Tofu-Dreg Construction in China

We often hear news about “tofu-dreg project” in China, a sensitive shame of construction, with more and more instances being reported by whistleblowers. Back in 1998, Zhu Rongji, the former prime minister of the CCP, first commenced the term of “tofu-dreg” during a visit to flood dams on Yangtze River, when he described the flood dams were as flimsy and porous as tofu dregs. 

Combating the “tofu-dreg” construction, a so-called “jerry-built” construction, projects look grander than they actually are, is no easy task. Nowadays, in the immediate aftermath of flooding problem in southern China, its disastrous situation has already affected millions of people. The problem of “tofu-dreg” construction is a ticking time bomb that is taking on further risks. There are substantial evidences linking this type of corruption in construction to death and injury due to “tofu-dreg” projects in China. It is unimaginable the catastrophic effect of the corruption will have on the death tolls when those “tofu-dreg” buildings or structures do collapse in the current flooding crisis. 

Recently the fragility of a “tofu-dreg” construction was caught on video in Chongqing. A man could simply demolish one of the “concrete” pillars on a bridge with bare hand. The concrete pillar is designed as a part of safety railing that is supposed to prevent people from falling into river. Local bureaucrats confirmed that this ¥4,750,219 (approximately $680,000) bridge construction project began in Dec 2017, and it was completed in Aug 2019. They explained that the developer, Hunan Construction Group, established in 1992, had been involved in highway and bridge construction even though it had been cited many instances of using lower quality materials and overlooking substandard work in the past. Ironically the local bureaucrats approved this particular bridge’s structural strength, design and dimensions after the completion of main structure. However, the concrete pillars on both sides of the bridge had not been assessed or examined by authority because the railings were considered as “accessories” only. At the end, someone would ask, “how much is a human life actually worth in China?” 

In general, social economic infrastructures, such as roads, bridges, public buildings, are vulnerable to corruption because every layer of CCP’s hieratical structure wants to skim off from the budgets and abuse power. Under the CCP sociopolitical system, corruption is a vital part where bribery and deceptive practices are often accepted as the norms. Corruption is widespread in the construction industry where bureaucrats play an important role in facilitating political corruption between government officials and preferential construction businesses. In the corrupted CCP’s bureaucratic system, different contracts or permits are required at various stages of the construction. Each stage provides an opportunity for bribery and corruption. For example, CCP bureaucrats strategically manipulate the allocation of contracts by using their political interference and power regardless moral or professional hazard of the connected construction developers. They simply turn a blind eye to instances of frauds in construction sites because they deliberately collaborate with construction enterprises in exchange for monetary benefits. Moreover, corrupted officials fail to exam hidden critical elements of structure such as materials and workmanship during the delivery of a construction project. For examples, steel reinforcement bars are placed inside to bond with the concrete material; electrical cables and water pipes are hidden in ducts behind walls; or brickwork is covered with plaster and paint. They fail to carry out inspections or implement examinations at different stages of construction after tragic results are realized. By abusing their political power in return for personal profits, the CCP bureaucrats exploit their trust from the people who undoubtedly endorse “tofu-dreg” constructions without knowing the life-threatening liability and burden.

In a complex construction business chains, the delivery of a public infrastructure project involves many contractual relationships that provide opportunities to inflate costs and cover up bribes. Through various phases and contractual links among numerous construction related parties, corruption can occur at stage of tendering, planning, inspection, design, procurement, operation, and maintenance, to name a few. Therefore, a culture of endemic corruptions such as bribing relevant for winning contracts, cutting corners for reducing cost, ignoring rules of safety, concealing substandard materials, covering up workmanship frauds, money laundering by subcontracting at the lowest cost, and kickbacks from suppliers, become widely accepted as common practices in construction industry. Most of the “tofu-dreg” constructions have gone undetected even if the developers used substandard materials or omitted key materials in construction projects.

By increasing pressure on exposing “tofu-dreg” constructions to devastating warranties of buildings, it is a little too late to depend on the CCP’s anti-corruption policy and propaganda for construction industry. The failure of CCP bureaucracy in pursuit of ensuring public safety is alarming because corruption is inseparable from its dictatorship and corruption. It is a multidimensional problem that is resulted from lack of transparency, governance, and accountability of the CCP’s mismanagement. Magnitude of corruption in construction industry often compromises safety that negatively impacts on human lives and economic growth. It is critical for people of China to wake up from dark era of “tofu-dreg” constructions. It is time for people to demand for reshaping the institutional culture of corruption in both CCP bureaucracy and construction industry at its root cause.


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