A Chinese government scientist has said a rush to build schools in recent years likely led to construction flaws that caused many of them to collapse in May's devastating earthquake -- the first official admission that low building standards may have been behind the deaths of thousands of children, reported CNN.
Questions about shoddy construction have become a flash point for government critics after the 7.9-magnitude quake killed nearly 70,000 people in Sichuan province, including many students crushed to death when their classrooms crumbled.
Ma Zongjin, chairman of an official committee of experts, said poor quality building materials and inadequate support for large classrooms may be two reasons that more than a thousand schools were damaged in the quake. Ma is one of 30 experts appointed to research the May 12 quake.
"In recent years, a lot of school buildings have been built in China and in this process of rapid development, some problems may exist," Ma, a geologist, told reporters in Beijing. "The structure of the school buildings may not be reasonable enough and the related construction materials may not be strong enough."
Engineers and building experts sent to the disaster zone by the government to study damage have also raised questions about the quality of construction and the adherence to building codes. But Ma's comments Thursday were the first to touch on the potential findings of a promised official investigation.
While the government has vowed strict punishment for bad construction along with the investigation, there has so far been no public attempt to hold anyone accountable.
The issue has become politically sensitive for the Chinese government, with parents of dead children staging protests demanding investigations into why schools gave way.
Often, schoolhouses were the only buildings in the area to fully collapse and experts say China's problem, similar to that in many other parts of the world, was a lack of commitment by governments to safe schools.
Local communist leaders have seemed eager to suppress the matter as they tried to provide for the 5 million people left homeless. Parents and volunteers who questioned authorities were often subjected to detention, intimidation and financial inducements to silence them. In one instance police pulled grieving parents away from a courthouse as they were trying to submit a lawsuit.
The government has said about 7,000 classrooms were destroyed, but has so far not released a tally of how many schoolchildren died in the quake, China's worst disaster in three decades.
A key problem was the lack of reinforcement in large classrooms supported by columns that could not withstand major earthquakes, Ma said.
He did not elaborate, although large classrooms are often considered problematic because they offer relatively little support for rooms in floors above and the presence of large numbers of students makes them more difficult to evacuate in an emergency.