Quake reignites fears over schools
Chinese officials hadn’t reinforced Tibet buildings
BEIJING — Last week’s earthquake in western China destroyed or critically damaged more than two-thirds of the schools at the center of the disaster, renewing fears of substandard construction two years after a larger quake killed thousands of students.
The government last year launched a vast project to inspect and strengthen schools across the country, and about 70,000 of them need work to be made quake-proof, a top education official indicated last month.
But some people, including students who survived last week’s quake in Yushu County, have angrily asked why schools in the remote Tibetan community hadn’t been fixed. The quake’s overall death toll rose to 2,064 yesterday.
“If every year half the money spent on cars, eating, drinking, and traveling overseas was saved and spent on strengthening rural buildings, in a single year the buildings of millions of people could be made more earthquake-proof,’’ a former top engineer for the China Earthquake Administration, Wang Zifa, wrote on his blog Saturday in a dig at officials’ spending.
His post made a point of saying “especially schools.’’
The image of collapsed schools and the phrase “tofu construction’’ were seared into China’s memory two years ago, when more than 5,000 students were killed in a massive earthquake in the southwestern province of Sichuan. The deaths deeply touched Chinese, many of whom can only have one child under government policy.
The central government has tried to respond to the problem with its three-year inspection and strengthening plan, but one international quake engineering specialist warned that such work could take far longer.
Another quake-prone area, California, passed a law in 1933 to make schools quake-proof, and work still hasn’t finished, said Tom Tobin, president-elect of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute based there.
At least 103 students were killed last week, the Qinghai provincial government has said. In Yushu County, 26 percent of the schools collapsed.
The sad state of the area’s schools was known before the quake. One of China’s best-known philanthropists donated dozens of schools to the region in recent years after being moved by a TV show about the area.
Of the 11 schools Chen Guangbiao donated in Yushu County, all are safe, the director of the county education bureau, Ma La, said.
Almost a fifth of the 375,000 schools inspected last year need to be strengthened, Lu Xin, the education ministry official leading the three-year plan, told a meeting March 4.
Less than three weeks after she spoke — and just days before the earthquake — the Qinghai provincial government set up a special working group to accelerate funding for strengthening schools in Tibetan areas.