China's Earthquake Casualties: Victims of Too-Rapid Growth?

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

To anyone who has lived through a strong earthquake, as I have here in California, the first thought that goes out to the Chinese in Sichuan province is one of great sympathy and sorrow. One moment your world is intact, and then, out of the blue, everything is in pieces. After a few minutes of complete existential terror all sense of security and stability evaporates. Without any of the normal buffers of civilization, you are face to face with brutal nature.

For at least a year after the 6.7 Northridge quake in 1994 -- lasting only a few seconds, it sounded and felt like a 747 landed in our hallway -- my wife and I made our two young children sleep in our room instead of in their own rooms at the other end of the house. For long after, a truck rumbling by on the street, or a rattling window, was enough to stir fear down to our bones.

In the 1994 California quake -- of far lesser magnitude than the 7.8 Chinese quake but still quite serious -- about 70 people died, probably half from heart attacks. In Sichuan province, 15,000 have so far been confirmed dead; 25,000 are still missing in the rubble.

California's quakes have caused less damage -- so far -- because, by and large, increasingly strict building codes have been adhered too and enforced over the years. In the case of Sichuan province, the extensive damage is no doubt due not only to the magnitude of the quake and the age of many buildings built of brick, but to the shoddy quality of the newer structures built during the rapid development China has experienced over the last 20 years. This seems to have particularly been the case with the schools.

Since the Chinese authorities seems to be practicing more glasnost with respect to the Sichuan quake than any previous natural or manmade disaster, we'll probably know the facts down the road a bit. But anyone who goes regularly to China can't but wonder whether there is a very strong link between the quickest pace of economic growth in history and buildings which go up too fast to stand the test of time and nature.

The New York Times reports this morning (May 15) that local residents of Dujiangyan, in the heart of the quake zone, are angrily calling for an investigation into why government buildings
remained standing while schools didn't. One man told the NYTs that two additional stories had been added to the Xinjian school even though it had failed a safety inspection two years ago.

Speaking about the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone near Hong Kong, which went in one decade from a fishing village of 30,000 people to a metropolis of 3.5 million, Deng Xiaoping, godfather of modern China, once praised the spirit of the place as an example for others: "Their slogan," he enthused, " is 'time is money, efficiency is livelihood.' In buildings undergoing construction, one floor is finished every day and the entire building is completed within a couple of weeks or so."

The pace of building has been so rapid over the years in Shenzhen that the Harvard Design School Project on the city in 2001 coined the phrase "Shenzhen Speed(c)" to signify the stunning pace of throwing up structures. The record design speeds they listed include: 5 designers x 1 night + 2 computers=300 unit single-family housing development; 1 architect x 3 nights = 7 story walk-up apartment; 1 architect x 7 days = 30 story concrete residential high rise.

Of course, Shenzen is a long way from Sichuan provine where the earthquake is.

We all know that pollution and inequality are downsides to the truly remarkable Chinese miracle. To them we must now add, it appears, faulty structures that, for all the speed in which they are constructed, are no match for nature's jolts when geologic time strikes. China's earthquake codes -- on the books -- are said to be up to California standards but are often circumvented in the same way corners are cut making toys, pet food and drugs. Hopefully, this quake will induce some reflections about whether the race to development ought to slow down enough to be safe.