On Poor Quality: Corruption and Construction in China

As someone who works in the building industry in China, I am often asked why the quality of construction of most new buildings is so poor. The people who usually ask are expatriates from places like Europe or America; rarely does someone native to China who hasn’t spent time overseas pose the same question.

This perhaps has to do with the fact that building quality in China is relative. Most Chinese first-time home buyers moving into brand new housing tower blocks do not have the frame of reference to evaluate finish material quality. This is exacerbated by the fact most housing developers sell units as empty concrete shells, leaving it up to the owners to fit them out with finishes and fixtures.

This is not to suggest that the thousands of recently built high-rise towers  across Chinese cities are on the verge of collapse. On the contrary, structural engineers in China tend to err on the side of caution when designing structural systems and from what I’ve seen on construction sites, they do not skimp on steel rebar reinforcing (especially here in Chengdu where the destruction from the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake is still very fresh in memory).

The quality disconnect comes at the level of finish materials; both on the building’s exterior and interior. Unfortunately, architects and designers have very little say in the final finish materials used in their projects in China. In the U.S., quality control is managed through the process of construction administration, where there is ongoing communication between the owner, general contractor, and architect during the construction process.

Architects practicing in the U.S. typically create what is known as a specifications (‘spec’) book to go along with a working drawing set, together which serve as instructions for the general contractor on how to construct the building. The level of detail in spec books varies, and final material selection is ultimately up to the general contractor and owner through bidding processes with building material suppliers. Yet architects maintain a say throughout the process through submittals (of material samples and shop drawings to the architect) and change orders. This creates a system of checks and balances between the owner, general contractor, and architect throughout the construction process leading to better quality control.

The process described above is virtually nonexistent for most new projects in China. One reason has to do with the fact that architects in China are still seen as ‘big idea’ guys rather than technical experts. During the construction phase, the representatives from architecture firms who go out to construction sites to check up on work are typically trained engineers, checking mostly for structural integrity. Designers looking for finish quality are usually not welcome.

The second, more widespread reason that construction projects do not follow strict communication protocols between interested parties is due to corruption. Construction projects require huge budgets and bank loans- by cutting corners here and there, developers and contractors can pocket large sums of money. This means skimping on things like wall insulation, substituting quality exterior and interior cladding materials for inferior ones, and even using cheaper plumbing and electrical equipment.

So in a sense, the complexity and lack of communication is by design. This observation is confirmed in a World Bank report about the construction industry in China, with one of the key challenges facing the industry being:

The respective roles of the “employer”, the “engineer”, and the “contractor” need to be defined and separated. Current overlapping in the roles of owner, contractor, and engineer in government hampers the development of competitive bidding and effective contract management. The required separation in roles will require extensive training programmes.

Unfortunately it does not appear that this will change anytime soon. The real estate development business in China is still like the wild west, and developers who have long-term vision are not easy to come by. Most are still looking to make a buck as fast as possible before the frenzy slows down.

By the time this happens, this may be be a good thing for building integrity as upwardly-mobile Chinese families start demanding higher quality out of their living and working spaces.

11 comments

  1. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  2. In the city I live in within China (which will remain nameless for my own protection), building is amazingly rampant and seemingly impossible to justify. Giant apartment complexes are turning up everywhere. In the last 3 years dozens of such mammoth projects have cropped up. Similarly, roads, tunnels, bridges and superhighways now crisscross a relatively small amount of land that one could largely encircle in a day on a mountain-bike.

    What is the purpose? I can only guess it’s “building for building’s sake.” Building appears to BE the economy, and it doesn’t matter if anyone every lives in the apartments or drives on the roads. Clearly, the infrastructure of the city couldn’t possibly handle the tens of thousands of people that the apartment complexes could house. There’s no room for the cars, and the streets aren’t wide enough to accommodate the traffic. I can’t see where all the new people would possibly work, either, except in construction (except that construction workers couldn’t afford to live in any of the fancy new apartments).
    Meanwhile, at street level, there’s no improvement in development. I can’t quite understand how it is profitable to build useless apartment complexes the proportions of battlestars, since it’s ultimately just wasting material. In the end I can only conclude that a handful of people are making a killing off of it, and THAT is the ultimate good. The rest of us can admire the cement, inhale it in it’s particular form, and try not to think about it too much.

    • Warren, the purpose of constructing new buildings and infrastructure in China is to modernize the country and improve the lives of its people. If you are from a Western nation, or one of the developed Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea or Singapore, then you cannot fault China for aspiring to join the ranks of developed countries- urban development is what they went through in the past and what China is going through currently.

