One trillion. This is the number of American dollars allocated for infrastructure projects in China over the next five years. Zhengzhou. This is the location of the latest ‘stretching’ factory in China pulling steel reinforcement rods to illegal diameters and threatening the lives of countless citizens who will use the infrastructure projects constructed using these substandard materials.
This week a surprisingly small article in British newspaper The Times detailed the discovery of illicit practices at a Zhengzhou ‘stretching’ factory where steel reinforcement rods used in a number of construction projects had been pulled to a thickness below regulatory standards.
The reasons for this are simple - 10mm wide rods can be easily stretched to a thickness of 8.5mm, creating many additional metres of metal then sold on for profit - but the resolution is not. Despite countless assertions from experts that pulling these essential building components to inadequate diameters will weaken a structure and endanger the lives of its users, construction companies in China are still being found operating under such measures.
This is not a new phenomenon however. In September 2011 a number of construction firms in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province were ordered to stop using thin reinforcement rods which had been stretched below regulatory standards, with Liu Lin, Director of the Construction and Real Estate Management Department under the Xi’an Industry and Commercial Administration Bureau explaining: “By making the steel bar thin, both the processing plants and the construction firms decrease their cost, but these bars will do harm to the quality of the building projects.”
Similarly in June this year the construction of the Ninghang high-speed railway was rocked by claims that 2.2km of safety barriers had been wrongfully installed using steel rods pulled from 6.5mm to 5.8mm and 8mm to 6.9mm. The groups leading the scheme were fined 100,000 yuan and the contractor, Hongye Traffic Facility from Yiyang, allegedly blacklisted. Reporting on the case, local news site China.org.cn was told by an official that: “The railway’s construction slowed down recently and quality inspectors failed to launch intense inspections as usual, which caused the loophole.”
Despite the severity of this issue and the immense ramifications it poses to the safety of civilians, none of the engineers, construction firms or steel research institutes WAN appealed to for comment were happy to venture an official opinion, many keen to state that they had little or no knowledge of the matter at hand.
Thinning reinforcement rods is not illegal but when practiced to excess can lead to a reduction in the effectiveness of the metal. Fan Zhong from the China Architecture Design and Research Group clarifies: “Over-stretching the steel bars will cause them to become brittle and weak, and less resistant to earthquakes,” a point confirmed by Wu Chengcai, General Engineer at the Shaanxi Provincial Building Research Institute, who comments: “When a building suffers great external force such as an earthquake, the stronger, standard steel bars will ‘stretch’ as the building suffers the damage, thus slowing the process of its collapse for people to escape. However, the buildings with the substandard, thin steel bars will collapse very quickly.”
With a marked history of earthquakes across the nation, China has upped its building regulations in recent years and yet somehow the practice of illegal steel thinning has continued to thrive. The potential human cost of stretching reinforcement rods for backhand cash is inconceivable for the majority of people but this remains a very real threat as China presses forward with an unyielding construction schedule, leaving many questions unanswered.