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Behind the fire

(China Daily)
Updated: 2010-11-24 07:56
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More than a week after Shanghai's deadly fire, the investigation into its cause has revealed the unimaginable disorder of the construction industry in this international metropolis. Even the mayor, Han Zheng, admitted that the lack of supervision of the construction industry was one of contributing causes of the fire that claimed 56 lives.

It was good of the mayor to admit in public that he and the Shanghai Party secretary are ultimately to blame for the fire, as the messy construction sector and its supervision are at the end of the day their responsibility.

There was no public bidding for the renovation of this residential building despite the legal requirement that such a project must be contracted through public bidding. The company that received the contract was none other than the one directly attached to the district government. However, the company divided the renovation into small projects and subcontracted them to different firms. These firms in turn subcontracted their projects to even smaller construction teams.

As a result, the money for the actual work was one third the original amount apportioned to this project. Little wonder that the material used to keep the rooms warm was polyurethane foam, a material that can easily catch fire and once on fire emits toxic gases. That also explains why even the scaffolding was made of bamboo and the boards used were plastic ones. All these materials are cheap.

The investigation revealed that it was not just the tacit rules and malpractices of the construction industry that were to blame, it was also the flawed system.

While there is no evidence to suggest the problems behind this fire are common in Shanghai or nationwide, the fact that the majority of corrupt officials are caught in dirty deals with developers points to the possibility that the construction industry is considerably messy in many parts of the country.

Even if it is not as bad as most people imagine, the country's leaders should at least assume so. It is like treating a disease: we should regard it as serious and do a thorough checkup to find out exactly what the problem is. For the healthy development of the country's real estate industry and for the safety of the people, what is needed is not just an overhaul of the construction industry, but also reform of a system that provides a nurturing environment for malpractices and corruption.

To be frank, the Shanghai mayor and Party secretary have taken the right attitude toward this fire and showed enough determination to sort out the city's construction market.

But as far as the construction industry is concerned, the fire should be a lesson not just for Shanghai. Other parts of the country need to examine their own construction sectors, not only to ensure the healthy growth of the industry in the long run, but also to save lives.

(China Daily 11/24/2010 page8)