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Professor Li Shirong: her story

The Chartered Institute of Building has sworn in China’s Li Shirong as its first female president and first president from outside the UK and Ireland. This is her story.

Li Shirong was born in the town of Ya’an in Sichuan province. Her mother was a primary school teacher and her father was a civil engineer, which she cites as the main reason she chose construction as a career.

Her relatively comfortable start in life might well have provided a good base for professional advancement in a different environment, but it was not the case when she was young. When Shirong completed her schooling in 1976, the Cultural Revolution had not quite ended and the ‘Down to the Countryside’ movement was still marshalling China’s educated urban youth into back-breaking labouring jobs on the nation’s farms. 

Shirong worked on a wheat farm on the banks of a river, and her tasks included carrying fertile mud from the surrounding mountains to mix into the sandy soil.  She had to share a room with two other young girls, and had no idea how long her stint in the countryside would last. 

“That time has now faded into history,” she says, “but for me it was a very significant experience.  It was so difficult and challenging and hard, but it left a positive legacy.  I talk to friends of the same age, and I know we all cried because the work was so difficult, but it made us stronger.   Ever since then, we have treasured our opportunities.  Now, we feel we can always overcome difficulties.  It made us appreciate life, and want to work hard to achieve as much as we could when opportunities finally arose.  We treasure and respect opportunity. After that experience, challenges at work, in universities and in government didn’t seem so bad.  I never forget that I had a hard life and now it’s much better.”

Although some young people spent many years on the farms, luckily that did not happen to Shirong.  In 1977, policy winds shifted in her favour as young people were allowed to take examinations to enter intouniversitiesfor the first time in a decade.

With ten years’ worth of candidates, the rivalry was fierce.  All the hopefuls, sometimes referred to as China’s Lost Generation, were competing to enter university in the same year.  Shirong characteristically resolved to be one of the successes, despite the odds.  Even though her working days were gruelling, she chose – along with another roommate – to study during the night, working quietly and using a torch, so that the third person in the room could sleep.

Having passed the exam, Shirong was enrolled in the civil engineering programme at Chongqing University. She began her studies in January 1978, a proud member of the first cohort to enter university under the new policy since the Cultural Revolution began.

After graduating in 1982, she was selected to be a teacher in the civil engineering department.  Alongside this work, she started studying on the Masters programme in Construction Management. For China, this was a new and exciting discipline, and realising that she would need to develop an international perspective too, Shirong started studying English.  She was also appointed to sit on the national Steering Committee for Construction Management Education under the Ministry of Construction.

Her career progressed well and she gained a promotion to associate professor as her interest in Construction Management continued to grow.  With the Chinese approach to economics undergoing a seismic shift, the need to understand western, commercial approaches to building increased rapidly. 

In 1993, she won a scholarship for a year’s study at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. The challenges of another foreign language and separation from her family made it a difficult year, but Shirong never lost sight of the strategic importance of studying in the West. 

Before she left China, Shirong had become aware of the work of the Chartered Institute of Building due to her connections in the Ministry.  Living closer to the CIOB’s headquarters, she became keen to join.  

“Going to Holland brought me so many good opportunities,” she says.  “I started to hear more about the CIOB and I felt there would be a lot of benefits for me if I joined.”

Such ambition was not based purely on self-interest, however.  Shirong never seems to have differentiated between her own personal development and her desire to assist progress in Chinese education. 

“Not only was it a personal opportunity for me,” she says, “it was clearly going to be a good link for collaboration as China developed construction management courses.”

Only the third Chinese national ever to join the Institute, Shirong’s initiative was to benefit the CIOB as much as it did her and her department.  The CIOB had already tried forging links with the Chinese Ministry of Construction, but was finding communication (including getting hold of English speakers) very difficult. In that context, a request from an English-speaking university teacher with Ministry-level responsibilities and connections was the answer to the Institute’s prayers.

Interviewed for membership at Reading University by Roger Flanagan, another synergy presented itself.  The University and the CIOB needed someone to finish a government-funded research project on China, due to the unscheduled departure of the previous incumbent.  Despite the prospect of even more years separated from her family, Shirong grasped the opportunity to study for a PhD from one of the UK’s best universities in Construction Management.

She also began the work of completing the government’s three-year research project within a two-year time span.  It was a very difficult period; she not only missed her family, but also suffered from tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears, due to the pressure of work. However, she managed to write the book on time and submitted her thesis in July 1998 – returning to China having achieved her goals and tinnitus-free.

Promoted to full professor at Chongqing University in her absence, Shirong redoubled her efforts to develop the nascent Construction Management steering committee for the Ministry.  She led delegations, made introductions, translated and generally fostered contact between the CIOB and the Ministry of Construction. Her contribution is a major factor in the now significant number of CIOB members in China. 

“Looking back, I feel my thinking was very creative at that time,” she says.  “Contacting the CIOB was just an idea, but I was looking for creative ways of improving the information flow to China.”

Even so, she couldn’t possibly have known how pivotal the contacts she forged would be, both to her career and to the international development of the CIOB. 

