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Killer Litter

A surge in the number of accidents caused by objects falling or thrown from high-rises has sparked calls for more stringent legal and civil penalties, targeting both individuals and building managers

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Alongside China’s rapid urbanization over the past two decades, high-rise buildings, which have substantially improved the living environment of urban residents, have also caused a range of hidden dangers and risks. A spate of injuries and deaths, many involving children as both victims and perpetrators, has left the public asking what should be done to prevent further tragedy.  

On July 2, 2019, a middle-aged woman died after being hit on the head by a fire extinguisher thrown out of a window by a 10-year-old boy in a residential block in the city of Guiyang, Guizhou Province.  

On June 19, a 10-year-old girl in Nanjing’s Gulou District in Jiangsu Province collapsed to the ground with her head bleeding after being hit by an object thrown from a building by an eight-year-old boy. On June 13, a glass window from a 20th-floor apartment in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, fell on the head of a five-year-old boy who was on the way to kindergarten with his mother. The boy passed away three days later in hospital. 

Falling objects or objects thrown from tall buildings have become a nationwide public security concern, generating a public demand to strengthen prevention and accountability in order to attain a better and safer living environment for urban dwellers. 

Hidden Dangers  
According to recent statistics from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a non-profit organization devoted to high-rises and sustainable urban design, China is home to the most tall buildings in the world – 2,857 buildings higher than 100 meters, 2,019 buildings above 150 meters, and 71 buildings exceeding 300 meters in height. Official data shows that there are 347,000 buildings nationwide with a height above 24 meters, including 235,000 residential buildings. 

Although official statistics about deaths and casualties from falling objects are not available, China Judgments Online has provided information that to date over 1,400 legal judgments are related to falling objects and objects thrown from heights. There were few such legal cases before 2008, but the number spiralled between 2008 and 2012, before reaching a peak in 2017. It is basically in line with China’s urbanization growth rate which has been in high gear since 2010. 

According to a study conducted by State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), a fresh 60-gram egg dropped or thrown from the fourth floor could cause a large lump on the head of an adult, and it could easily break a human skull if thrown from the 18th floor. An egg dropped from the 25th floor could kill someone. 

“Falling objects or objects thrown from heights have become a new public urban ill, putting the life and property of residents in a precarious situation,” Chen Meng, a lawyer at Liaoning Zhaoming Law Firm in Dalian, Liaoning Province, told NewsChina. “It’s a serious public safety problem next only to car accidents. Policymakers need to come up with solutions urgently.” Shan Junxiang, a resident of Dalian, said she takes her three-year-old granddaughter out in the garden of the high-rise residential community every day, but she avoids walking too close to the buildings because she has often seen people throwing trash out of the windows.  

“Not long ago, I heard a loud bang on the roof of a vehicle parked outside the community. If [the object] was dropped on the head of a person, the consequences would be disastrous. I don’t want to have to wear a helmet to go out,” she said. “If there’s a tragedy, it would be too hard to catch the perpetrator red-handed.” 

According to research conducted by the Liaowang Institute, a think tank founded by China’s official Xinhua News Agency, among the nearly 100 cases of falling objects from high-rises they looked at, only one person voluntarily shouldered the responsibility. Most cases ended up in court. To make matters worse, according to the outcomes listed on China Judgments Online, only 13.32 percent of rulings were totally in favor of the plaintiffs in cases of injuries caused by falling objects from heights, and 35.97 percent of judgments went against the plaintiffs. 

Legal Disputes
In lawsuits, plaintiffs need evidence, and in these types of cases, surveillance video or an eye witness is needed to prove injuries or damage to property. But in most cases, lack of evidence means a victim cannot go to court, and many perpetrators cannot be identified, therefore there is no compensation for victims.  

According to the 87th Clause of China’s Tort Liability Law, all residents of a high-rise building can be held accountable if an individual perpetrator cannot be identified. In 2000, a man was severely injured by a falling ashtray in the city of Chongqing and all residents of the building were held accountable in court except two tenants who could prove their absence. Since then, the shared responsibility of all residents of a building has become a legal norm in China if the infringers cannot be identified.  

Zhang Ke, an associate researcher at the Law Institute under the Guizhou Academy of Social Sciences, told NewsChina that some high-rise dwellers have no awareness of safety and discard things out of windows at will. “When conditions permit, it is an option to make littering from high-rise buildings a separate charge and add it to the Amendment to the Criminal Law,” he said. 

According to Zhang Xinbao, a law professor at the Beijing-based Renmin University of China, it is not enough to address the compensation problem through legal means alone. “The government could provide a relief fund or establish a separate medical insurance mechanism. In addition, residential property management companies could buy insurance using funds from the collected property fees,” he told the Legal Daily. 

