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Made in China: Tofu Buildings

In August, a series of typhoons hit China. While the wild winds did create some problems for the people, the storms also exposed a dark secret of the Chinese construction sector — “tofu buildings.” This is a phrase used in China to label poorly constructed buildings that tend to crumble like tofu when stressed by winds, earthquakes, etc. In some cases, they crumble for no reason at all.

Tofu buildings

Traditionally, the term “tofu dreg” usually meant anything that was done shoddily. After poor quality construction projects became commonplace, people began to call such structures tofu buildings. The term “tofu project” is believed to have first been used by Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in 1998 when he visited the flood dykes along the Yangtze River and remarked that they appeared too porous and soft, like tofu dregs.

In eastern China, typhoon Hagupit tore through an apartment building in August, tearing off a section of the exterior. Several windows were blown off, exterior walls ripped, and balcony rails stripped. Even a washing machine was blown away from one of the floors. The poor construction attracted the mockery of netizens since it was constructed in a “high-end” residential complex. If even what is being marketed as “high-end” suffers from such shoddy construction, one can only imagine how many tofu buildings there are in China.

A 3-year-old building in China with walls, balconies, and part of the roof that have fallen off.
Recently, several windows were blown off, exterior walls ripped, and balcony rails stripped from a ‘high-end’ residential complex in eastern China. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

The torrential rains and floods in recent months have also wreaked havoc on the stability of these tofu buildings. In Shanghai Tower, which is the second-tallest building in the world, a water leak sparked fears about the construction quality of the building. The water was apparently leaking from the top of the 60th floor all the way down to the 9th floor. Even though the building manager claimed that the water leak was caused by an equipment failure, netizens dismissed the claims and started calling Shanghai Tower a garbage project. Several videos circulating online show the poor quality of the tofu buildings. People can be seen scraping off portions of a building with their fingers as if they were breaking off a piece of cake.

One of the main reasons for the existence of tofu buildings is corruption. The construction companies reportedly give bribes to government officials to get their projects passed through, most of the time at the cost of proper safety and quality checks. In 2008, a series of earthquakes hit Wenchuan county. The earthquakes happened during day time when kids were at schools. Many of these school buildings collapsed, killing several students. The buildings were said to be constructed poorly due to a lack of funds.

Construction disaster

When it comes to the worst construction disaster in Chinese history, the Banqiao Dam failure takes the cake. The incident took place in 1975, with government statistics claiming 26,000 deaths, while other independent experts estimated a death toll in the range of 85,000 to 240,000. Not only did the Banqiao Dam collapse, but another 61 dams also broke, triggering one of the worst floods in human history.

Flooding caused by the collapse of the Banqiao Dam in China in 1975.
Not only did the Banqiao Dam collapse, but another 61 dams also broke, triggering one of the worst floods in human history. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

The Chinese government tried to cover up the disaster, only to have their attempts end up in failure. It was only in 2005 that Beijing declassified documents related to the disaster. Around 6.8 million homes collapsed due to the dam failure. Recently, the Three Gorges Dam has also been under scrutiny due to concerns about its stability.

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