Dangerous ‘Tofu-Dreg’ Projects Remain a Persistent Problem in Many Parts of China

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TOPSHOT - This aerial photo taken on Aug. 28, 2019 shows the site of a residential building that collapsed in Shenzhen, in China's southern Guangdong province. - A residential building collapsed on Aug. 28, but no casualties were reported, according to local media. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The Chinese phrase “tofu-dreg project” was coined by Zhu Rongji, premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 1990s and early 2000s. He used the phrase to describe a poorly constructed dam during a 1998 visit to Jiujiang city in Jiangxi Province. 

The phrase later gained further notoriety in 2008 after the Sichuan earthquake claimed the lives of an estimated 70,000 people, many of them schoolchildren, when poorly constructed buildings collapsed during the catastrophic earthquake.

Since then, the phrase has become popular across China to describe any manner of poorly constructed building or piece of infrastructure. In the years since the Sichuan earthquake, the problem of tofu-dreg projects appears to have only increased, affecting building projects across China.

The Pavilia Farm

In a recent example, developers discovered the use of the wrong concrete mix in a massive development in Hong Kong, forcing the developers, New World Development, to pull down two partially completed towers of a construction project.

The Pavilia Farm was Hong Kong’s best-selling residential development after approximately 2,100 units sold for a cumulative total of around $3 billion in 2020. 

The poor construction has been described as “an unprecedented blunder” by the South China Morning Post (SCMP). 

Following concrete tests it was discovered that the podium walls of blocks 1 and 8 of the Pavilia Farm III in Tai Wai “did not meet the requirements of the approved design,” according to a statement by MTR Corp which is building the project in conjunction with New World Development. 

The developers admitted human error was the cause of the blunder and subsequently fired the entire team of project supervisors. 

While industry insiders stated that the use of wrong concrete is very common, the scale of this error was unheard of. The demolition of the substandard structures is also unprecedented in the Hong Kong construction sector. 

SEG Tower

Another recent example of the consequences of shoddy workmanship in China concerns the SEG tower in the heart of Shenzhen, a city of more than 12 million people, and where the booming tech industry has inspired many to refer to the city as China’s “Silicon Valley”.   

Occupants were forced to evacuate this year, on Tuesday, May 18, when the building, with no discernible cause, began to shake violently. 

Local government authorities said that during a preliminary investigation into the building “no cracks in the ground surrounding the building” were discovered and no damage to “pieces of outer wall” was observed, reported China’s state-run Global Times. 

The building continued its inexplicable shaking again on the Wednesday and Thursday following the initial incident, forcing local authorities to close the 71-storey building the following Friday to tenants and visitors while inspectors sought to determine the cause of the shaking.

When the building was constructed, more than 20 years ago, the term “Shenzhen speed” was coined. The term was first used to describe the fast construction of the Guomao Building in Shenzhen. Every story of the building took a mere 3 days to complete. At the time, the Guomao building was the tallest in Shenzhen. 

The problem of tofu-dreg projects may be much more far reaching than currently known. Shenzhen has been described as an “instant city” due to how fast it was constructed. 

In 1979, Shenzhen was a small fishing village, but in the subsequent decades, has transformed into one of the world’s most important technological hubs. 

The speed at which Shenzhen was constructed may be a ticking time bomb as substandard construction projects begin to deteriorate. Shenzhen may be haunted for years to come as the accumulated risks of rapid progress come due.