Undoubtedly, Shirong feels an emotional connection to the Institute, which both reflects and transcends the impact it has had on her career.  When she first made contact, she was isolated and far from home, so geographically closer connections would have been welcome on a very human level.  Moreover, by studying a subject so novel to Chinese academia, she was also aware of the need for a professional abode where she could put down roots of a more cerebral nature. 

“Just as the Chinese embassy is a kind of home from home when I’m abroad,” she says, “the Institute has become my professional home.  People are surprised when I say this, but I tell them this is the feeling in my heart. 

Shirong’s successful career as an academic might have continued until her retirement, but fate was destined to intervene again.  In 2003, the government of Chongqing (a region of some 32 million people) decided that it needed new talent to assist in the modernisation of government and invited Shirong to join the endeavour.

For years, she had been used to the deference normally given to professors by Chinese students.  Government would be completely different.

“Now, every day is a challenge,” she says.  “Every day I’m learning something.”

The word ‘challenge’ appears with increasing frequency as Shirong discusses the adjustment of moving, at the age of 46, from the hierarchical world of academia to the multi-stakeholder environment of government. 

As vice mayor of Shapingba District, with population of 1.1 million, one of Shirong’s jobs was to lead the team delivering the Shapingba “university town” – a project uniquely Chinese in scale. In 2003, they began developing the urban planning and relocating farmers from a 30 sq km tract of land and putting the infrastructure in place. By October 2008, there were 80,000 students and 10 universities there, with an extra five academic institutions planned. 

I put a lot of energy into changing people’s way of thinking

Li Shirong

As well as managing this huge and multifaceted programme, Shirong used her knowledge of international standards to push for another crucial improvement in the municipal development process: proper urban planning.  In a region endeavouring to find a route to sustainable urbanisation on a massive scale, with 400,000 people moving off their farms each year, it is a crucial issue.

“I kept on telling people it is so important to do urban planning,” she recalls. “The district did not want to spend money on it. This caused a lot of problems. I put a lot of energy into changing people’s way of thinking.”

She also campaigned to get projects into the hands of construction experts, rather than bureaucrats, and proposed the setting up of the Shapingba Public Works Bureau.  This comprised a roving, multidisciplinary team whose remit was to advise on all aspects of procurement and delivery.

In 2007, she joined the Chongqing Foreign Trade and Economic Relations Commission,leading a group of four divisions whose job is to attract inward investment.

With foreign investment doubling in the first eight months of 2008, it is clear that Shirong continues to have creative ideas.  One of these came to fruition in September 2008, when the UK and Chongqing signed a Memorandum of Understanding giving the Chinese conurbation pilot status as a “sustainable city”.  This meant it would set up as an attractive destination for hundreds of UK companies wanting to sell innovative ‘green’ products and services, from light-emitting diodes to urban drainage systems.

“We’re going to create sustainable rural and urban areas,” says Shirong.  “The MOU encompasses eco-villages, eco-towns with clean rivers, clean coal and conservation.  There are a number of projects under discussion.  Another action plan based on this MOU was signed between the UK and Chongqing governments when Premier Wen Jiabao visited the UK at the beginning of 2009. I really put my energy into this project.  It’s high-level and the potential is very exciting.”

Equally exhilarating is the development of a centre for professional excellence.  The brainchild of Shirong and the CIOB, the idea is to ally British ‘soft’ skills with Chinese technology. 

“We have the facilities and administration,” says Shirong, “but the UK will provide a training framework to train our people to get qualifications.  Several UK professional institutes, including the CIOB, have already started their training in Chongqing.  There are several others keen to be involved as well. The UK institutes get members, whilst we get trained people, so it works for everyone.”

Clearly, Shirong has successfully overcome the challenge of becoming influential within Chinese government.  And now, becoming the first female president of the CIOB, let alone the first Chinese president, brings yet more tests.  Shirong is keen to use her term to ensure that international communications, with a particular focus on sustainability, remain high on the CIOB’s agenda.

“As the world becomes smaller and smaller,” she says, “it’s easier to get in contact and share experience about how to make the best use of our resources.  The world is challenging – we need communication and collaboration internationally, particularly during the current economic crisis.  This will make a lot of people pay more attention to cost and value for money.  Therefore, we should develop platforms for members to communicate.  For example, if we could take a UK contractor, perhaps working in the Middle East, and put them in touch with a Chinese contractor who can build wonderful buildings, but needs international management experience, they could learn so much from each other.  It’s not about performing the function of a trade organisation, but supporting the technology to improve the industry.  Sustainability should also be a major focus of our discussions.”

More than thirty years after labouring in the mud, Li Shirong is still breaking new ground.  Modestly, however, she puts the achievement within a much wider context.

“I am just a normal person from China,” she says.  “For the Institute to trust me and elect me is a big thing, for both myself and my country. I will never forget my daughter’s reaction to the news.  She said that this was the most important thing in my life, as it shows that as a professional I got to the top.  She told me I must take it.  But this post really isn’t about me.  It’s about changes in China.  This couldn’t have happened thirty years ago, under the planned economy. Through the open door policy and reform, we changed – to be able to compete in international society.  It’s an historic achievement.”  


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