The Collapse of China

It’s not what you think…

From Martyn…

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…)

The Discussion: 28 Comments

True. In 1976 Tangshan earthquake killed 240,000 people (official figure)……

August 26, 2005 @ 12:35 am | Comment

That’s one figure that truly frightens me. In those days (i.e. the 70s) lifts/elevators were almost unheard of in China so most buildings were restricted to 8 floors. Although I believe 4-storey residential buildings were the norm.

I’m now looking out of my window at the Guangzhou skyline. On my estate alone there about 18 x 28-floor apartment blocks.

August 26, 2005 @ 12:42 am | Comment

I visited Tianjin in 1979. Much of the city was still devastated from that earthquake. Though as Martyn points out, many of the older, concession-era buildings rode it out pretty well.

That experience, and watching some of the first high-rises go up in Beijing, and how they were being built, convinced me that if I ever do live in China again, there is no way I will live in one of those high-rises. I live in Los Angeles now, and I know what earthquakes can do.

August 26, 2005 @ 12:54 am | Comment

Err, yes. Well, I do live a highrise, and does give me some pause. I also work in one. So pretty much, I spend 22 hours a day in highrises (minus commute).

Things age quickly here, in style and substance. The super-swank Jianwai Soho development was still under construction when I moved here, 15 months ago. Today the formerly gleaming exterior already looks grey and seedy.

But at least it’s still standing upright. For now.

August 26, 2005 @ 1:34 am | Comment

The first place I ever lived here, the Foreign Students Building at People’s University of China (the finest building on Campus) was pretty bleak. Rough stained concrete floors, cracked plaster, rusted and warped window frames, tiles falling off the exterior etc. We all thought it was built in the 50’s — same time as the rest of the university.

No, it was built in 1984, a mere 8 years before we moved in.

As you say Will, buildings age incredibly quickly here. It’s the quality of the materials and the speed at which it’s built in most cases.

August 26, 2005 @ 1:49 am | Comment

I wonder how much of it can also be attributed to the caustic levels of pollution?

And if that’s what the pollution does to concrete, imagine what it does to one’s lungs…

2 days to Beijing…goody

August 26, 2005 @ 3:07 am | Comment

Having worked in construction for several years let me just say that the way they construct buildings here scares the living hell out of me.

Several months back a lady from New Zealand bought a new ‘apartment’ in a nearby city and she wanted me to supervise the electrical work since I used to be an electrician. So, I took a bus out to have a look at her place.

Since she had just bought the place it was nothing more than a grey concrete cave. Some of the basic electrical stuff had already been roughed in and ‘roughed in’ takes on a whole new meaning in this case.

As with just about all buildings in China, the walls were constructed of poorly laid bricks that are held together with a shoddy mortar mixture which is also smeared over the surface of the bricks to give an appearance of a poured concrete wall. If an earthquake of any magnitude over a 6 on the Richter scale ever hit most of these places they would be reduced to sand in a heart beat.

Anyway, I started looking at the electrical work that had already been roughed in and I just couldn’t believe the lack of quality and total disregard for safety that these knuckle heads had put on display. I mean, we’re talking about electrical lines running under water pipes, nothing was set for grounding, no wire nuts were used to make joint connections, no junction boxes and my favorite was the switch legs. Apparently the forgot to run a piece of conduit up the wall for light so they just took a chisel and chipped out a small trench to lay the wire in. Then they covered the wire over with mortar. This was done in multiple places.

At any rate, the lady didn’t want to pay me what I was asking for the job so it continued on as it started. I only hope she doesn’t end up getting electrocuted while taking a shower.

As for my own apartment, damn. I can’t wait to get out of this death trap and not just because of the rats either (which I think I have successfully gotten rid of).

A couple of months after we moved in I noticed the lights would grow slightly dimmer for a few moments and then return to their normal brilliance. Usually this happens when you activate another appliance that draws a considerable amount of power, but since that wasn’t the case here I became suspicious. Then one day I smelled hot wiring and I called the office. They came up and told me it was my imagination. Then a couple of weeks later the power went out and they had to come up check the breakers since the box can only be accessed by management. The ‘electrician’ shows up, takes a look in the panel and resets the breaker, but in the meantime I have taken notice of the charred plastic around the main breaker and the melted wires where the lines feed in. I pointed this out to the man and told him it must be the reason for the lights dimming in our apartment at times, but he assumed that I didn’t know what I was talking about and continued closing the box. I stopped him and took his screw driver to check the connection and upon doing so I discovered that the main lugs were loose which was causing an arch between the breaker and the wire which was also causing the wire and the plastic moulding around the breaker to melt which was the reason I had been smelling hot wiring. I told the man that the main service breaker should be replaced because it had been damaged from the loose connection and the arching. He told me it was because I had been using too much electricity.