      I tend to think that the problems associated with development in China are sometimes exaggerated out of proportion due to the fact that the country is huge, both in area and population. Also keep in mind that developed nations before also faced similar challenges when going through the same process. In this particular post, I chose to be critical of one aspect of development in China, particularly the flaws I see in construction industry processes.

      Yet I am actually fairly optimistic that these less than favorable practices will not go on forever. On the contrary, China is still learning and because of this, there are bound to be a few construction projects that turn out to be white elephants. That doesn’t mean that building new infrastructure and buildings is inherently wrong or evil.

      Unfortunately the mainstream media tends to distort reality by focusing again and again on the same handful of white elephants scattered across the country (New South China Mall in Dongguan, Zhengzhou New Area and Kangbashi New Area in Ordos). Yet, for every failed project, there are countless examples of success. For instance, Pudong in Shanghai, once derided as an out of control property bubble is today a vibrant financial and trade center.

      In Chengdu, even I thought that the new Hi-Tech Zone in the south of the city was a soulless collection of brand new office parks and wide boulevards when I first arrived. Now, 2 years later, the area is picking up and more and more businesses and government departments are relocating down there turning up the activity in the area.

      So my point being is that even though a lot of the new construction seems pointless, give it some time and I think that you might find that it turns out to work.

  3. I would love to believe you are correct, Adam, and yet the development here not only rivals the Western counterparts, but far exceeds them. As I pointed out, development is largely equivalent to projects involving massive outpouring of cement, and little else that I can see. While there will be dozens of new mega-apartment complexes over 20 stories high, nearly every restaurant has no hot water in the restrooms. My own apartment, build in the last 3 years, also has no hot water in the kitchen or the bathroom sink. A good portion of the traffic lights in the city do not work, and there doesn’t appear any improvement in the infrastructure, including waste management, to accommodate ANY more people, let alone hundreds of thousands. According to my research the sewage plants could not handle the level of human wast 2 years ago.

    There’s “development” in terms of the GDP (gross domestic product), and then there’s the HDI (human development index). China is #2 for GDP but 89 for HDI. This development of cement may not ultimately result in a development of actual human lives. We can hope that “if we build it (out of cement), they will come and work here and owe all their money to their landlords,” but whether that is an ultimate good that can offset the associated costs of loss to health with the off-the-charts pollution is yet to be seen.

    Again, I would prefer to be wrong about this, but the apocalyptic levels of pollution I’ve seen in the last few days, or rather which have prevented me from seeing much else, indicate I may be much more correct than I ever want to be.

  4. Hey Adam, a interesting and insightful read. I’m thinking you are right that China is in the middle of change in urbanisation. It seems that you can almost draw parallels with the industrialisation in Europe in the 18oo’s and the rebuilding of world wars in the 20th century in the West. While most of those buildings were poorly built, it solved the immediate problem of housing. Then with time, it is possible to build better architecture. I remember that a decade or so ago the talk point is on the quality of the structure of buildings as developers cutting corners caused many buildings to collapse. By the sound of it, this ‘corner cutting’ acts of developers and contractors has come a long way since then (at least the structure will stand up).I agree to Warren’s point that the ultimate good at the moment is for the profit of a few. But I also think it is a stepping stone between finding enough places to house people to a living standard that people desires.

    My question is, when the boom slows down, will the building integrity go up, or will the developers and contractors continues to squeeze as much profit as possible? in essence, a matter of time or a matter of redefining the relationship model between government, developer, contractor and consumer?

    • Hi Peter,

      I would venture to guess that when the boom slows down, building integrity should go up. Most developers most likely won’t start to care about quality until consumers demand it.

      At least for the past few years, developers haven’t needed to worry about it simply because there are buyers lined up to purchase new housing units, even if the quality is not top-notch. This is really just speculation on the part of home-buyers and developers to some degree as well. By that I mean, some savvy developers will build whatever junk on a site they have acquired through successful land bid, just to keep the land. If they don’t build something by a certain time, government will take the land back. This policy promotes development, and this is just the developer’s way of making sure they hold onto their investment.

    • Ingrid, sorry to hear about your experience with manufacturing gas pipes in China. Unfortunately, while it is shocking, this kind of experience is not too uncommon- especially when it comes to not honoring contracts. If a Chinese business does not anticipate a long-term relationship, they generally have no problem with pulling a fast one on a client (this not only happens to foreign customers, but within China as well).

      Just yesterday, part of a new road bridge collapsed in the northern Chinese city of Harbin (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-19366630), killing 3 people. Until incidents like this one can be kept to an absolute minimum, there will always be a question of quality in Chinese construction and manufacturing.

Leave a Reply