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    Road to ‘Poverty Alleviation’ Paved With Alleged Corruption

    Officials suspended as billion-yuan tunnel project under investigation for corruption, wage arrears, and poor construction.

    Six officials in northwestern China’s Gansu province were suspended from work after a billion-yuan road project aimed at reducing poverty was found to be “fraudulent” and “corrupt,” state newspaper People’s Daily reported Monday.

    The punishments follow on the heels of an investigation by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). On Sunday, the station reported that Kaole Tunnel in the southwestern part of Gansu was still substandard months after the company contracted to build it was supposed to have completed state-ordered reinforcements.

    Completed in 2012, the tunnel is part of a 1.6 billion-yuan ($254 million) road project intended to provide better access for an impoverished rural village. But last year, the State Bureau for Letters and Visits, an official watchdog, received a petition from one of the construction workers alleging that the tunnel’s quality wasn’t up to par. The state bureau urged the provincial road administration to reinforce the tunnel, and the administration in turn gave Sino Nuclear Northwest Construction Group Co. Ltd., the state-owned company behind the project, until the end of November 2017 to comply.

    But CCTV’s reporter found that cracks in the tunnel had been covered up with paint or thin layers of cement — and areas that the road administration said should be reinforced with steel rods were largely untouched. When contacted by the reporter, a high-level official at Sino Nuclear said that the company had complied with the road administration’s orders to reinforce the tunnel.

    Yang Aiming, the deputy director of the Gansu provincial road administration, told CCTV that the administration could do little more than urge the company to fulfill its obligations. “I can only ask someone to have a meal,” he told CCTV. “If they refuse to eat, there’s nothing I can do.”

    Lin Zhongmin, the whistleblower who sent the petition to the letters and visits bureau, is a migrant worker from eastern China’s Fujian province who began working on the project in 2009. He told Sixth Tone that Sino Nuclear still owed the construction team millions of yuan in wages and deposits.

    According to Lin, none of the 100-plus workers had signed labor contracts with Sino Nuclear, though the company asked the construction team for 6 million yuan in deposits as insurance against them leaving before the work was finished. Lin said he and many of his fellow workers had to borrow money from friends and family to pay these deposits, and he showed Sixth Tone a bank receipt for 4.2 million yuan paid by the workers to Sino Nuclear. The rest of the money, Lin said, the workers had paid in cash.

    When Sino Nuclear started to fall behind in paying wages, Lin said, the construction team went on a five-month strike beginning in November 2011. Eventually, Sino Nuclear paid the workers 2.3 million yuan and promised to pay the remaining amount due upon the project’s completion — but according to Lin, this never happened. “There should have been a poverty alleviation fund for the project, but they didn’t pay back our money,” said Lin. He would not specify exactly how much was owed.

    Since 2012, the construction workers have been trying to get the attention of disciplinary bodies at all levels of government. But Lin said that apart from a terse “The case is under investigation” here or there, they have received little response.

    In a press conference on Monday, however, the Gansu government said that six officials — including Yang of the provincial road administration — have been suspended pending investigation. The provincial transport bureau has ordered a thorough assessment of the entire road’s quality and safety, as well as an investigation into any potential corruption or negligence. The press conference did not address the issue of wage arrears.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: An exterior view of the Kaole Tunnel in Dongxiang Autonomous County, Gansu province, 2018. From Weibo)