Lawyer Chen Meng told our reporter that throwing objects from heights should be defined as an act that endangers public security and infringers should be jailed just like drunk drivers.“They should be punished for their behavior rather than the injuries or deaths they have caused. In cases when there are no injuries inflicted, they should also be held accountable,” she told NewsChina. Chen recommended Chinese lawmakers introduce advanced legislation and regulations drawing on experience from other countries and regions.  

In 2003, Hong Kong legislated that residents living in public housing who throw objects out of their windows will be disqualified from public housing after 16 points are deducted from their credit record within two years. If the falling object causes an injury, the wrong-doer will face a fine of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,279) and six months in prison. 

Singapore also has stringent punishments for high-rise littering and falling objects because of negligence. According to a paper by Chen Weibin published in the Journal of Jiangsu Police Institute in January 1, 2017, an infringer will be fined SG$2,000 (US$1,473) for the first offense, and SG$4,000 (US$2,947) and SG$10,000 (US$7,367) for the second and third offense. In cases of serious violations, infringers will be sentenced to five years in jail. 

In the opinion of Liu Junhai, a law professor at the Renmin University of China, the cause of the epidemic of falling objects is partly down to bad manners, and partly due to poor building design and maintenance. “The bad behavior of residents could be regulated through self-discipline, tightened supervision and warnings from property management companies,” he told the Beijing Youth Daily. “It is also urgent to improve the design and quality of high-rise buildings.” 

Precaution Matters
Agencies charged with regulating building architecture and design have implemented directives and regulations regarding the quality and construction standards of high-rise buildings, particularly windows. 

In 2009, the China Institute of Building Standard Design and Research released design standards for national civil building projects in which it stipulated that high-rise buildings should no longer install windows that open outward, and for buildings where outward-opening or sliding windows are already installed, methods to prevent windows and glass from falling have to be strengthened. 

According to the Code of Planning and Design in Urban Residential Areas, which was released by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in 2016, the minimum distance between streets or paths in a residential area and a tall building is five meters, and the minimum distance between a path inside a residential community and a building is three meters. 

Some old residential buildings and newer ones in dense city centers where land resources are scarce do not meet these national construction criteria, said Zhao Hailong, a former architect at the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design. Real estate developers in China are usually held accountable for repairing damage within two or three years after buildings are constructed. 

“In cases where windows fall due to years of wear and tear without repair but they are not in violation of construction standards, real estate developers should not be held accountable, or at least they should not assume the main responsibility,” he told NewsChina. 

In 2004, the Shanghai Architectural Curtain Wall Testing Center conducted a survey on the quality of buildings’ curtain walls (a non-structural outer wall of a building, often made of lightweight materials) of over 200 square meters or more than 20 meters tall in the city. It discovered that 90 out of the 931 buildings surveyed presented safety hazards, including glass cracks, water penetration, corrosion of aluminum material, loose glass and abnormal sounds. 

“We really need to urgently conduct regular checks on the safety of high-rise buildings and specify the responsibilities of all parties involved in order to prevent tragedies from happening again,” Zhao said.  

“Meanwhile, more public awareness and the installation of prevention and surveillance facilities are crucial to eradicate this dangerous and unethical behavior.” 

Following the spate of deadly accidents in June, more residential communities nationwide have installed surveillance cameras to monitor falling objects. On June 22, 2019, Changyunli residential community in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, installed 47 wide-angle cameras to cover all its 17 buildings. 

At Xinjiang Yayuan, a residential community with six buildings in Nanjing’s Jiangbei New Area, 36 surveillance cameras in 12 groups with three angles to monitor all windows above the third floor were installed. The specific time and route of any objects falling to the ground will be recorded and stored. The cameras will only film the balcony exteriors and all homeowners were informed and gave permission.  

“The cameras mainly play a deterrent role which will be helpful to improve our management,” Yu Honglian, deputy general manager of the management center of Xinjiang Yayuan, told NewsChina. “We can pinpoint exactly who threw things out of the window, and the videos could be provided to the police if necessary.” 

According to the Big Data Center of Nanjing’s Jiangbei New Area, more residential communities are expected to install surveillance cameras as part of the smart community project built in the district if the cameras in the six pilot communities prove effective. 

Lawyer Chen Meng told our reporter that the problem of falling objects, particularly objects thrown from heights, is basically a moral issue. She recommended that authorities put strict criminal and administrative punishments on the statute books and at the same time strengthen moral education. 

“So many people think these actions don’t matter because they’re trivial. All citizens should form good habits and strengthen self-discipline and understand they need to be responsible,” she said.  

“Punishment and education should be given equal importance so we can address this urban ill.”