China is in the process of building the biggest economy in the world at a pace that is hard to bend your head around – this is a country where planning approval can take a few hours and a town containing 11 universities can be built in a couple of years. Rod Sweet spent 10 days in five cities finding out how they do it

Shanghai’s Maglev train, which takes an improbable seven minutes to travel 16 km
Shanghai’s Maglev train, which takes an improbable seven minutes to travel 16 km

Days one and two: Hong Kong

Arriving at our first destination, the purpose of the trip is revealed and we learn a remarkable statistic

I am walking through the Wan Chai district on Hong Kong Island, feeling lightly concussed. The city is a vast wet shopping mall inserted into a concrete canyon of apartment blocks and festooned with laundry as far as the eye can see. Streets are notional, everyone lives in the middle of a permanent crowd: old women, babies, smart office workers, children … and everybody does their living on the street. The air is dense with steam from cafes selling noodles or dumplings, the noise from printing works and metal fabricators, the smells from butchers and bakeries. And despite the press and heave, it’s weirdly tranquil: in the densest parts of Hong Kong, 200,000 people share one square kilometre, but they somehow make room for each other. After a little while it hits me: I’m in Asia.

I have been asked along in my capacity as editor of Construction Manager to report on the Chartered Institute of Building’s 10-day visit to China. With me are Geoff Wright, CIOB president and construction director of developer Hammerson, and Chris Blythe, the institute’s chief executive. The CIOB has more than 2500 members in the country and the Chinese see it as a source of knowledge about how to do construction in a market economy, as well as providing an internationally recognised qualification.

To this end we visit Hong Kong university, confer an honorary CIOB fellowship on a housing minister and attend the Building Manager of the Year Awards. These are, of course, held in a shopping mall. The presenter has to compete with a woman shouting into her mobile on an overhead mezzanine.

The next 24 hours are a jet-lagged blur of banquets and decorous audiences with officials. Dense squiggles in my notebook mark the points where I nod off. I’m waiting to enter the belly of the beast …

Day three: Shenzhen

Eating a raw jellyfish and meeting Liu Mengjiao

It only takes an hour by the car to leave the Hong Kong special administrative area. Past Kowloon, through the New Territories and the old fortified border, to Shenzhen. This used to be a fishing town of 70,000 but in 1980 Deng Xiaoping nominated it a special economic zone where Chinese labour met Hong Kong capital. He gave the free market free reign and boy, did it reign. Investment flowed in, and so did people, swelling the population to its current 7 million. On the way it developed a reputation as a heartless, cut-throat frontier town. Queasy about what it had spawned, the state embarked on a Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution in the rest of the country, during which time you could be executed for, among other things, dancing cheek to cheek. But it was also a place where ordinary Chinese could get rich.

Shenzhen seems new, big and random. It’s hard to tell the outskirts from the inskirts.

But I’m looking forward to meeting my first communist construction official. I want to see what it’s like when my industry and a world historical force (however spent) intersect.

And here he is: CIOB member Zou Guo Hua, director of the city’s municipal construction bureau, and he is not well. He has already cried off tonight’s banquet, but he receives us in his big, strip-lit office, where we’re invited to sit and drink green tea.

Also present is Liu Mengjiao, who is to be our translator for the trip. She is the CIOB’s country manager in mainland China. She’s 26, with a masters in construction management from Chongqing University. She beat more than 400 people to the job. It is easy to see why: Mengjiao has a reputation for nerve and astuteness, particularly when dealing with government departments.

That night we have raw lobster. It’s like eating transparent segments of sea orange. And lordy! who’d have thought there was so much gristle on a jellyfish

Zou says there are about 3000 construction projects under way in Shenzhen, paid for by £8bn of investment this year alone. His job, he tells us, is to make sure all the firms follow the rules. “There are a lot of different companies in Shenzhen, owned by the state, owned by the army, owned by private companies. Making all those companies act according to the regulations is a challenge,” he says.

I’m fascinated by the boundary between state and private sectors. The state is the principal construction client but then most contractors are state-owned enterprises, or SOEs as they’re known. In Shenzhen, about 70% of construction firms are state-owned in some way. I’ve heard they’re propped-up leviathans, but Zou gives a different picture. He says construction SOEs operate in a league system and you’ve got to be in the first division to get the best government jobs.

They honour contracts and have many qualified staff, but he admits some have tortuous decision-making procedures and are barnacled by retired staff clinging tenaciously to the payroll.

But if some SOEs lumber, the pace of building is still breakneck. Ever the client, Wright asks about planning. It seems that a process that takes 18 months in the UK takes three here. The secret is that the state owns the land and decides what to do with it. So Zou says his own department will approve a scheme in a day, and sometimes in a couple of hours. Wright’s eyes glint evilly.

