China crisis?

A trip to China leaves our anonymous blogger wondering about its future as the world’s manufacturing centre

Last month I once again had reason to fly out to China. Hong Kong was as impressive as always, the concentrated spirit of the bustling cosmopolitan city. It stands alone though within the PRC and although incorporating many features of the “typical” Chinese urban environment it is not representative of the country as a whole.

We headed straight out to, well – shall we say somewhere in the hinterland, and were soon into a less sophisticated environment. For those of you who haven’t been it is certainly an experience.

I still remember my first time where the shock wasn’t so much the seemingly endless miles of pot hole strewn dual carriageway taking me past the hundreds of square miles of high rise blocks, tenements and factories but rather an intrinsic dichotomy.

China has been on an accelerated development and in many ways is very modern but this relates to the buildings and infrastructure, people have a greater inertia. This is nothing peculiar to the Chinese of course, it is a truth of human society that there will be those who immediately embrace change, but equally there will be those who cannot or who do not wish to. There will also be inertia within a society’s structure where the process of laws and law making cannot keep apace with the whirlwind of industrial revolution.

China has a conspicuous construction programme which redevelops, tearing down the almost new and building yet newer

Most notably China has a conspicuous construction programme which redevelops, tearing down the almost new and building yet newer. An intrinsic impermanence made manifest by an overall griminess to most of the buildings, only the very newest seeming to be free of flaking paint and the orange brown tears of rust streaming down from steel balcony rails. 

There is an aggressive investment in development that has driven up prices along with the subsequent pressures for profit on any given plot; regarding which the government has only just acted, hoping to curtail the inevitable upward spiral this creates.

Whatever the cause – this has seemingly resulted in a system where within ten or twenty years many buildings fall into fatal disrepair. I find it difficult to believe that this can be anything but harmful. The newer building is bigger but by replacing another it’s addition to the economy is diluted. Also, an increased load on existing services rather than implementing new layouts in a holistically planned way will more likely lead to stop gaps and eventual overload.

What does this have to do with us as engineers? If we are to continue manufacturing in China then we need to look far beyond the direct economic influences on what we do. I fully expect another global region to become the centre for manufacture one day; this is the cyclic nature of things. However the first sign of such a move may not be the cost to produce an item but rather an indicator linked to China’s appetite for perpetual rebirth – ironically one of the core activities that has powered it to its current position.