Corruption eats away at China

Graft, inferior work damage construction, block modernization

March 04, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QIJIANG, China -- It was a little before 7 o'clock on a chilly Monday evening in January, and people were heading home from work on the Rainbow Bridge. As a group of soldiers marched across, the 460-foot span of concrete and steel suddenly gave way and crashed into the Qi River.

At least 40 people plunged to their deaths, drowning in the cold water or crushed beneath huge steel supports. People here in southwest China explained the catastrophe with a single word: corruption.

An initial investigation pointed to shoddy workmanship on the 3-year-old bridge and the use of inferior materials, such as steel supports one-third smaller than required.

On Friday, authorities charged five people with graft in connection with the collapse. They include Lin Shiyuan, former deputy Communist Party chief of Qijiang County, who has been accused of taking a $15,700 bribe from the contractor.

"The government has a responsibility for this man-made incident that could have been avoided," says a bitter Zhang Hua, 62, who was walking onto the bridge when it fell and whose daughter-in-law and grandchild were killed.

Corruption is slowly gnawing away at China, and those who died on the Rainbow Bridge are among the most recent casualties.

A poorly built span in coastal Fujian province collapsed in January, killing seven and seriously injuring 18. Last summer, a $46 million highway in Yunnan province fell apart weeks after opening.

To spur the nation's slowing economy, Chinese leaders plowed $12 billion into infrastructure projects last year. Now, some fear they might have invested in time bombs that could not only cost more lives but ignite unrest as money-losing, state-owned businesses lay off millions of workers.

Frustration over unemployment and corruption continues to spark protests. One man died and dozens were injured recently when thousands of farmers clashed with police in Hunan province while demonstrating against excessive taxes.

Chinese leaders worry that the failure of more projects could make the situation worse. After the Rainbow Bridge collapse, officials in the sprawling municipal area of Chongqing -- of which Qijiang is a part -- inspected more than 300 structures. They shut down 47, including two footbridges.

"Building quality is not only a matter of people's lives, but of social stability," said the minister of construction, Yu Zhengsheng.

Qijiang, a county of 1 million people, is in Sichuan province about 900 miles southwest of Beijing. The drive from the Yangtze River port at Chongqing passes rock quarries, terraced rice paddies and groves of palm trees. Fires from brick furnaces along the roadside flicker through the dense fog, lending a Dickensian touch to the South China scene.

Wedged into the steep hillsides that line the Qi River, downtown Qijiang has the mud-spattered look of a West Virginia mining town, one jammed with look-alike, government-owned apartment complexes and filled with trucks hauling coal, aluminum and copper.

The trouble with the Rainbow Bridge began in the summer of 1996 while people were watching dragon boat races. Without warning, the span began to creak loudly, and crowds rushed to the shore for safety.

Welding joints had separated and cracks as wide as a finger appeared in the concrete. People say government officials, who refused to comment for this article, reassured them that the bridge was fine. They made no repairs.

Around 5 o'clock on the afternoon of Jan. 4, 10-year-old Huang Zhaoliang said goodbye to his father and headed across the bridge with his mother, Fang Yunxin, to do his homework at her clothing store on the other side of the river.

Two hours later, as Zhaoliang's father, Huang Guangyue, waited for their return, he received a call telling him the bridge had collapsed. He rushed to the darkened edge of the river in search of his family.

That night, he found his wife in a hospital -- dead. Two days after the disaster, police pulled his son's body from the river.

Victims' family members say the government initially tried to buy them off cheaply, offering compensation ranging from $1,700 to about $5,000 per person -- the going rate for loss of life in a traffic accident in China.

"Even an animal in the zoo is worth $5,000 or $6,000," says Huang.

A few days after the bridge collapse, several hundred relatives of victims gathered before the county government building, carrying photos of loved ones and demanding justice.

Government officials refused to allow the families to take the bodies for burial. Instead, in what many see as an attempt to quickly dispose of the matter, they insisted on cremating the remains themselves.

Keenly aware that corruption inspires hatred, Chinese President Jiang Zemin has spent the past year championing a very public crackdown on graft. Each week, the state-run press trumpets the arrest of greedy officials who are sentenced to lengthy prison terms or, sometimes, death.

`The wrong remedy'

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