But Zou admits there is a downside. “We are not paying enough attention to the planning stage. Some state projects don’t have enough time for detailed planning. They have a very general plan and do the detail after they start construction.”

Soon it’s time to leave him for the evening’s banquet back at the hotel. The host is CIOB fellow Bao Guangjian, the China Steel King, responsible for the the impossible-to-build China Central Television Tower in Beijing (more about that story on pages 50-51).

A word about banquets. You can’t get to know people here without them. And not many of their many courses resemble anything at your local takeaway. That night in Shenzhen we have raw lobster – so raw, in fact, that its claws are still clicking. It’s like eating transparent, skinned segments of sea orange. There is also raw jellyfish, and lordy! who’d have thought there was so much gristle in jellyfish? Gristlefish would be a more accurate name. The Chinese are pretty relaxed about food. If you don’t like the look of it, don’t eat it. As guest of honour, Wright is served personally by our host, and is offered the Dragon’s Head, a fish head that he surreptitiously crushes and then hides under his porcelain soup spoon.

That evening Shenzhen’s frontier soul shows itself. The hotel is the classiest in town: vast, empty, with a nine-hole crazy-golf course in the atrium. In the lobby we encounter two suited men, weaving with drink. One locks onto Mengjiao, who clicks smartly by as he barks at her. His more urbane companion pukes into a potted palm. While I interview Bao, Wright and Blythe take a walk around the block – where they are instantly beset by pimps and beggars, who tug their sleeves and pat their pockets. They beat a running retreat to the hotel bar, where three young women are singing Don’t it Make my Blown Eyes Brue.

We’ve had 16 hours in Shenzhen, which is more than enough to discover all over again what an irritating game crazy golf is. In the morning we fly to the central city of Chongqing. At the airport it pours and the shuttle-bus driver colludes with the China Eastern Airlines pilot to make us walk through a shin-deep puddle to board the plane.

Days four and five: Chongqing

We find out a little more about Chinese people by observing them going about their everyday lives

Here’s an interesting statistic: Greater Chongqing covers 32,500 square miles. If you want to know how big that is, imagine a city 50 times larger than London. It is presently home to 31 million people, and is growing faster than the (extremely rapid) national average, so if you don’t live there now, you soon will. Last year its economy grew 13%.

Chongqing came into its own as a provincial manufacturing centre, then in 1997 the state promoted it to the superleague of cities under central government’s direct control (the other three are Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin). This bumped up Chongqing’s status and bounced it down the development superhighway. There was a problem, however: it really needed a new central business district.

Zou says his own department will grant planning in a day, and sometimes in a couple of hours. Wright’s eyes glint evilly

The area chosen to build it was the Old Jiangbei Town quarter, which stands in about the same relation to centre of Chongqing centre as Bermondsey does to the City. And here we are, in the shuttle bus, picking our way through its muddy streets. The district appears to have been partially demolished while people are still living there – you can see right into the front rooms of the 1950s Soviet-style apartment blocks.

Jiangbei used to be home to 35,000 people, and the word is that 90% have been moved out. And yet every nook and cranny in is swarming with people. Old couples sit together in houses without doors or windows. A dozen ragged people bend over steaming bowls at a street kitchen. A woman perches on a heap of rubble hacking mortar off bricks. Across the River Yangtze, the spiky skyline of Chongqing stretches east and west until concealed by the curvature of the earth.

Our guide is Liu Gong, vice general manager of the municipal developer charged with delivering the 200 ha, £2bn commercial and cultural centre known Jiangbei Central Business District. He is also chair of the West China Branch of the CIOB. The CBD will be Mr Liu’s raison d’être for the next 15 years.

Back in project office, a promotional video features plenty of caressing angles of two towers planned for the centre of the city while a techno soundtrack loops in the background. A portentous American-accented voice explains that the twin themes of the development will be Memory and Future, but for 35,000 people who will have to be displaced, the main theme is the Past.

Liu admits it has been tough to move them. There has been resistance but the government sorts it. He says they built a town for them 10 km away and bussed them over to see it. Wouldn’t you rather live here, they were asked? Private toilets? Children’s playgrounds? Most agreed, but clearly some haven’t. They had better get moving, though, because demolition proper is scheduled to start soon.

In the UK, of course, it would be impossible to shift that many people in a year to make way for another Canary Wharf. But in China, grand uprootings are nothing new. From Liu’s perspective, although Jiangbei Town may have been home to 35,000, it sits on a patch of ground that is imperative to 35 million people.

The people we talk to here are senior and open, a rare combination. One of these is Li Shirong. She is a professor of construction management, and did a construction doctorate at Reading, but made the move to government two years ago. Now she’s vice mayor of Shapingba District, one of the 40 territories comprising greater Chongqing. As a construction client, this local authority is faster than a racing car. A typical project is a new “university town” covering 20 km2, soon to be home to 11 universities. Planning began in 2002. Farmers were relocated and contractors broke ground in June 2003. Already 10,000 students are living there. Thankfully, Li, who is also vice-president of the CIOB in China, is in the driver’s seat.

