March 27, 2003

Learning a lesson from booming China

  • We need to take on more risk to build infrastructure
    The Klinkam Co.

    city’s latest skyscraper
    From Shanghai’s Bund riverfront promenade, the tallest building in China can be seen on the right while the city’s latest skyscraper rises to the left.

    Radically new skylines in Beijing and Shanghai. Cities aglow from electrical power and the unbroken queue of headlights on the freeways. Shopping malls packed shoulder to shoulder with patrons lining up to take an escalator. First rate, 4- and 5-star hotels abound. The Three Gorges Dam, one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken, now nearing completion.

    All of this just an ambitious plan about 15 years ago, China is now on the move.

    The United States, and those of us in Seattle specifically, should take notice that China is going nowhere but up in the foreseeable future. Theirs is a growth curve defying comparison.

    By way of our geographic location, Seattle is afforded a unique opportunity to play a major role in China’s growth through the import and export of goods and services. Our success or failure in this endeavor will be largely determined by how effectively and efficiently we are able to move goods from our ports and transport ourselves through and out of the Puget Sound region.

    To fully maximize the opportunities beckoning from China’s 21st century renaissance, Seattle must be an efficient and exciting city in which to live and do business.

    Quality of life in a city is compatible with growth and density. Not only can we benefit economically as a trading partner, we can learn from their successes in building their infrastructure and revitalizing their cities in such a short time. China’s measure and means of success may be arguable, but the point for our consideration is that they do have these significant projects completed or under construction.

    First-hand experience

    Just a few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit China for the first time as part of a small group of community college presidents and administrators. Their mission was to seek out alliances and trans-Pacific program exchanges. As a construction manager, mine was to learn as much as I could about the similarities and differences between Chinese and American culture, especially as it applied to urban development and large construction projects.

    I was not disappointed.

    Daoist temple
    A gateway to a centuries-old Daoist temple near Chongqing on the Yangtze River. This temple will not be harmed by the raised river of the Three Gorges Dam project.

    My investigations generated a number of memorable encounters and conversations. The built environment in China, both old and new, is massive. The country is pulsating with energy, a gravitational pull drawing me deeply into answering the question: “How can this be?”

    The following are some of my observations from this visit.

    Rich history

    China’s culture is a remarkably ancient one, particularly when compared to that of the United States. The founding of the Qin Dynasty (pronounced Chin), 221-206 B.C., is viewed by many to have the same social and political significance as our Declaration of Independence in 1776 or the British Magna Carta in 1215. This cultural longevity permeates every aspect of modern life in China — be it socially, politically, spiritually or economically — and how China expresses itself through the built environment.

    Three Gorges Dam

    The construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River near the city of Wuhan will raise the water level of the river nearly 175 meters over a 400-mile stretch in the next five years. The raising of the river’s geographic elevation has already begun.

    Budgeted at some $25 billion, this controversial project will accomplish three major objectives for the 200 million people who live in its watershed, China’s agricultural breadbasket. First, it will be possible for the first time in history to successfully implement flood control over the waters that periodically ravage the community and farms down river. Thousands of lives are lost each decade to the floods.

     Old and new buildings
    Old and new buildings blend together in the city of Harbin.

    Second, a year-round navigable waterway will be created from the river port city of Chongqing (population 32 million) to the city of Wuhan, 400 miles upstream.

    Finally, hydroelectric power will be generated to serve burgeoning cities and modernized manufacturing. Since 1990, China’s population of 1.3 billion people has disproportionately migrated to the big cities, with the metropolitan populations increasing from 300 million to 500 million in the last 13 years.

    The significance of the Three Gorges Dam project is enormous not just in its size and scope but in the fact that the Chinese, a society deeply bound to tradition and heritage, have embraced this project as essential to their viability as a nation.

    The Chinese recognize the tremendous social and economic impact of the displacement of over 1.2 million people along the affected stretch of river. The government has demolished over a dozen cities along the path of the rising waters and is relocating the former residents to entirely new cities constructed nearby on higher ground.

    No less significant is the choice to forever cede hundreds of archeological sites to the rising waters, as well as many ancestral sites of irreplaceable importance to the flooded communities.

    Certainly there are tremendous losses in this endeavor, both on an individual human scale and on the greater cultural balance.

    A project of this engineering magnitude and with these cultural repercussions would generate very tough choices in any society. However, many of the affected people with whom I spoke acknowledged the overall benefit and need to move forward with the project.

