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China UK Construction – a cultural context

Posted: 6th January 2020

Niall Lawless

Chartered Arbitrator and Engineer, Adjudicator, Mediator

Niall Lawless is just completing his second three year term as Chair of the CIC ADR Management Board

In November 2007, I attended a construction sustainability conference in Shantou, Guangdong, China with a Chinese friend, a Structural Engineer. When I asked her why she chose to study structural engineering, she replied that she didn’t. When I enquired further, she told me that in the mid-1980’s following success in the ‘Gaokao’, she was accepted to study aeronautical engineering. During induction day the leader of the University came to talk with the aeronautical engineering students and told them at that stage of China’s development it needed structural engineers more than it needed aeronautical engineers, and he asked students to consider if they would change course. My friend was one of the students who volunteered to move to the Faculty of Structural Engineering. When I asked her why, without a flicker of hesitation she replied “my country’s needs are more important than my needs.”

In 2009, at the inception of the first Obama administration, I was studying culture and dispute resolution, and doing some teaching at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) in Beijing. When I looked at the makeup of the USA government (a democracy) I was struck by the high number of members who were lawyers. When I looked at the makeup of the China Politburo (a meritocracy) I was struck by the high number of members who were professionally trained engineers. As I wrote recently in an “Adjudication Practice and Procedure: Ireland” textbook, engineers and lawyers have different belief systems. Engineers deal with certainty and facts, and are concerned with creating tangible solutions that work. Lawyers deal with ambiguity, and are concerned with creating intangible solutions that win.

First travelling to China as a tourist in 2004, I have subsequently rented an apartment in Beijing for 14 years, and I have been a volunteer tour guide at Forbidden City for 12 years.

Forbidden City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site was a Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and in the period from 1420 until the end of the Imperial System in 1911, twenty-three Emperors ruled China from Forbidden City. Constructed between 1406 and 1420, the Forbidden City is the largest wooden palace complex in the world. From the East Gate to the West Gate is 700 metres, and aligned along Beijing’s central axis it is 1,000 metres from the South Gate to the North Gate. During the period 1406 to 1416, materials were amassed from all over China, and during the period 1416 to 1420 the Palace was built as one. It is said that about one million people were involved with the construction of Forbidden City including 100,000 artisans and craftsmen. During that period China had between 90 and 100 million people, so 1% of the population were involved with that amazing construction enterprise.

It was called the Forbidden City because commoners who entered did so under penalty of death. When I walk around that revered place unaccompanied, I sometimes think the Emperors could be turning in their tombs at the thought of a Barbarian (a non-Chinese person) from Northern Ireland having authority and freedom to do so.

In December 2019, my son Becan who is currently just finishing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Manchester University and his partner Ellen visited me. As we travelled to and from Chinese cities such as Beijing, Tianjin and Hong Kong Self-Administered Region (SAR), I had cause to reflect on how construction and engineering have changed over the last forty years, in the period since 改革开放 (Gǎigé kāifàng : reform and opening-up) .

CITIC Tower. During Imperial times no building in Beijing was allowed to be taller than Forbidden City’s Hall of Supreme Harmony, so just 100 years ago the tallest building in Beijing was 33 metres. Today if you walk east along the rampart from Forbidden City’s Meridian Gate to the Corner Tower you can experience 600 years old ancient architecture, and if you look past the Corner Tower you can experience a few years old modern architecture in the Central Business District (CBD). The smaller of the two buildings in the distance is the China World Trade Centre Tower 3, and the taller of the two buildings is the new CITIC Tower, which although not the tallest building in China, runs to an impressive height of 528m. The Institution of Structural Engineers said ‘this 108-storey tower is possibly the world’s tallest building constructed in a high seismic zone.’ The form of the CITIC Tower draws inspiration from the ‘zun’ a vase like ritual vessel used until the Northern Song (960–1126 AD).

