Construction and Corruption

Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng

In 1913 Yuán Shìkǎi, then President of the Republic, already secretly planning an attempt to enthrone himself as emperor, suggested the court should move itself permanently to the Summer Palace. The court resisted on the grounds that the perimeter wall was too low for security, and Yuán offered to have it raised by about three feet, but at the expense of the imperial household rather than the state purse.

The real source of resistance to the move was in fact the Imperial Household Department, which would lose most of its source of squeeze (bribes, kickbacks) once the maintenance of the numerous palaces of the Forbidden City slipped from its grasp.

However, it also saw the profit to be made by increasing the height of the wall, and set about doing so at immense cost to the imperial coffers and immense benefit to itself. It accepted bids for expensive materials and workmanship but oversaw the use of the shoddiest materials and cheapest methods, in a direct parallel to practices that continue with bridge, dam, public building, and rail and road construction to this day.

These are referred to as ‘tofu’ or ‘tofu dregs’ (豆腐渣, dòufuzhā) projects, in which Communist Party cadres siphon public funds to build houses for themselves, buy cars, and support multiple mistresses while the use of poor materials in public buildings leads to collapses that kill the people the cadres are supposed to serve.

After the Sìchuān earthquake of 2008 The Guardian quoted one parent at a collapsed school as saying, ‘These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn’t collapse — the school was only ten years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don’t have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster — this is done by humans.’

Yuán Shìkǎi, fearing that some of his own supporters expected him to honour the Republic’s promise to protect the imperial household, eventually relented.

The imperial tutor Reginald Johnston encouraged the start of reforms of the Imperial Household Department in 1923, and recommended that the court should take the initiative to move to the Summer Palace. He feared that continued imperial occupation of the Forbidden City would be used as an excuse by radicals for the abrogation of various clauses in the abdication agreement.

He found himself appointed Warden of the Summer Palace and discovered that the additional construction ordered earlier had often done considerable damage and that sections of the perimeter wall collapsed whenever it rained.

Commissioning fresh repair work, he was directed to two contractors in a neighbouring village who always handled construction and repairs at the Palace. Their tenders received approval from the rest of the staff, but when Johnston obtained sealed bids from contractors in Běijīng he was able to get the work done for one seventh of the cost.

See Summer Palaces, Summer Palace, Gate of Good Luck, ‘Old’ Summer Palace, Architecture and Xenophobia.

Next in Běijīng Suburbs and Beyond: ‘Old’ Summer Palace
Previously: Gate of Good Luck (story)
Main Index of A Better Guide to Beijing.

For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.