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Deadly Beijing floods expose flaws in China's development

August 02, 2012|By David Pierson
  • Three women walk toward the Tong Xin Jia Yuan affordable-housing complex, which was damaged by a downpour and criticized for being poorly built.
Three women walk toward the Tong Xin Jia Yuan affordable-housing complex,… (David Pierson / Los Angeles…)

BEIJING -- China's army of builders can seemingly raise buildings and cities overnight. But deadly rains in the nation's capital have revived questions about how much of their handiwork was well-deployed, let alone made to last.

The deluge, which started July 21 and killed 77 people, exposed cracks in Beijing’s infrastructure after the city’s antiquated drainage network became quickly overwhelmed. Some motorists died trapped inside their vehicles submerged on modern highways.

"Despite the glistening skyscrapers, rings after rings of roads, a massive new airport and dazzling stadiums for the 2008 Olympics, it’s quite evident that the grand Chinese capital lacks the basic drainage network to deal with such severe rainstorms," Lu Ting, an economist for Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, said in a recent research note.

Beijing remains peppered with sinkholes, including one collapsed pavement in its central business district over 100 square feet wide. Meanwhile, the developer of a water-damaged affordable-housing complex in the suburbs has been accused of cutting corners to boost profits.

The effect on city dwellers has been a growing sense of uneasiness about the ground they stand on.

"It’s really amazing I’ve survived in Beijing this long," wrote a micro-blogger named Qi’e on China’s popular Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo.

Lu said China suffers from a disparity in “aboveground” investment and “underground” investment, which he lumps together as drainage, subways and affordable housing.

He said the problem is that local governments are prohibited from issuing long-term bonds. Left with only short-term financing, officials are likely to choose cash-generating projects such as toll roads to repay loans.

But more important, Lu added, local cadres are hard-wired to generate visible economic growth such as industrial parks and highways because so much of their political advancement relies on showcase achievements.

“China still needs to greatly improve its underground infrastructure, but return on these projects is low in the short to medium term and it’s hard for local governments to obtain bank loans,” Lu said.

Another troubling development in the aftermath of the storms was the apparent shoddiness of a recently built affordable-housing complex in the southwestern Beijing suburb of Fengtai, called Tong Xin Jia Yuan.

The China Business Daily told the story of a homeowner there who discovered his ceiling and windows leaking. The building’s waterproofing boards had been placed inside out. Further inspection revealed that the developer built walls using hollow bricks too weak to support the installation of closets or ventilation.

China’s massive plan to build 36 million affordable-housing units by 2015 has been dogged by corruption and skepticism, not the least because of flimsy construction. The government-subsidized projects lack sufficient funding and don’t generate much profit, giving developers and contractors greater incentive to skimp on quality to save money.

That doesn’t bode well for central planners who hoped affordable housing would cushion China’s slumping economy and weakened property market.

It also raises concerns about sustainability and waste. One Chinese housing official estimated that new residential buildings could last only 25 to 30 years -- or about half their intended lifespan.

The biggest victims are ordinary Chinese homeowners who pour their savings into their apartments and have few, if any, consumer protection laws to lean on.

A homeowner at the Tong Xin Jia Yuan housing complex surnamed Fan told The Times he bought his 753-square-foot, fourth-floor apartment for $94,000 after looking at a floor plan lacking in detail.

When he finally got the keys to his pad earlier this year, he found the floor slightly slanted, the doorways to the kitchen and bedroom uneven heights and gaping holes where pipes and wires recede into the walls. He said there was nothing he could do after signing the contract paying for the home.

“It’s all about money,” said Fan, 32, an engineer at a Beijing construction company unrelated to his home. “China doesn’t lack building experience, the developer just wanted to save costs by using unskilled labor.”

Fan added: “Buying a house in China is like playing the lottery. You need to rely on luck.”

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