perrow and the china earthquake

A New York Times photo of a destroyed school in Dujiangyan, China.

Orgheads with an interest in engineering and failure should take note of the following NY Times article that talks about how easily school buildings crumbled, killing thousands of students during the recent Chinese earthquake. It’s absolutely horrible:

The earthquake’s destruction of Xinjian Primary School was swift and complete. Hundreds of children were crushed as the floors collapsed in a deluge of falling bricks and concrete. Days later, as curiosity seekers came with video cameras and as parents came to grieve, the four-story school was no more than rubble.

In contrast, none of the nearby buildings were badly damaged. A separate kindergarten less than 20 feet away survived with barely a crack. An adjacent 10-story hotel stood largely undisturbed. And another local primary school, Beijie, catering to children of the elite, was in such good condition that local officials were using it as a refugee center.

The connection to orgtheory? Seems that schools used substandard materials, which suggests rampant corruption. Contractors simply used inferior products to inflate profit margings, probably with state leader turning a blind eye, or even pocketing some of the profits. Classic case of bureaucratic failure due to bad incentives:

“This is not a natural disaster,” said Ren Yongchang, whose 9-year-old son died inside the destroyed school. His hands were covered in plaster dust as he stood beside the rubble, shouting and weeping as he grabbed the exposed steel rebar of a broken concrete column. “This is not good steel. It doesn’t meet standards. They stole our children.”

The government has launched an investigation, but censors, wary of the public mood, are trying to suppress the issue in state-run media and online.

An examination of the collapse of Xinjian Primary School offers a disturbing picture of a calamity that might have been avoided. Many parents say they were told the school was unsafe. Xinjian was poorly built when it opened its doors in 1992, they say, and never got its share of government funds for reconstruction because of its low ranking in the local education bureaucracy and the low social status of its students.

A decade ago, a detached wing of the school was torn down and rebuilt because of safety concerns. But the main building remained unimproved. Engineers and earthquake experts who examined photographs of its wreckage concluded that the structure had many failings and one critical flaw: inadequate iron reinforcing rods running up the school’s vertical columns. One expert described the unstable concrete floor panels as “time bombs.”

I suppose this is another tragic example of Perrow’s argument that disasters are often man made. System failures – in this case proper construction and monitoring of contractors – allowed a concentrated group of people to suffer a great deal. It’s also a Diane Vaughan sort of point, this kind of risk probably became viewed as “normal” among state officials and building contractors.


Written by fabiorojas

May 26, 2008 at 2:17 am

3 Responses

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  1. I am writing a review essay in Chinese. urging my Chinese people to learn something from disasters happened in USA by reading Perrow and Vaughan. It is good to see your post.

    By the way, how can I start a post here? Do I have to be a member of an online organization?


    Han Yi

    May 27, 2008 at 3:26 am

  2. Hi, Han. Orgtheory is a blog, which means that there are a few authors who write the posts. Readers, however, can post in the comments section as you have. Feel free to elaborate in the comments.

    If you feel a very strong urge to write a whole post in response to something I wrote, feel free to email me and we can discuss it. The nice thing is that you can also start your own blog for free.



    May 27, 2008 at 3:41 am

  3. Thank you, Fabio. A frequent visitor here, I got a lot from reading your posts.

    I am working on my dissertation. The earthquake happened in Sichuan China stopped my work for about two weeks from now. I went back to read Perrow (2007) and Vaughan (1998, LSR). I am introducing their works to Chinese audience. I was also thinking about writing an email to both professors to express my respect to them. I met Perrow at ASA and Vaughan at UA Tucson. They are among the finest professors I know.

    The good circle of academics continues, I truly believe that some writers of Orgtheory will be among the finest researchers too.


    Han Yi

    May 27, 2008 at 4:22 am

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