It was all I could do to keep from laughing in his face. That surely surely qualified for stupidest comment of the year because there is no way in hell that you can use more electricity than is available. Besides, I don’t use anything in my apartment that requires high voltage or amperage.

Anyway, he left and when I told my wife about it she said “oh then we shouldn’t use so much energy”. Somebody please fucking shoot me. Bless her heart, she’s just naive and accustomed to believing everything authorities tell her. Thankfully she came around after I explained everything to her in a long and tiring discussion.

All went well for a couple of weeks and then the power went out. I call down to the office and sparky comes back up to have a look. Opens the box, looks around and says “you need to have that main service breaker replaced, it’s gone bad. I figured it wouldn’t do me any good to remind the little genius that I pointed that out a couple of fucking weeks ago. Then of course he told me the cause of the problem – I had been using too much electricity. I just looked at him and nodded my head.

So, they replaced the main service breaker and ever since our electric bill has been running suspiciously higher.

Also, we can’t seem to keep a freaking light bulb longer than a week. Sometimes when I hit the switch to turn on the lights in the bathroom, one of the bulbs blows and throws the main circuit breaker to the entire apartment. You’d think sparky would get suspicious as to why the breaker keeps tripping, but noooope. He’s clueless as the day he was born.

I just replaced the light bulb above the stove yesterday and when I opened the door to the refrigerator, the light inside blew out.


August 26, 2005 @ 3:37 am | Comment

haha..I think my comment/rant might have been longer than the original posting.

August 26, 2005 @ 3:38 am | Comment

Oh yeah, speaking of electrical issues…I had a post on that topic awhile back.

August 26, 2005 @ 3:47 am | Comment

Well, Taiwan still has its share of shoddy construction, despite the claims of the original post. But I trust Taiwan buildings any day over China buildings.

On September 21, 1999, a 7.8 quake in the north-center of the island killed 2,000 people. A lot of the reason was due to shoddy construction. However, when you think that, by far, the greatest concentration of Taiwan’s 23 million people live in the north, 2,000 for a 7.8 quake that hit close to Taipei and Taichung is not bad. I can’t imagine the catastrophe in a PRC city.

I only know that when I was living in Lanzhou, my newly remodeled apartment in an old building was starting to fall apart after 8 months. In contrast, if you go into most residential areas in Taipei, the buildings…even the newer ones look incredibly solid. My current building is about 15 years old. There are some hairline settling cracks only. The last building I lived in was about 30 years old. Once again, only hairline cracks from settling at most. After years of earthquakes, and other abuse, the buildings look a little dirty, but they are solid.

I’m not sure exactly what the earthquake restrictions are here, but I know that if Taipei has few buildings over 20 stories, that is the major reason. People fear earthquakes here…rightfully so.

August 26, 2005 @ 4:07 am | Comment

One thing we must consider is that one does not buy property in China. One rents the rights to the space for a period of, I believe, 60 years.

Why spend good money on a good product if you have to hand it over to someone else later on?

August 26, 2005 @ 6:57 am | Comment

Gordon. That NZ lady, you gave her a price for your supervision fees to make sure the wiring was installed properly and safely and she turned round and said “No thanks”? Is that what you’re saying? What was that about? If she’d purchased the property then why was she able to accept the kind of job done, as you describe above by the contractorS? Was she nuts?

When you buy a newly-built property here it’s, as you say, just a bare shell. There are two things which are vital, the wiring and plumbing. I’m shocked that anyone would want to “save” money on the electrics. A real false economy, and bloody dangerous as well.

August 26, 2005 @ 9:57 am | Comment

Martyn, I would have had to travel back and forth from Chengdu to her city (2 hours) on the weekend while sleeping in her “shell” during the week to supervise the work.

I quoted her a price of 20,000rmb and for that I would have been doing a lot of the work myself. I told her that wasn’t sure how to price things in the local currency and she told me that she was thinking in Western currency, but apparently I priced myself out of a job even though it was far cheaper than it would have cost her in the West. get what you pay for…or dont.

August 26, 2005 @ 11:43 am | Comment

Martyn, the last line of your comment strikes a strong tone.

I have often said that China’s economy is very similar to its buildings. (looks good on the outside, but have you actually seen how its built?)

August 26, 2005 @ 11:46 am | Comment

I wonder how much of it can also be attributed to the caustic levels of pollution?

Given that, up until the mid-1900’s, London had some of the worst pollution ever known on the planet, I think that effect is probably small compared to the other causes already mentioned.

Corruption is inevitable in any closed society. This may not have been much of a problem when the society was at the horse-drawn-cart level (how bad can things go, after all?), but it gets bloody dangerous when the society is building 20-story buildings.