She says the state has a long way to go as a client. It lacks experience in anything but lowest-price tendering. Health and safety rules lack coherent legislative back-up. Disputes between developers and building users are ever more common and there are no techniques to resolve them. In short, they are doing a short-legged sprint to catch up with the pace set by the market.

Perhaps most crucially, the government lacks experience in project management. In the hands of inexperienced officials, projects veer off course. Even if you hire consultants, she says, you need to understand the process in order to get the most out of them.

“I was so worried,” she says of the time when she took the job as vice mayor. “I could not push projects forward or finish on time.”

Li’s got a secret weapon now, though. It’s called the Public Works Bureau, and comprises 15 or so state employees, construction managers, cost engineers, civil and structural engineers – a roving posse who can shepherd public projects from inception to design and construction.

Li says it would limit corruption, something for which ranking bureaucrats are regularly shot. According to official statistics, from 1998 to 2002, 846,000 Communist Party members were disciplined for corruption and 137,700 expelled. How will her PWB clean up the procurement process? She argues that corruption is more likely when you get unaccountable government officials dealing with a plethora of contractors and consultants. With one body handling design competitions, tendering, the whole bit, you get simplified, standardised procedures and, hopefully, transparency.

Days six to seven: Shanghai 

I’m also feeling funny about Sun’s colleague, who is not properly introduced, and who films every move we make

Putting a foot wrong and making a new friend

“So who’s getting rich in Shanghai?”

This is an indelicate question, apparently, because the lift, crammed with Chinese tourists descending from the heights of the Jinmao Tower, falls silent.

“Corrupt party officials,” someone at the back mutters in English.

Jack Sun, our host in Shanghai, and the person to whom I have addressed the question, looks away. I don’t get it. All he has talked about since he picked us up at the hotel this morning is what a fantastic investment Shanghai property is. He has even offered to fix an appointment with an estate agent. And yet I’ve just driven the conversation into a ditch. Does nobody officially get rich in the People’s Republic? Or is everyone just appalled by my brashness?

“It is sometimes difficult for me to answer,” Sun says quietly when we get outside. I’m grateful because I feel stupid, and I don’t want to put him in an awkward position. I’m also feeling funny about Sun’s colleague, who is not properly introduced, and who films every move we make.

Mengjiao has clouded over. She’s watching for fallout and I realise her position is awkward. This depresses me. But later she accosts me in a market as I’m trying to conclude a purchase. It seems I have committed the sin of failing to haggle. The air crackles with hostility as she rebukes the shop assistant, shooing my money back into my wallet. “Next time, Rod, speak to me first,” she says. I submit, and for the next 30 minutes the presidential party is made to follow her as she searches for silk dresses, which she finds, and procures for a small fraction of the price I was going to pay.

Shanghai yields her secrets in other ways.

We spend an hour with Geoff Mills, an engineer who has helped foreign investors set up in China since 1993. From where he sits, China’s global dominance is inevitable.

Foreign investors go through distinct phases, he says. First, they’re here for the cheap labour. Next they see that the guys on the production line are brighter and better connected than they expected and they start to suggest ways of sourcing components here. Then the firms shift all the clever bits here because Chinese graduates are better educated, work harder and earn a quarter of what Westerners do. “When that happens on a big scale the question will be whether there are enough jobs at Tesco for our kids in the UK,” he says.

That’s why Wayne Fitton, property vice president for B&Q in China, doesn’t want to go home. B&Q has 22 stores now and plans a further aggressive expansion. We catch him at the Shanghai headquarters and ask how long it will be before China’s economy outstrips the UK’s. “If I were to throw a guess at it I’d say five to seven years,” he says. “But things change so fast here it could be three.”

But life is tough for small, private firms in construction, as I discover at a reception for new CIOB members. While the Great Wall wine is flowing, I meet a perspiring young architect desperate to meet UK firms. Seagle Hu started as an architect in Shanghai, went to Hong Kong for several years and when he came back found he was out of the loop.

His company resorted to landscape design because there was a market for it and it seemed a way of getting closer to developers and consultants.

When the main contractors come to meet us, they ignore the injured man. When Blythe mentions him, they brush off the comment

He’s got big plans but lacks cash flow and has 40 people on the payroll. I say that’s everybody’s problem when they start. He replies that things are stacked against you here. For one thing, he’s up against competitors prepared to bribe. For another, you can’t get paid. In four years of trading, he’s owed 5 million yuan (£300,000) by dodgy clients, including public bodies. That’s a lot considering his turnover is 3 million yuan.

He says there is no point suing because the decisions are rarely enforced. “This is the true situation of the private design company.”

