As the death toll soars from Monday’s quake in Sichuan Province, the scale of the devastation is raising questions about the quality of China’s recent construction boom.
“This building is just a piece of junk,” one newly homeless resident of Dujiangyan yelled on Wednesday, her body quivering with rage.
Her family salvaged clothing and mementos from their wrecked apartment, built when their older home was razed 10 years ago.
“The government tricked us. It told us this building was well constructed. But look at the homes all around us, they’re still standing,” said the woman, who would give only her surname, Chen.
Three decades of high-paced growth have remade China. But as the widespread devastation from Monday shows, the pell-mell pace has led some builders to cut corners, especially in outlying areas largely populated by the very young and the very old.
“This new economy in China is not going up safely, it’s going up fast, and the two don’t go together,” said Roger Bilham, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“You look at the buildings that fell and they should not have fallen,” he said. “This is a story that has been repeated throughout the developing nations.”
New buildings in Beijing are built to exacting codes to withstand earthquakes.
However, “anti-earthquake standards are not as strict in places like Sichuan as in Shanghai,” said Ren Bing, an architectural designer at Hong Kong-based China Construction International Co.
Monday’s temblor flattened smaller towns in the disaster zone like Yingxiu. In Beichuan, entire blocks of apartments seemingly disintegrated. In Dujiangyan city, there was little evidence of steel reinforcement bars in the concrete rubble.
Other infrastructure old and new suffered as well. Nearly 400 dams, most of them small, were damaged across Sichuan.
Since the 1976 quake in Tangshan killed at least 240,000 people, the government has tried to improve building standards.
“China has been taking earthquake safety very seriously in the past 10 to 20 years,” said Susan Tubbesing, head of the California-based Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. “From what I understand, the codes China has adopted in the past 20 years have been good, solid, seismic codes.”
Chinese building codes are designed according to the level of shaking expected from a major temblor, said Claire Souch, senior director of model management at the consulting firm Risk Management Solutions, which is working with the Chinese to assess the damage.
In Sichuan, new buildings are built to withstand a shaking level of 7, Souch said.
But the magnitude-7.9 quake produced a shaking intensity of 10 near the epicenter, which usually results in total collapses.
“Essentially what happened is the actual ground shaking has far exceeded the design code for that region,” Souch said.
Another problem is that actual enforcement of building codes varies. The construction boom that has underpinned much of the stunning growth has also been an invitation for corruption, with officials and developers colluding.
In big cities, authorities generally enforce regulations. But that isn’t always true in smaller cities. And in rural areas, it’s out of the question, says Andrew Smeall, an associate at Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations in New York.