Hmmm… I’m all set to pour a concrete slab in my back yard this weekend, and now you’ve got me all nervous…

August 26, 2005 @ 1:23 pm | Comment

After living many years in San Francisco, before I moved to Shanghai I checked on the likelihood of quakes. Unlikely. No shakin’ round here, just a little subsidence issue…

Gordon, I’ve also seen those chiselled channels, and cemented plumbing as well. Aiyah! I have also seen those apartment “redecorations” where tenants knock down walls, sometimes what appear to me to be load-bearing walls!! Now THAT’S worrisome!

My building is about three years old. No problems with water or electricity (knock on some safe substance), although a few “Chinese characteristics” (oddly placed light switches, screws not long enough to hold handles on drawers, etc).

What really caught my attention was the paint. When I moved in I had all the walls painted, and used American Levis brand. 2.5 years later, the walls still look great. But the ceiling, with it’s original Chinese paint, looks like it’s more like 40 years old, already peeling off in big chunks in one room.

I guesss I should be glad that the ceiling is still on the *top* of the room … :-0

August 27, 2005 @ 12:50 am | Comment

I agree with Rob two comments above. I’m not convinced that pollution has any direct effect on the buildings here.

One thing that does worry me is the constant flooding here in Guangzhou. Other GZ residents will tell you, it only needs to rain heavily for an hour or two before many of the drains here start backing-up.

The big typhoon in 1999, that swamped the entire city with water, really did expose the inadequacy of the drainage system here. However, six years later I am yet to see any evidence that this problem has been addressed, even partly addressed.

I don’t think the underground drainage system even makes the city government’s list of priorities and, admittedly, it would be very expensive to overhaul but the city will pay a high price by just leaving it.

Regular flooding plays havoc with both building foundations, roads, pavements etc. The longer the local goverment leave it, the worse it will get and the more costly it will be to repair.

August 27, 2005 @ 1:13 am | Comment

Gordon, exactly. My old would sometimes take me to the scene of fires. In Britain, it was common to see a serious fire leave a building “gutted” (i.e. just leave the empty brick and mortar shell) but here most fires that I’ve seen collapse the building. This is obviously directly related to the quality of the construction.

August 27, 2005 @ 1:16 am | Comment

Sorry, should have wrote “My old JOB would sometimes take me..”

August 27, 2005 @ 1:17 am | Comment

Absolutely amazing post! My wife has been pressuring me to purchase a condominium in Vietnam in Nha Trang,and we’re not exactly virgins (previous purchase experience in the Caibbean), but this topic and posts have definitely reawakened my sensitivity to the otherwise arcane subject of construction codes and their implementation (or lack thereof). Martyn, my sincere thanks. We only have ourselves to blame if anything goes wrong.

August 27, 2005 @ 10:16 am | Comment

After a week of apartment hunting in Beijing my most shocking experience was being shown a room that wasn’t finished! I mean these buildings aren’t even completed before they start moving people in. Thankfully I chose to live on the 20th floor of a probably equally poorly constructed building so the thought of it collapsing will give me sweet dreams at night.

August 27, 2005 @ 6:37 pm | Comment

Thankfully I chose to live on the 20th floor of a probably equally poorly constructed building so the thought of it collapsing will give me sweet dreams at night.

Well look at the bright side: There are 19 floors to break your fall. 🙂

August 27, 2005 @ 8:39 pm | Comment

lirelou, thanks for your kind words, they are much appreciated…and from such a respected TPD commenter as well!

Previous purchase experiences in the Caribbean? My line of work used to take me to the Caribbean most summers after the hurricanes (I was there last winter). One AMAZING thing about houses in the Caribbean is that many of them DO NOT have a roof-beam! (That’s what joins the roof to the walls). The roof just sat on the walls! That’s why when a hurricane comes along, the entire roof structure goes.

Where did you buy property in the Caribbean. I’ve intimate knowledge of the properties in Jamaica, Antigua, Bahamas, Grenada, Cayman, Barbados, Petit Martinique, St Kitts & Nevis etc.

August 28, 2005 @ 2:10 am | Comment

By the way, lirelou, why would you consider buying a condo in Vietnam? You live there or would it be an investment?

Sorry, I don’t want to pry, but for investment purchases, I still think that Bangkok, Hua Hin and Pattaya/Jomtien have the best bargains. Decent construction as well.

August 28, 2005 @ 2:25 am | Comment

The Collapse of China

Stealing the title from The Peking Duck, it is exactly what I fear. And my reply whenever someone says that I should consider buying a place in Beijing. I really don’t know whether the building would still be standing in 10 years time.

September 2, 2005 @ 7:40 am | Comment

I would like as much information on China as
possible., on the government, on the real
estate, the land, the cost of buying income
property in China, what kind of rents can
I get. I would like information on apartment
buildings in China that have say 250 to 2500
Very Truly Yours
Margaret Cabral

May 12, 2006 @ 12:18 am | Comment

[…] The Collapse of China : stories of new luxury buildings falling apart and how much of the construction is built on fault lines […]

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