The indifferent, often poor quality of building standards in China is well documented. The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province cost the lives of over 5,000 school children, many of whom were crushed by badly built classrooms which collapsed even as buildings around them remained upright. The national fall-out was  explosive both on the streets and on-line, and went all the way to the very top as some (bold) people questioned the very legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. All this despite Premier Wen Jiabao’s attempts to placate local anger by arriving at the scene of the earthquake with his sleeves rolled up, apparently ready to help with the recovery effort.       

Some see such tragic incidents as a warning to China to build with more care (“less haste more speed”), but who’s listening? In 2011, 40 people died in Wenzhou (Zhejiang Province) on the high speed rail line between Beijing and Shanghai and there have been several other high-profile fatal accidents since then, each of which has precipitated an outpouring of public anger and angst. During a carefree wander down the main drag in Nanjing last year, I noticed building workers on site without hard hats and apparently living (temporarily) in the building they were constructing. That is not an unusual sight. I’ve been witnessing it since my first visit to China in 1991 as a student in Beijing, so little has changed.  

Central government regulations are tightening up and new legislation on building standards and health and safety in China are due out later this year. The problem is that China is such a big country (three times the size of the EU!) that it is difficult to implement the relevant legislation. Moreover, corruption at the local level means that those who are meant to be implementing the legislation simply don’t bother.