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Alexander Nasr

Online Cynicism Deepens After Another Bridge in China Collapses

Construction workers building a bridge in Henan in 2009. Citizen trust in Chinese infrastructure appears to be declining. (Remko Tanis/Flickr)

On February 1, a truck carrying fireworks exploded on a bridge in Henan province. According to state news reports, the explosion caused an 87-yard section of the bridge to collapse, in turn killing nine and injuring at least 15. Another news agency reported 26 dead. The Global Times, which usually hews closely to the Communist Party line, cited official sources blaming the explosion on “hazardous weather.”

More disaster fuels more suspicions

Many Web users on Twitter-like microblog platform Sina Weibo, however, expressed suspicion that the bridge collapse had been primarily caused by corruption and poor construction.

Such suspicions are largely due to China’s recent history of collapsing bridges and what is known as “tofu-bits construction” — building projects from which corruption has siphoned away so much of the funding that there is not enough money left to build it properly. According to a Bloomberg report last August, China had experienced at least 18 bridge collapses since 2007. In one recent case, photos of key structural components stuffed with wood and other materials were uploaded to the Chinese Internet.

But Web user response is also an indication of just how little credibility the government and its news agencies enjoy with many citizens, who are quick to place the blame for disasters on official corruption, and possess little faith that a proper investigation will ever be conducted. As @航运界小虾米 put it, “the ‘imperial court’ will blame this all on the fireworks factory in the end. They will definitely keep with their habit of not pursuing the question of whether there was a problem with the bridge itself.”

When media accounts of the number of deaths varied from a minimum of 5 to a maximum of 26, some Internet commenters have angrily assumed that the state media had tried to cover up the number of dead. User @Lee-短短短发 remarked, “last night in the news it said nine dead, was that fake? Why can’t Central Television revert to the truth? How is the public supposed to trust the government?” The local propaganda department, however, denied media reports of 26 fatalities, calling them “baffling.”

After examining photos of the remaining portion of the bridge, user @小丸子的梦想001 was sure that “it was tofu-bits construction. With just those few steel bars, do they think the public is stupid?” In 2009, a bridge that was found to have been constructed with too few reinforcement bars collapsed, crushing 24 vehicles on a road below.

China’s bureaucracy and media respond — and get shouted down

A China Central Television broadcast responded to netizen doubts about the quality of the bridge’s construction, stating that the thin steel strands pictured were not reinforcement bars. The program cited experts, saying that the pictures were not enough to prove that there was anything wrong with the bridge. But many web users responded with incredulity. As @云淡风轻-静静 put it, “Here come those experts again.”

Many Chinese believe that infrastructure construction is rife with corruption. Following a bridge collapse in Harbin last August, NPR interviewed a Chinese student who–citing an uncle in the construction industry—provided an anecdotal account of how trickle-down corruption works in infrastructure construction. “If the central government wants a steel bar, it should be 10 centimeters. When it comes to the province, it will be 8 centimeters, and when it comes to the city, it will be 5. This is very, very common. This is not news,” he said.

User @卤煮小爷 commented, “Everyone take a look and see if the work safety supervisor is wearing a watch.” This is Internet code for a call to ferret out corruption; in 2012, a safety official named Yang Dacai was caught by Weibo users grinning incongruously at the site of a massive traffic accident that killed 36. After his picture went viral on Chinese social media, Web sleuths discovered that he owned a luxury watch collection and designer wardrobe beyond what a public servant should be able to afford. He was dubbed “brother watch” by the online community, and soon after fired.

But in this case, the work safety supervisor was either genuinely moved or well-versed in Weibo culture. He was photographed crying at the site of the collapsed bridge, wearing a military-style overcoat that in contemporary China is generally associated with migrant workers.

Many Weibo users, however, were not convinced.  @长孙公主Schwein wrote, “Is he crying because he’s scared he’ll lose his job? Or just putting on an act? And look at that overcoat — who does he think he’s fooling!”

But perhaps @公元前的猫 put it best: “Regardless of whether it’s genuine emotion or just an act, the public already has a crisis of confidence when it comes to trusting the government.”

Some Web users remarked only on the tragedy of the accident. It occurred just ten days before the Chinese New Year, when many on China’s railways and roads are making the trek home to see their families.

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Alexander Nasr

Alexander Nasr studies International Relations with a focus on China. His interests include China-Central Asia relations, Chinese political discourse, and the effect that new media has on policy.
  • fdawei

    Unfortunately, the government is always scapegoating the real cause of bridge collapses throughout the country as well as railway tunnel and subway collapses in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere. It’s easy to go after the small-fry migrant worker and throw some of them in jail, while the prime culprits evade punishment and are oftentimes promoted to their next level of incompetence to wreak havoc elsewhere.

    No accountability permits corrupt business practices to flourish, irrespective of the toll it takes on the average citizen and the grieving families.

    SHAMEFUL!!!