Four six-story buildings in a suburban area of Wenzhou, a city on China’s southern coast, collapsed Monday morning, claiming at least 22 lives, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency, which cited local authorities. Six survivors were pulled from the building before the rescue was called off, Xinhua said.
The buildings were close to industrial parks of Wenzhou, a hub for light manufacturing including shoemaking, and most residents were migrant workers.The buildings were several decades old and erected by villagers, according to an article by the Wenzhou Daily that the local government reposted on its official website Tuesday. It said investigations were under way but an initial analysis showed that the collapse was likely caused by the buildings’ low quality and shaky foundation, a problem made worse by continuous rainfall in the past few days.
It used to be common practice in the 1980s and 1990s for residents outside China’s urban area to build houses with their own hands, often on what had been farmland. Over the years, floors were added without approval, leaving tottering buildings crumbling under the extra weight.
As cities have grown to incorporate such areas, local governments have tried to get rid of these “towns within cities,” tearing down the aging and shoddily built structures. The Wenzhou government had targeted much of the complex of the recent collapse for demolition, some of which had already started.
It wasn’t the first collapse of villager-built housing. Two years ago, a building under construction by local farmers in Xian in western China collapsed, killing five people.
Some online commenters pointed out that photos of the buildings involved show that more floors had been added to the original construction. The state-run newspaper Beijing News quoted a Wenzhou resident as saying that it was common for self-built buildings in the area to have additional floors.
The practice of adding floors has sometimes been a way for the owners of buildings targeted for demolition to extract more compensation from the government, which bases amounts to pay out to residents on the size of the living areas.
Another building collapse in Xian in 2011, which claimed seven lives, was caused by illegal additions the building’s owner had made to get more compensation, according to the local government. The owner was detained by the local police.
That tragedy came months after the Xian government rolled out new regulations to forbid compensation for illegal additions to a building. The local government said at the time that more than 50 cases of “self-built” building collapses had caused 69 deaths since 2007.
It was unclear whether the owners of the collapsed buildings in Wenzhou, who weren’t identified by the local government, will be held legally responsible for the casualties.
The Wenzhou collapse prompted calls for more regulation. “If relevant departments are still indifferent in face of self-built houses in such a disastrous state,” read one commentary by Beijing News on Tuesday, “then similar tragedies will be repeated.”