China’s Construction Crackdown: No New State Buildings for 5 Years
Image Credit: Flickr (Teacher McKinley)

China’s Construction Crackdown: No New State Buildings for 5 Years


Within the past few weeks, a series of construction projects in China have made international news for their gargantuan proportions.

First, news broke that the largest building on the planet in terms of floor space, the New Century Global Center, had opened in the southwestern city of Chengdu. Then, last weekend the mainland-based construction firm Broad Sustainable Building announced its ambitious plan to build the world’s tallest building, a 208-story skyscraper appropriately called Sky City, in the southern city of Changsha – by next April.

Meanwhile, Shanghai Tower gradually climbs skyward as legions of migrant workers do the nuts and bolts work while hanging from the scaffolding that surrounds the monolithic structure, set to be Shanghai’s highest at 2,073 feet when completed in 2014.

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All told, China is home to four of the world’s nine tallest buildings and these projects – and many more – give the impression that there is no end in sight.

Yesterday, however, Beijing announced a state-backed countermeasure aimed at clearing up misconceptions about the government’s own construction spree. Henceforth, a five year ban will be in place on projects for any and all government buildings. It seems that the ban was announced to send a message to the public, suggesting that the government is taking a bite out of corruption which often manifests in steel-and-glass form.

“Across China, grand government buildings with oversized offices and fancy lighting including chandeliers have mushroomed in many cities,” AP noted. “They are often among the most impressive buildings in their own towns, drawing disapproval from the public.”

State-owned media agency Xinhua listed some of the most widely recognized monumental sources of frivolous government spending, among them official buildings, training centers, and hotels meant to house officials on the go.

“Some office buildings use up a lot of money, there are operating costs and a lot of money is spent on people eating and drinking which all comes from government funds, so it’s a kind of corruption,” said Liu Shanying, a politics researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Liu’s comments call to mind bans placed on lavish official banquets, implemented since late last year. In April, citizen journalists crashed such a private party hosted by Jiangsu province official Zhang Aihua. As the enraged mob confronted Zhang, he begged for their forgiveness via megaphone amid a spread of rare Yangtze River fish and imported wine. A report by The Guardian in January cited an official who was allegedly cavorting with gigolos, a young woman who owned 11 apartments, a vice mayor with drug-gang ties and one provincial kingpin who was busted with 47 mistresses.

In response to rising public resentment, President Xi Jinping began to crack down on these extravagances. But will it make a difference? Only to an extent, according to Steve Tsang, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham.

“For a short period of time, you can have draconian measures that can deter corruption, but in the long term the best way to deal with it is to make sure that there are checks and balances,” Tsang said.

He added, “What we are likely to see, following Xi Jinping’s commitment to his new policy, is that government officials will be a lot more careful in not displaying their ill-gotten gains. They will do enough to reassure Xi that things are under control, and that is as far as they will go.”

Indeed, “secret sumptuousness” is a catch phrase used to describe official efforts to circumnavigate the ban. As cited by The Telegraph, the People’s Daily wrote: “Instead of going out to high-end restaurants, [officials] are now eating in private clubs. We constantly hear reports that officials are going to secret saunas disguised as farmhouses, disguising their Maotai (one of China’s priciest alcoholic drinks) in mineral water bottles, and hiding Panda cigarettes (favored by Deng Xiaoping, one pack sells for as much as $107) in ($2) Red Pagoda packets.”

While excessive construction of government buildings may not elicit as much outcry from the public as these over-the-top habits, the fact of the matter is that opulent official buildings often embody state excesses and highlight the public-official gap in the poorest areas. The Telegraph noted one such building in Anhui province covered an area larger than the U.S. Pentagon, while a building in Jiangxi province houses a $45 million mechanical clock tower. Photos leaked of a state-owned drug company that erected a complex modeled after King Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles, featuring gold-tinted walls and chandeliers

While all of this sounds extreme, some argue that state building projects are far from the biggest issue on China’s plate. “We should put into perspective that the problem of local government spending on buildings is not the most serious problem facing China’s economy,” Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution told The New York Times.

He added, “The property bubble, shadow banking and the state-owned enterprise monopolies are far more risky.”

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