How to Prevent More School Collapses

This post has been translated into Chinese for our Chinese site. 请点此看中文译文

Just like in Sichuan two years ago, students in Yushu died, crushed by the classrooms and hallways of their schools. Whether the school collapses were the result of shoddy construction or not is still not clear, but that people suspect corruption led to poorly-built schools is not unfair. Thousands of students died in Sichuan because the pockets of local officials were greased, and school buildings and building materials weren’t properly inspected.

This, of course, is illegal. But how can the central government stop it? Especially in regions like Yushu, which is both remote and impoverished, anti-corruption laws are difficult to enforce. And after the Sichuan quake controversy, local officials everywhere are likely to be worried and defensive, afraid they, too, will be accused of endangering children.

The truth everyone knows is that there are thousands, probably millions, of schools and other buildings out there that aren’t up to code or weren’t inspected properly in the first place. The government can’t magically fix them all, but there is something it could try that would both create jobs and ensure that at least some schools are more safely built in the future.

What I would propose is a two-step process. The first step is a general amnesty for all local officials, inspectors, and building companies. They, of course, know where they cut corners. The government should announce nationwide inspections (something for all those unemployed college graduates to do) will occur, and violators will be harshly punished, but that officials or builders who know they cut corners will be exempt so long as they fix the problem themselves in a way that is adequate to the new inspectors’ liking.

The second step would be nationwide inspections of schools. Of course, some of these inspectors will be bribed, and some of them will probably take the bribes, but with a bit of ideological work beforehand, I’m certain the government will end up with at least a handful of straight inspectors. Schools found to be improperly built should be fixed, and the local builders and/or officials punished accordingly.

The eternal question, of course, is where does the money come from for all of this. Certainly, the government isn’t rolling in riches, but I think they could take money off of some of their more useless projects (CCTV International, anyone?) and funnel it into school inspection and rebuilding to better effect. Frankly, for all their talk of soft power, a genuine push to modernize school buildings and cut down on corruption that hurts children would probably gain them as much, if not more, international goodwill than an infinite number of CCTV channels.

What do you think, though? I am exhausted and have been applying for jobs all day, so I’m ready to admit that there may be a gaping hole in this proposal somewhere, or many gaping holes. So how can the government affect real change in eliminating the “tofu-dreg buildings” that many students must attend classes in?

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0 thoughts on “How to Prevent More School Collapses”

  1. Not sure that’d work.

    First, government officials remember what happened under Mao so they’d have a tough time trusting that general amnesty to protect them when they come clean. Who knows what might happen afterward.

    Second, who will bear the cost between the corrupt builders and the corrupt government officials? Finger-pointing will ensue, especially as to who should pick up the tab. Not to mention, many construction companies responsible for these buildings no longer exist, or were formed ad hoc just for building them, formed also under corrupt shady connections and reasons. You suggested the central government can divert funds. Maybe, but a lot of these projects aren’t decided by the central government as a whole, as there are factions within the central leadership as well, and these projects are often pet projects to legitimize their positions and relevance. I’m just not sure anyone will give up their funding for this.

    Third, this would be a huge domestic PR blow to China. Even if it worked and achieved the pragmatic goal of reducing risk for the future, the details of who was engaged in corruption all coming out onto the table would be a devastating blow to government legitimacy. True, everyone already suspects such, but handing them proof of their suspicions about specific individuals or local governments might pose too much of a risk in upheaval. Both local and the central government benefits too much from the murkiness of just who is corrupt so that both escape responsibility.

    Depressing it all is.

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  2. Suggesting that this is just a matter of sending a bunch of good, upstanding inspectors to clean up the country oversimplifies the problem. I mean, the population here is 1.3 billion! There’s gotta be at least like 10,000 “good guys” floating around, right? If it was this easy, don’t you think they would have done that by now?

    The problem isn’t the people, it’s the system. Until officials can be held accountable for their actions (outside of sporadic scapegoating arrests), this just can’t be solved. Corruption is everywhere–it’s human nature! Teachers steal paper, governors take bribes, peddlers sell fake perfumes, mayors fudge school safety inspections…the list goes on.

    Simply replacing one person for another won’t do the trick. An individual’s own moral compass, however strong, is no match for the lack of rule of law.

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  3. @ Kai: Good points, all.

    @ Zhuge Jiong: certainly, it wouldn’t fix anything. It’s a bit like putting a band-aid on the stump of a dismembered limb. My thinking is just that it might work in a FEW cases, which is still better than nothing (especially if there ends up being another earthquake in some place where it worked, and fewer children die as a result).

    But perhaps the effort and money would be better directed at advancing the rule-of-law situation.

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