Anger rose in China on Monday following the collapse a day earlier of the roof of a middle school gym near the Siberian border, killing at least 10 members of the school’s trophy-winning girl’s volleyball team who were practicing inside, as well as a coach.
School safety has long been an emotional issue in China. The collapse of 7,000 classrooms during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which killed as many as 10,000 schoolchildren, triggered a national outcry. Shoddy initial construction of schools, widely described as “tofu” buildings, was widely blamed for the heavy loss of children then.
On Sunday, the official Xinhua news agency said, the roof in Qiqihar in Heilongjiang Province collapsed because builders of an adjacent complex had stacked construction material on the gym’s roof, violating regulations.
When rain fell on Sunday, the improperly stored material — a coarse powder that is mixed with water to make insulating plaster — absorbed so much water that the roof collapsed from the extra weight, Xinhua reported. The local police have detained the head of the construction contractor in charge of building the adjacent teaching complex, according to Xinhua.
People were gathering at the front gate of the school on Monday to lay flowers and mourn.
The official explanation differed from a longstanding worry about schools in China: whether they are shoddily built.
Suspicions of faulty initial construction in Qiqihar were evident in Chinese social media postings on Monday. “Please investigate the tofu dregs construction project!” said one internet user who identified herself as the aunt of one of the victims.
The collapse of many schools in the Sichuan earthquake, which occurred three months before the start of the Beijing Olympics, prompted the Ministry of Education to issue regulations in 2009 requiring national and local government safety checks.
The gym that collapsed on Sunday was built in 1997, local media reported. The Qiqihar government had begun an inspection program for schools four months ago, but it was not immediately clear whether the collapsed middle school gym had been checked before it fell.
Social media users also complained that the police in Qiqihar had immediately gathered parents together to prevent them from staging protests but had shared little information about their daughters, following a pattern of Chinese government efforts to suppress information after disasters. In Sichuan in 2008, local police allowed protests in the days after the earthquake but later clamped down.
Qiqihar, the last sizable city in China before reaching Mohe City, China’s northernmost town, briefly enjoyed an unlikely construction boom in 2016 and 2017. The city built a high-speed rail station and dozens of modern apartment towers and office buildings that contrasted with the city’s older, Russian-influenced architecture.
Yet even as developers were rushing to erect new buildings, Qiqihar residents were moving elsewhere, undermining demand for the new spaces. Qiqihar lost a quarter of its population from 2011 to 2020, shrinking to 4 million people, city records show. That exodus was one of the most severe examples of the broad depopulation of China’s northeastern corner. Young families in particular left in search of better opportunities in less chilly cities farther south.
The region has set records for its frigid temperatures. Indoor sports like volleyball are popular during the long winters.
The girl’s volleyball team that lost most of its members on Sunday has been a point of local pride. Its many hours of practice led it to second place recently in the championship of Heilongjiang, a vast province bigger than California.
Siyi Zhao contributed research from Seoul.