Monday, May 11, 2009

Chinese quake: Death by real estate bubble?

Peter Kwong, a professor at Hunter College, has an interesting Op-Ed today about the student deaths in the Sichuan earthquake last year. Kwong mentions something I had neglected when I wrote about the Chinese government’s crackdown on journalists and pesky families: the hush money offered to parents of students killed in schools (5,335 kids according to the government; 10,000 according to Kwong and many others).

[G]overnment officials offered the parents $8,800 for each child killed in exchange for their promise not to pursue the issue any further.

Kwong also gets at another important aspect of this. There’s a simple economic reason that the schools were constructed so poorly that they collapsed like cardboard, while neighboring buildings weren’t hit so hard. In its push to modernize, China has diverted money away from inland social welfare programs — like building schools — and toward developing its coastal mega-cities as global showpieces.

For a capitalist marketplace that is closely controlled by a central government, it’s their version of a real estate bubble: build build build in Beijing and Shagnhai and Guangzhou, at the expense of the villages of Sichuan.

Meanwhile, the neo-liberal economic policies of the central government over the past 30 years stripped away much social-welfare funding and investment in education. Local governments had to raise cash through bank loans and donations.

The dearth of funds led to what critics call the construction of “three without” schools in rural areas — classrooms built without standardized design, without construction supervision and without quality control. Since contractors made very little from school projects, they resorted to cheating on construction material.

So to answer the parents’ questions about who was responsible for the safety of school buildings, the authorities would have to reveal their own relationship with contractors, developers and other interests.

The one-year anniversary of the quake is tomorrow.

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