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Riding the dragon

The Beijing Olympics will be a showcase for China. How does Chinese construction practice compare with that of the UK? And what is it really like to work in the People's Republic?

"The Chinese are very results-focused," explains ICE Fellow, Professor Li Shirong, her point underlined by the fact that so many of the Olympic structures are ready well ahead of the start of the Games. "I feel very confident that China is now famous for construction and speed."

Shirong is a professor of construction management at Chongqing University where her academic work has focused on China's changing construction industry, sustainable urbanisation, the government's role in construction, and the international construction market.

She says design and planning of the Olympics has three main priorities: to use the best technology available, to embrace Chinese culture and to be environmentally friendly. While no one could argue that the design and construction of the Bird's Nest national stadium and Water Cube aquatic centre lack hi-tech input from computer modelling, they both seem to score low on sustainability. The national stadium's roof uses a colossal amount of steel to meet its architectural objectives, and regulating the air pressure in the ETFE pillows of the aquatic centre roof during extremely hot and cold weather has raised long term maintenance issues.

Getting work in China depends heavily on making the right connections. The Chinese government and associated bodies make up between 60% and 70% of construction clients, so keeping in favour with them is a priority. Maintaining one's "Guan Xi" is essential.

"Guan Xi means 'relationship' and there is a heavy emphasis on this here. Knowing the right people, gets your foot in the door," says one major UK consultant.

Consultants say that the Chinese government pays well and on time even though construction programmes are very tight.

Chinese clients also prefer to have engineers and architects in the same company, offering a one stop shop facility.

Companies like Scott Wilson have found that they are better placed to do civils and infrastructure work rather than signature buildings.

"It means that we haven't much work in Beijing but more around Shanghai," says Scott Wilson's China director Peter Chan. He explains that before the 1990s, buildings were mostly "the straight up, straight down, functional" variety. But the new "funny shaped buildings" have required overseas help.

Over the same period, a younger generation of Chinese managers and government departmental leaders have emerged with more ambitious plans and a willingness to engage with foreign engineers.

"However, we still prefer to design using straight lines, because we know it is what the Chinese labour force can deliver," says Chan, adding that the use of mass labour is probably one of the most sustainable aspects of Chinese construction today.

Cultural, social and language differences remain the biggest barriers to success in China for some UK companies.

"It's extremely difficult to break into China," says the chairman of another major consultant that has worked in China for 30 years. "British expertise is only really needed for high spec major projects like stadiums and airports, and then usually only at the concept stage. For most areas the Chinese design institutes can do a lot of the work and the client then doesn't need to spend lots of money on British engineering," he says.

Not being able to speak the local language can also be a problem. "Some of the big bosses don't speak English. I was at a lunch today and only two out of the 12 people around the table could."

The process of tendering for work is also a bit hazy. "They don't always seem to have a straightforward bidding process, so I've no idea how some companies get work. We are marked on cost and technical qualities, but we frequently see people getting in on projects, regardless of these factors."

But then as Chan points out, China is a big country, and what works in one province doesn't always work in another.


Rise in GDP over last 25 years

Number of construction workers in China

Number of Chinese earning less than $2 a day

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