Beijing Subway. In 2006, when I was renting an apartment near UIBE, my prospective landlady told me that within 18 months my apartment in Rome Gardens would be close to the subway. I did not pay much attention to that, thinking it was ‘Mere Puff’; but low and behold in March 2008 Beijing Subway Line Five was completed and I found myself five minutes’ walk from Huixinxijie Beikou subway station. Beijing Subway had 114 km of track in 2004; 200 km of track in 2008; 336 km of track in 2010; 527 km of track in 2014 and 700 km of track in 2019. In concord with holistic design, via mall and subterranean walkway, the CITIC Tower connects directly with three subway stations and four subway lines.

Beijing Daxing International Airport. In December as I travelled through Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA) Terminal 2, I thought that it was abandoned a bit like the Mary Celeste, and would not be in use for long. The decline of BCIA Terminal 2 began with the March 2008 opening of the Norman Foster designed BCIA Terminal 3. Almost everyone who travelled by plane into Beijing before March 2008, will have passed through BCIA Terminal 2 located in the North East of Beijing. Part of the reason for the abandonment is the amazing new Zaha Hadid designed Beijing Daxing International Airport (BDIA) ‘the Starfish’ located in the South of Beijing. Construction work commenced in December 2014, and the airport was opened in September 2019. The terminal building is the largest single-structure airport terminal in the world, with an area of more than 1,000,000 m2. There are currently four runways (with the prospect of becoming seven in the future), and it is expected to handle up to 45 million passengers per year by 2021 and reach an outstanding 100 million in the future.

High Speed Rail. Becan and I took a weekend in Tianjin. Tianjin is famous as a concession city. Its legacy architecture located along the Hai River built in the period of national humiliation and unequal treaties, is interesting to behold. The Beijing to Tianjin driving distance is about 125 km, but the travel time by high speed train with a station stop along the way is just 30 minutes. The speed indicator in the train carriage displayed 349 km per hour. I wondered was the speed governed to be below 350 km per hour. In September 2019, the World Bank reported that over the past decade, China has built 25,000 km of dedicated high-speed railway—more than the rest of the world combined. China has 2,800 pairs of bullet trains.

Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (HZMB). As part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, the Greater Bay Area development seeks to build a world-class city cluster in an economically diverse region in southern China. To help facilitate this initiative, China has built the HZMB across the Pearl River Estuary. The HZMB is the world's longest sea crossing, a 55 km long group of bridges and tunnels which protect the sea lanes, linking Hong Kong SAR, Zhuhai City of Guangdong Province and Macao SAR. Construction commenced in December 2009, and ended in February 2018.

In 2019, China had the second largest economy in the world (GDP: US$ 15.54 trillion) and the UK had the seventh largest economy in the world (GDP: US$ 3.02 trillion). According to PwC, today’s China’s Belt and Road initiative has a total infrastructure investment need of about US $5 trillion, creating incredible opportunities for capital projects.

The purpose of this blog is not so much to extoll Chinese construction achievements, but rather to hold up a mirror to ‘Global Britain’, and our agonising incapacity through culture, economics, and politics to invest properly in a modern fit for the purposes of the 21st Century infrastructure. China has benefited from a rolling five-year planning system which is a core mechanism for coordinating and implementing policy and which has helped to regulate economic and infrastructure development. If the UK is to compete as ‘Global Britain’ it needs a long term national infrastructure development plan that has cross-party consensus and which is immune to the vagaries of individual governments and the parliamentary cycle. As Bob Dylan Nobel Peace Prize winner wrote and sung ‘The Times They Are A-Changin.’

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Photographs - Beijing, Tianjin and Hong Kong Self-Administered Region (SAR)

1)Beijing - Forbidden City Hall of Supreme Harmony before the gates open

2)Beijing - Forbidden City Corner Tower

3)Beijing - CITIC Tower (Source:

4)Beijing - BCIA Terminal 2 – it will be retired long before me

5)Beijing - BDIA ‘the Starfish’ a Cathedral of Light 1

6)Beijing - BDIA ‘the Starfish’ a Cathedral of Light 2

7)Tianjin - High Speed Rail Train just arrived

8)Tianjin - Colonial era architecture on the Hai River

9)Tianjin - Guinness is available

10)Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge The Hong Kong Link Road (Source: Arup)