So, here it is: Chinese designer WLTM British firms for resource blending and deeper penetration of Chinese market. That’s Seagle Hu, Creative Vision, tel +86-21-6345 3483.

Days eight to ten: Beijing


A visit to the 2008 Olympic stadium site, and we learn a new word

It’s our last day before heading back and we’re going to a construction site! Better yet, it’s the famous Bird’s Nest stadium of Herzog & de Meuron and Arup, the showpiece for the 2008 Olympiad. We haven’t been to an actual live site yet. Maybe it’s sensitivity over health and safety and workers’ conditions. It seems to be one of those things not offered.

Anyway, here we go. And China’s biggest expert on build-operate-transfer (BOT) in sports facilities is driving. He is Qiu Chuang, a chief engineer in the government’s premier consulting body and chairman of CIOB North China. He’s 37, speaks English, and he is lost.

Two years ago the authorities rethought how to procure the Olympic facilities, focusing not just on the visual impact and basic specs, but also on the long-term operational viability. Assisted by some international consultancy, they adopted BOT as the model to reduce the state’s investment risk, and Qiu has spent the past two years finding BOT partners.

We finally arrive at the site, and as we park outside the gate we see eight workers carrying an injured colleague on an improvised stretcher, possibly a door. They set him down beside the road to wait for an ambulance. Blythe believes the man has a broken leg from the angle of his foot. When CITIC, the main contractors for the National Stadium come to meet us, the atmosphere is uncomfortable. They ignore the injured man and when Blythe mentions it, they brush away the comment and shepherd us to the site headquarters.

Safety is a burgeoning issue in China. Of the 40 million or so construction workers in the country, many are recent arrivals from rural areas, untrained and semi-literate. In Shanghai, Wright had the nerve to ask a senior official about the accident rate. The answer was that last year in the city, with about 2 million people working in construction, 100 died. That’s not far off the UK’s fatality rate. The official added quickly that the figure was a 20% improvement on the year before. I find this hard to believe. One Shanghai contractor had already told us that accidents are not reported if it can be got away with.

Everyone relaxes a little as we take our place around the board table. CITIC’s chief engineer on the project, Wu Zhixin FCIOB, launches into a brisk report. The nest effect will be achieved with steel: 24 primary box girders 1200 mm wide, with secondary members attached irregularly. Wu Zhixin says the curling and twisting will make fabricating the 42,000 tonnes of steel risky. It will be fabricated off site, which will take six to nine months, and installation is planned to take 370 days. They broke ground on Christmas Eve 2004 and they expect to finish by New Year’s Eve 2007.

Finally we get on site. It’s very quiet. From a distance comes faint hammering as labourers chisel away at pile caps. We’re told there are 1000 workers building the substructure on day and night shifts. It will peak at 5000 in October. Wright registers the scene with the cool eye of a client, and I rely on his impressions to convey what we saw. In no particular order, here they are:

  • The pile caps workers are removing without the aid of power tools are between 1 m and 2 m high, which seems a waste. Miscalculation or design change?
  • Apart from a few tower cranes, there is no mechanical plant. In the UK there would be compressors making a racket and diggers and dumpers whizzing around. Evidence of China’s inexhaustible labour force?
  • There are no temporary lighting rigs in sight, which you’d expect if they run a night shift. Maybe they use big torches?
  • The site is very tidy but some falling hazards wouldn’t be allowed back home.
  • The workers are housed in a compound on the far side of the site. We can just make it out, and are curious as to conditions inside.
  • The programme makes sense, but the joint venture has split the construction as if it’s a big cake, so CITIC, for instance, does one-third of the concrete, half the steel and membrane roof, three-quarters of the finish, and so on. Wright says the last time he saw this was at a German shopping centre 15 years ago. It leads to potential problems in handover, split responsibility and joining all the bits together.

Then it’s lunchtime. I had requested we eat in the site canteen to witness life for ordinary people. However, our hosts usher us to the management cafeteria, which is deserted, and lead us to a large round table, borrowed from a restaurant, laid with a fancy cloth and set sumptuously. The chef brings out six dishes. Three are on the usual menu for the workers and three – Sichuan spicy beef, baked fish with garlic and ginger, and fresh steamed vegetables – are just for us. Great Wall wine, the patriot’s tipple, flows.

Formal drinking in China takes the form of one-to-one toasts, and if the initiator proclaims “Gambei!” you drain your glass as a sign of mutual trust and affection. It’s exhilarating. There is plenty of laughter. Mengjiao, exhausted and nursing a sore throat after criss-crossing the country translating, haggling and mopping up after us, has been hit with a few gambeis and is helpless with laughter, presumably brought on by relief at our impending departure – mouth wide behind her hand and a tear zigzagging down her cheek. We leave in high spirits, wishing CITIC good luck.

The China trip