From Victor Shih, a great FT blog post about exactly how bribery figures into construction projects great and small here:
According to details released by the Chinese media, the Jing’an government invited bids for a project to insulate a teachers’ dormitory. Not surprisingly, a company wholly owned by the Jing’an District Government, the Jing’an Construction Company, “won” the bid, but then gave the Rmb30m project to its wholly owned subsidiary Jiayi Company, which had little experience in this kind of project.
After paying government officials bribes to obtain this contract, Jiayi proceeded to farm out various aspects of this project to sub-contractors who paid Jiayi management the highest bribes.
In some cases, the work was further sub-contracted to foremen, who also had to pay sub-contractors bribes. At every level, guanxi and the amount of bribes determined who received the contract, not quality, safety or track record. In the end, a welder, hired precisely because he was inexperienced and therefore cheap, accidentally dropped his torch, which set off the fire.
Given the dominance of the state at every level of government, government officials learned long ago that the best way to make some money on the side was to form their own companies, which “bid for” and often won lucrative contracts from the government and from state-owned enterprises.
In many cases, these parasitic companies do not do the contracted work themselves but instead farm out the work to the highest bidders. The owners of these connected companies, often officials themselves or their close friends and relatives, can make money without doing anything. It is rent-seeking in its most naked form.
As this “unspoken rule” way of business proliferates to every corner of the Chinese economy, quality, safety, and basic trust all go out the window, replaced by the subcontractors who could pay the highest bribes.
Although a small number of people are enriched by the system, the vast majority suffers from its consequences. This corrupt system of subcontracting may be partially responsible for the high-speed train crash last month; it is also responsible for the prevalence of radioactive material in China’s homes, as noted by an earlier piece on beyondbrics.
It likely is partially culprit to the thousands of industrial accidents and food and product safety issues that crop up in China every year.
Nothing a little transparency and rule of law wouldn’t (at least) partially clear up, but the Communist Party seems convinced that those are bourgeois imperialist concepts designed to destroy China, so they’ll continue to stalwartly oppose them for now.