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On a Saturday morning in September, prospective homebuyers thronged the sales office for Fun City, a community of high-rises under construction on Beijing’s outskirts. Whether the buildings will still be standing a half-century from now is anybody’s guess. In July, massive flooding raised questions about the fitness of this low-lying stretch of land for dense development. Local media reported that properties adjacent to Fun City experienced water-logged basements, while parts of the nearby G-4 superhighway were submerged. At least 77 people died—many of them drowned in their cars—in part because of inadequate or clogged drainage systems.
Nearly every month brings news of an infrastructure failure, dramatic or mundane. In August a new $300 million eight-lane suspension bridge in Harbin collapsed, sending four trucks tumbling and leaving three dead. In 2009 a nearly completed building in Shanghai toppled like a domino because its foundation was inadequate. The U.K.’s Telegraph reported that within months of opening last year, the $210 million Guangzhou Opera House began to shed its glass window panels and developed large cracks in its ceiling. Last year writer Evan Osnos chronicled on his New Yorker blog the premature decline of his courtyard house: “When the rainy season hit Beijing, our house began to show its age. About four years old, to be precise.”
All of this is at odds with the image overseas of China winning the “infrastructure race,” as the headline of an Aug. 24 online story from Foreign Policy put it. China’s structural woes stem in part from the government’s focus on quantity of growth over quality. The idea is to employ as many workers as possible. Wang Mengshu, deputy chief engineer at China Railway Tunnel Group, says that rather than use advanced technology to carve out railroad tunnels, the group often prefers to hire millions of pairs of hands “to solve the national employment problem.”
Officials admit there are challenges. At a forum on green building in 2010, Deputy Minister of Construction Qiu Baoxing said, “Every year, new buildings in China total up to 2 billion square meters and use up to 40 percent of the world’s cement and steel, but our buildings can only stand 25 to 30 years on average.” U.S. commercial buildings are expected to stand for 70 to 75 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
For residential and commercial developments, architectural design and construction phases are typically allotted half the time as in the U.S., says Beijing-based landscape architect Paul Maksy. “With such a rapid pace of construction, there’s often relatively little monitoring of standards,” says Stephen Hammer, a lecturer in energy planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has worked in China.
Poor materials can cause problems: The collapse of school buildings in the wake of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake was due in part to the use of low-quality cement, resulting in so-called tofu buildings. “When cement is mixed inadequately or when other materials are mixed in, it’s not very strong, so any major storm or stress on a building could make it fall down,” says Francis Cheung, author of brokerage firm CLSA’s 2012 report, China’s Infrastructure Bubble. In 2011 the government issued guidelines on materials. “There is a movement toward compliance with international building codes and standards,” says MIT’s Hammer. “But implementation and oversight remain extremely variable.”
Cutting corners won’t be a sound long-term economic strategy for China if its buildings, bridges, and roads degrade rapidly and require fairly frequent replacement. Says Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management: “If you have an asset that lasts for 20 or 30 years instead of twice as long, it has a much shorter earning life before you have to refurbish or tear it down.” Robert Blohm, an economist and consultant for Keen Resources Asia in Beijing, says China could get “stuck”: “Will China still be able to pay for another round of infrastructure development—or will its cities become landscapes of dilapidated buildings?” he asks.
For now, the cash spigot is open. In early September, China announced plans to build more than 1,200 miles of roads, nine sewage-treatment plants, five ports, and 25 subway and intercity rail projects. “In an economic slowdown, the government has to take some countercyclical measures,” Xu Lin, head of the planning department at the National Development and Reform Commissions, told reporters.
The bottom line: Chinese buildings last 25 to 30 years, while U.S. commercial buildings are expected to stand for 70 to 75 years.