It’s not what you think…
China seems to be a country currently under construction. Gaze at any city skyline in the PRC, particularly Beijing, and you’ll need to remove your socks and shoes in order to fully count the number of construction cranes that loom across the horizon. China’s cities, with their newly-approved underground train extensions, apartment complexes shooting up like mushrooms after spring rain, new roads, flyovers and shopping malls, especially shopping malls, have turned urban China into one big construction site.
It’s probably no surprise that the majority of China’s Central Committee (‘Politburo’) are engineers. While socialist China essentially started from nothing over 2 decades ago that still doesn’t fully explain how, in 2005, fixed asset investment is still a ridiculously high 53% of GDP. China currently uses more than two-fifths of the world’s annual output of cement, one-third of its iron ore and one-quarter of its lead and steel.
To put China’s building boom into perspective, in 1985, the city of Shanghai only had one single tall building, 20 years later, it now has at least 3,000 high-rise buildings with another 2,000 planned. No wonder the entire city (Shanghai is built on a drained swamp) is sinking at an astonishing rate of 1.5cm per year.
Driving around Guangzhou, it never ceases to amaze me just how quickly these new buildings are going up. In only a couple of weeks, a building under construction would normally have added several stories to its height. Migrant workers scurry about like ants. Time is money.
The problem is, however, a lot of those pretty buildings and apartment complexes are coming down almost as quickly as they go up. Like so much in China, it’s a case of style over substance. A glossy façade hides a rotten core.
An apartment block opposite where I used to live in Guangzhou, with shops occupying the ground floor used to have chunks of concrete rendering drop off the frontal elevation every few weeks. One time it even made the local Southern Metropolitan News after a chunk of concrete the size of a small car fell from the 10th floor. The chunk left a small crater in the pavement below. It was only sheer luck that no one was killed.
While Mainland Chinese people have many admirable qualities, civic responsibility and a strict adherence to the laws of the land are, in many cases, not among them. The name of the game for the big developers and local governments is making money. Infrastructure projects as well as private developments are the heavyweights of Chinese corruption. Skimmed off money, kickbacks, bribes, inferior building materials and an over-riding attitude that everything must be done at the lowest possible price in the fastest possible time.
How long will most of these buildings last? Millions of people in London still live in Victorian-era housing. Indeed, much of the British capital is still serviced by underground drains and pipes installed when Charles Dickens was still alive. Here in China, buildings start falling apart after 10 years. The natural settlement of the soil is usually enough to cause cracks in the cheap building materials, inadequate and poorly laid foundations and weak concrete mixes.
Recently, a friend of mine was enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon in his expensive Guangzhou apartment when suddenly the entire living room ceiling collapsed. Fortunately, the only damage came from his girlfriend who, amazingly, took great exception to the fact that he took more interest in his new plasma television than he did of her. Trying to diffuse matters by reminding her much it cost was a mistake I think. Following this incident the neighbours informed the couple that similar incidents had been occurring all over the estate. As well as bits of the building literally falling apart, the electrical wiring in several apartments had also packed in. Not good for an 18-month old building of ‘executive’ apartments.
My biggest worry, however, concerns natural disasters. Over 200 Chinese cities are located in zones at risk of a Richter scale ‘magnitude 7’ earthquake or higher. Twenty cities are in a ‘magnitude 8’ risk earthquake zone. Beijing is situated along the North China Yanshan fault. We have entered a period of relatively high earthquake risk. More than 100 medium and large cities are below the flood stage of rivers. China has some of the worst windstorms in the world. Risk in cities with the rapid rush to modernization many poorly constructed houses are at special risk for fire or other accidents.
Japan and Taiwan, two countries that suffer frequent earthquakes, have, for the most part, buildings regulations that are strictly adhered to. Indeed, only the very strongest recent earthquakes have caused any widespread property damage. In China, the buildings tend to fall down by themselves. The shoddy buildings throughout China could easily result in mass slaughter if a decent earthquake was to hit any Chinese urban area. It doesn’t even bear thinking about.
(Other Lisa’s note: you’ll appreciate the irony that Martyn has been trying to get this post to TPD for the last two days – but his electricity kept going out…)