    It would appear that the Chinese are able to accept risk and hard loss to accomplish what is believed to be for the greater good of the nation. They do not embrace an illusion that “fairness” to each individual is achievable. This point of view expresses a social consciousness steeped in the pragmatic and moralist teachings of the great Chinese philosopher Confucius.

    A history of change

    Great projects as well as great change are characteristic of Chinese history — one often heralding the other. Take for example the unification of warring provinces and Chinese national unification during the first Chinese Dynasty under the Emperor Qin. His effort to consolidate and protect the newly formed empire is evidenced today by the Great Wall of China, constructed by some 700,000 laborers conscripted from the rural countryside.

    Century-old Russian/European architectural styles can be found in the city of Harbin near the Russian border — along with popular American KFC franchises.

    The vast work of linking a series of separate protective walls surrounding the newly unified provinces into one continuous 4,000-mile barrier protecting China from northern invaders is considered one of mankind’s greatest works. This wall of unparalleled magnitude, together with the construction of his personal mausoleum with its thousands of buried life-size terra cotta soldiers, ultimately broke the back of the rural peasant tax base. Revered today as symbols of China’s rich cultural heritage, they nonetheless brought about the violent overthrow of Emperor Qin’s dynasty upon his death.

    China’s history over the past 2,000 years is highlighted by the rise and collapse of empires and dynasties, both by internal and external forces. Theirs is a history rich in the telling of forced relocations and wholesale destruction of capital cities. And much like the seasonal flooding of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, there has also arisen and fallen the flow of imperial treasuries.

    Cataclysmic social upheavals of the past century include the Japanese invasion, the rise and fall of Nationalist China, and the creation of Mao’s Peoples Republic in 1949 with the social and economic devastation brought about by his Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. These intrinsically Chinese events, eras and epochs have forged a society accustomed to hardship and have given rebirth to a China driven to regain its national identity and world recognition as an economic and cultural power.

    Modern China

    The economic resurgence is dramatically demonstrated in the city of Shanghai. Its skyline resembles a field of tower cranes, referred to by the locals as the “national bird of China.” The city is now enlaced by a freeway system that was nonexistent in 1990. Blocks of traditional turn-of-the-century row houses are being leveled for new highrise apartments, parks, office buildings and malls.

    Historic preservation is not forgotten and is pursued selectively with some beautifully restored residential communities undergoing renovation and gentrification.

    Drained swampland directly across the river from Shanghai’s famous riverfront promenade, “The Bund,” has been transformed. What was once a collection of rundown industrial properties is now a collection of some of the most impressive architecture in Asia, including China’s tallest building at 85 stories. Also new are the $200 million Shanghai Performing Arts Center and the equally new Shanghai Museum of Art.

    The city of Beijing has installed 40 kilometers of subway in the last decade and is committed to an additional 360 kilometers before the 2008 Olympic Games. Sporting a number of beautiful new buildings and public facilities including hotels, public parks and modern freeways, the city also showcases Beijing International Airport, nonexistent just 10 years ago.

    Fengdu, one of about a dozen cities being razed to make way for the raising of the Yangtze River starting this year. They are aptly named “The City of Ghosts.”

    I believe the Chinese have a firm lock on the future they want for their country. During my time in China, I quickly recognized a nation that is physically pulling its future toward it. It is doing so with sufficient respect for the tradition that is uniquely Chinese, and with care for the preservation of long-honored cultural values; but not to the detriment of the future it desires for its people.

    Comparing Seattle

    Consider our decades-long struggle for light rail, freeway expansion, bridge improvements and other essential infrastructure to make Seattle more livable and competitive.

    I question if we have gone too far pursuing “process” and the unrealistic goal of making sure there are no short-term losses before undertaking essential projects. The paradox is that here in the United States, with capitalism and democracy our lifeblood, we seem to make great efforts to minimize and avoid risk — perhaps forgetting the fundamental role of risk in our risk/reward system. While in China, a historically authoritarian and totalitarian system, major projects in urban areas are being planned and completed in record time against the backdrop of 8 percent annual economic growth.

    We must be more willing to take on risk and short-term hardship in order to get our infrastructure issues addressed and resolved. Pursuit of the illusory “perfect and painless solution” is taking too long and is costing too much in real dollars and lost opportunity.

    A statewide trend towards government by referendum, chronic NIMBY syndrome and chokehold public policy on development via growth management and permitting will put us out of competition nationally and internationally; consider Boeing’s exit.

    Implementation of good (not perfect) solutions today will create opportunity for better — or best — further down the line.

    I think the Chinese understand this.

    Craig Klinkam is the principal of The Klinkam Co., a consulting firm providing owner representation and construction management services. For more information, call (206) 624-9735 or go online to

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