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Sunday
May182008

The Victims Of Corruption

Today's Observer (the Sunday edition of the U.K.'s Guardian) carries an excellent commentary by Will Hutton here. It's about China's heartbreaking May 12, 2008 earthquake. The first paragraph says,

Earthquake's don't destroy strong, well-built buildings, they destroy weak ones. As China reels from its biggest earthquake in 30 years, public anger is mounting. A third of the 20,069 confirmed dead (the number is expected to rise to 50,000) were children trapped in the 6,900 classrooms that the government says were destroyed - weaker than other buildings in withstanding the shock. It has also said that as many as 390 dams could be at risk.

When reports first came from Szechuan about collapsed school buildings, our thoughts turned to a similar event in a different place many years ago. On October 12, 1992, an earthquake hit the city of Cairo, Egypt. We were in the Nile Hilton that day, resting before dinner. Our eighth-floor room vibrated at first, then began lurching up and down. We headed for an exit. The hallway was twisting and bending and terrified guests were crawling on their hands and knees, screaming for help. When we looked out from the hotel's back fire-escape, we saw a cloud of dust rising slowly from the ground across the entire city.

The Nile Hilton survived with little damage. Its flexible joints did their job. The hotel bent and twisted but remained structurally sound. But from around town, especially from the denser and less affluent neighborhoods, came stories about lots of collapsed buildings -- usually crowded ten- and twelve-floor apartment blocks. The government reported around 2,000 fatalities, but unofficial sources said right away that at least 10,000 were lost. The next day, amid nerve-jangling aftershocks, we saw some of the damage. At what had been apartment buildings there were now piles of debris. Not rubble, as you'd expect, but mounds of what looked like sand and small marbles. The buildings had simply disintegrated.

Before the earthquake, we'd heard how apartment buildings in Cairo sometimes collapsed under their own weight. An Egyptian friend had explained it to us this way: The government issues permits to build only four or six stories high. But developers pay bribes to add more floors using the same plans. Then they pay more bribes to leave the steel reinforcement out of the cement. So the buildings sometimes fall down.

By 1992, it had become too common for apartment blocks to simply crumble. When the earthquake hit, lots of people mistook the event. They thought it was only their building that was crumbling and didn't understand the earth was shaking. The most common injuries among quake survivors were broken legs, a result of people leaping from their apartment's windows and balconies. They'd learned to do that from those who had survived the collapse of other tenements. In the earthquake, not all the apartment buildings collapsed. Not even most. But people jumped from buildings all over the city. The lucky ones only broke a leg or maybe both legs. The unlucky ones broke their backs or necks. It was awful proof of the real-life impact of public corruption.

In China's case, the Observer's Will Hutton says,

The government has announced an investigation into why so many classrooms collapsed, but the answer is already known. People want the government to maintain the pace of development but increasingly do not accept that the price has to be corruption. The government agrees and launches unsuccessful anti-corruption drives. The problem is that local officials have unchecked, unaccountable power and have no compunction, given the loss of the belief that they are building a communist utopia, in helping themselves to cash on an ever grander scale. Professor Hu Angang, an economist at Tsinghua university, estimates that one yuan in six is, in effect, corrupt. Even army officers buy their rank.

The events in China this month and in Cairo in 1992 are reminders, if we still need any, that public corruption isn't a victimless crime. Not nearly. Its victims suffer not only when big events strike but also in their daily lives. It's wrong to think that crooked officials and those who bribe them are engaged in a quaint or harmless local practice, something the rest of us should get used to. The truth is that public corruption is a destructive force that ruins lives by the millions.

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