China Power | Politics | East Asia

The Message Behind China’s Insta-Hospital

Building a hospital in 10 days is just the latest manifestation of China’s authoritarian tendency to display power through construction.

By Jasmine Chia for
The Message Behind China’s Insta-Hospital

Construction workers labor at the site of the Huoshenshan temporary field hospital being built in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Arek Rataj

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the Huoshenshan hospital – the latest of China’s efforts in the “battle against coronavirus” – was built in ten.

The coverage of Huoshenshan or “God of Fire Mountain” has been constant – and constantly viral. Since construction of the hospital was announced on January 23, Xinhua has provided live feeds, time-lapses, and, within minutes of the hospital’s completion, multiple videos that spread rapidly across the internet.

They are awe-inspiring videos. Drone shots race across the 25,000 square meter space, capturing whirring cranes as they fling their metallic arms over the red dirt. Scenes show the mechanical cranes working late into the night, the stadium spotlighted as if ready for a grand performance. In dramatic fashion, the videos are set to the epic sounds of Chinese battle music.

As the war drums die down and the 1,000-bed hospital emerges from the dust, the message is clear: this is what authoritarian power can do.

The message has been heard around the world. On Xinhua’s Thai-language Facebook page, its live coverage of the hospital construction garnered 16,000 shares and 19,000 reactions – 3,000 of those were the “wow” reaction. TIME’s time-lapse of the hospital’s construction – leveraging CCTV footage – has received near 4,000 reacts, and 1,200 “wow” reactions. Within an hour of posting its own time-lapse, BBC’s video was on 3,800 reactions, with 1,100 “wow” reactions. The world is awestruck.

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The exhibition of state power comes at a precarious time for the Chinese government. As the new coronavirus takes its toll on the Chinese economy and the death toll continues to climb, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) ability to build big things is one of its few expressions of control amid a spiraling epidemic.

But Huoshenshan’s construction is not a singular reaction to a national catastrophe. Nation building, in a very literal sense, has long been an expression of authoritarian power. From Putin’s Russia to the Middle Eastern Gulf states, buildings take on symbolic potency with their towering height and the prestige of the architects chosen to build them.

It is only in the past decade that China has created an additional criterion for displaying its power: speed. And when disaster strikes, it is speed that matters most.

The “Architecture of Autocracy”

Unelected leaders once built palaces and Great Walls; they now build skyscrapers.

The world’s tallest building is Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Its architect, Adrian Smith, also recently designed Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower, which will displace the Burj in the “tallest building” competition upon completion. Previously, China’s Sky City was also in the running, before construction stopped for environmental reasons.

According to a study by Carl Knusten and Haakon Gjerlow, autocracies build approximately 150 more meters of skyscrapers each year compared to democracies.

The skyscrapers are not meant for utility. Knutsen and Gjerlow measured the difference between the top of the building and the highest inhabitable floor – a non-occupiable space called “vanity height.”

Of the 10 tallest “vanity heights” in the world, five are in Dubai, three are in China, and two are in New York – the Bank of America Tower, and the New York Times Tower. The titans of American capitalism are no less vain than the Emirs of Dubai.

Even without the “tallest building” title, China has more than its fair share of impressive buildings designed by brand-name architects. Among them are Herzog & de Meuron’s “Bird Nest” Olympic stadium, Norman Foster’s Beijing Capital International Airport as well as Zaha Hadid’s just-opened Beijing Daxing International Airport, and Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters. Foreign Policy called this “the architecture of autocracy” in 2009.

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Since then, however, things have taken a turn against extravagance. In a 2014 two-hour long speech, CCP leader Xi Jinping discouraged “weird” architecture. The comments were in keeping with the austerity and nationalism that characterized Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Instead, he reminisced about a time when art and literature was respectful to history – interpreted as a call for a new age of Chinese architecture hewing closer to traditional Chinese aesthetics.

The turn in Chinese architecture was immediate: CITIC Tower, at the time four years into construction on its way to being Beijing’s tallest skyscraper, was immediately redesigned. Although the bottom half had already been built, its crown was made flatter and curvier to represent “the slope of a traditional roof.” Chinese architecture had gained worldwide recognition, with Wang Shu becoming the first mainland Chinese winner of the Pritzker prize in 2012. His designs pay nuanced homage to Chinese history, with some inspired by local Chinese village houses.

While the obsession with height may not have died away, a new East-West divide has silently worked itself into the Chinese skyline.

Racing to the Top

Since 2000, China has added a new dimension to its building obsession – speed.

While the construction for Huoshenshan was stunningly fast, its swiftness was bested by the construction of the Xiaotangshan hospital during the SARS epidemic, which took six days and seven nights.

Both hospitals were built based on prefabricated and modular construction, techniques for which China has become famous worldwide.

Prefabricated construction – or prefab – involves mass producing and assembling building components in a factory, and then transporting the completed assemblies to the construction site. At the Huoshenshan site, four of the days were dedicated to clearing the ground and laying the foundations, while the prefabricated hospital units were assembled over only six days.

Prefab is not only fast – it is sustainable, low-waste, and energy efficient. This has transformed China into the world’s factory for skyscrapers, office buildings, and hotels, including a Hilton hotel in Aberdeen and multiple airport hotels in the U.K.

In 2016, Chinese prefab construction company Broad Sustainable Building made headlines for the world’s fastest-built skyscraper – a 57-story behemoth erected in 19 working days. “This is not a case of a Chinese builder throwing up a building as fast as possible in order to make a quick buck,” an investment manager told CNBC. “Rather, the intention was to demonstrate an efficient building technique.”

Broad Sustainable Building was also due to build the aforementioned Sky City, which it had hoped would not only become the world’s tallest skyscraper but also the world’s fastest built, with the 220-story building expected to take 90 days to complete.

China now has 7,000 prefab manufacturers, the most of any country in the world.

Architecture With Chinese Characteristics

The prefab boom evinces the kind of architecture with Chinese characteristics that Xi seemed to call for – efficient and utilitarian.

While the Huoshenshan hospital may be taken as another expression of state power – akin to CITIC or Sky City – its effectiveness remains to be proven.

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On social media, the coverage of Huoshenshan’s completion has brought with it expressions of global solidarity with the suffering Wuhan population, as Thai netizens continue to send messages of encouragement in Thai and Chinese.

However, some locals fear that the hospital could turn the area into a concentrated disease zone, affecting the safety of the surrounding residential buildings. Already, much frustration with the Wuhan government over its perceived incompetence has undermined public trust for local officials.

Finally, some question the decision to build the high-profile hospital in a highly developed area, when, in the words of Chen Xi, a Yale public health professor, “the bottleneck of China’s healthcare system is in rural areas.”

The hospital is representative of the hope, distrust, and virality that has characterized much of the crisis. By showcasing the building process of Huoshenshan, China is trying to send a message: that its swift action has everything under control. Yet the death toll continues to rise, and the world continues to watch in fear.

Jasmine Chia is an MPhil candidate in International Relations at Oxford, a journalist for the Thai Enquirer and former journalist for the Bangkok Post.