Tofu-dreg project

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"Tofu-dreg project" (Chinese :豆腐渣工程; pinyin :dòufuzhā gōngchéng) is a phrase used in the Chinese-speaking world to describe a poorly constructed building, sometimes called just "Tofu buildings". The phrase was coined by Zhu Rongji, the former premier of the People's Republic of China, on a 1998 visit to Jiujiang City, Jiangxi Province to describe a poorly-built set of flood dykes in the Yangtze River. [1] The phrase is notably used referring to buildings collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake disaster. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]


In China, the term tofu dregs (the pieces left over after making tofu) is widely used as a metaphor for shoddy work, hence the implication that a "tofu-dreg project" is a poorly executed project. [8]

The prevalence of “tofu projects” is due to rampant corruption and graft in China, as "project money is skimmed off the top for and by officials, leaving less funding for quality materials, qualified staff, and acceptable workmanship" while "projects are often granted to companies that have more political ties than qualifications". Furthermore "tribute projects" are often rushed for completion in order to mark a state anniversary. For instance in 2007, a bridge in Hunan Province, where work was expedited so it could open on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the local prefecture, collapsed during construction, killing 64 people. Lastly, local governments rely on the revenues arising from construction including land sales and transfer fees, so they have incentives to promote rapid and unfettered growth, including turning a blind eye to substandard construction. [9]

In July 2021, another occurrence of tofu-dreg construction happened in Zhengzhou in Henan province where the entire city was put at a standstill due to torrential rains and flooding. The city was referred to as a “sponge city” because of how vulnerable the drainage system was. Some argued that the city was not to blame since they were experiencing unprecedented rain levels, but there was evidence later found pointing towards a weak infrastructure. Such disasters have occurred multiple times in Zhengzhou, giving it the reputation of being “spongy” and a result of tofu construction. [10]

After visiting China in early 2011, Canadian journalist Lawrence Solomon stated that many Chinese people "fear that a 'tofu dam' might fail, leading to hundreds of thousands of downstream victims." [11]

According to Chinese architect Li Hu, tofu-dreg projects in China are vastly outnumbered by buildings without construction flaws. Li said that in most cases, ill-constructed buildings don't collapse but merely have a reduced lifespan or leakages. [12] A February 2023 survey on natural disaster risks found that there were close to 600 million buildings in China. [13]

2008 Wenchuan earthquake

This kindergarten was among the many schools in the disaster region that suffered heavy structural damage. Sichuanearthquake Jiangyou pic9.jpg
This kindergarten was among the many schools in the disaster region that suffered heavy structural damage.

During the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, many schoolhouses fell down, and many students died. These buildings have been used to exemplify tofu-dreg projects. The collapses were linked to allegations of corruption in the construction of Chinese schools.

…School construction is the worst. First, there’s not enough capital. Schools in poor areas have small budgets and, unlike schools in the cities, they can’t collect huge fees, so they’re pressed for money. With construction, add in exploitation by government officials, education officials, school managers, etc. and you can imagine what’s left over for the actual building of schools. When earthquake prevention standards are raised, government departments, major businesses, etc. will all appraise and reinforce their buildings. But these schools with their 70s-era buildings, no one pays attention to them. Because of this, the older school buildings are suffer[ing] from inadequate protection while the new buildings have been shoddily constructed.

A construction engineer using the pseudonym "Book Blade" (书剑子) [14]

On May 15, 2008, Geoffery York of The Globe and Mail reported that the shoddily constructed buildings are commonly called "tofu buildings" because builders cut corners by replacing steel rods with thin iron wires for concrete reinforcement; using inferior grade cement, if any at all; and using fewer bricks than they should. One local was quoted in the article as saying that "the supervising agencies did not check to see if it met the national standards." [15]

The state-controlled media has largely ignored the tofu-dregs schoolhouses, under directives from the propaganda bureau's instructions. Parents, volunteers, and journalists who have questioned authorities have been detained and threatened. [16] [17] [18] [19] In order to silence the issue, riot police officers broke up protests by parents; the authorities set up cordons around the schools; and officials ordered the Chinese news media to stop reporting on school collapses. [20]

Climate change

Construction emissions

Tofu-dreg Construction stemming from speedy, shoddy work, often uses cheap and quick materials, mainly concrete. [21] The speedy construction and pouring of sub-standard concrete leads to poor building infrastructure, causing the issues seen when a natural disaster occurs like the Wenchuan Earthquake. [21] Concrete production contributes to large percentages of individual greenhouse gasses. [22] From 1980 to 2011 China has led in cement/concrete production, in fact China produced more cement in a two-year period than the U.S. produced in the 20th century. [21] All of this cement production has led to vast emissions of greenhouse gasses, China's contribution to GHGs from cement alone rivaled total GHG emissions of some countries. [21] China is using a lot of cement, and is using it quickly causing Tofu Construction of buildings. [21] Tofu construction only leads to more construction, as after the Sichuan Earthquake, China finished close to 29,692 projects to rebuild areas affected by the earthquake. [23] Even without natural disasters Chinese constructions have still failed, “One Australian reporter counted four collapsed bridges in just nine days in July 2012. [21] ” Chinese officials acknowledge these issues as well, giving life expectancies of buildings, and even warning of future collapses of buildings as they age and reach certain life spans. [21] Even in reconstruction efforts, tofu dreg construction remains prevalent, sources from the post earthquake county of Yongcheng cite having moved into buildings already having cracks within walls of their newly built apartments. [24] Yet construction continues in China as in the span of 2011-2014 it was predicted that China would have a new skyscraper constructed every five days. [25] Construction contributes to about 40% of the world's GHG emissions, most of these emissions come from materials used, like concrete -Tofu-dregs signature building material- and other materials. [21] [26]

Overall effect

In connection to tofu-dreg construction are the more grandeur projects that the Chinese government implements, many of which are wholly unnecessary for their purpose and are simply used as tools to indicate to foreign countries that China is developed. By allocating the country's best resources to wealthy cities, China's rural areas are subjected to repeated infrastructure disasters, which not only leads to the expenditure of more natural resources in order to rebuild but also the pollution caused during the initial collapse. [21] China's construction industry is a significant contributor to the overall climate crisis, and although China has made plans to reduce the nation's carbon emission with renewable energy and upgraded industrial equipment, the majority of China's rural and poor areas continue to depend on staples such as cement and steel which carry a heavy carbon footprint. [27] The result, as exemplified by tofu-dreg projects, is recurring collapse and natural resource use. In addition to weak buildings are weak work areas (e.g., factories) which have led to devastating events such as factory fires, pipeline leaks, and workplace explosions. [21]

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