Since my first visit to China over a dozen years ago I have become accustomed to the ubiquitous tower cranes in the cities. They seem to be everywhere, and nearly all on 20- to 40-story residential towers in groups of six to 16. In some cities, they really are everywhere because they emerge from farmland where not much else seems to have existed before. 

This trip we decided to take advantage of the bullet train system to see some countryside. On the ride from the capital, Beijing, to the former capital, Xi’an, we witnessed a virtual forest of tower cranes. Hundreds and hundreds. We also observed that the construction process has been slowed or shuttered on many of these projects. Concrete shells with no building enclosure. 

We invented the term, “housing bubble”, but the Chinese may be about to take it to an entirely new level. I do not see how to sustain this level of building activity, even with a population of 1.4 billion. 

That said, between the forward construction of sustainable buildings (concrete and steel... lots of it) and robust public-transportation systems (bullet trains and growing subway systems), China is easily 50 years ahead of us on infrastructure development. Their bridges, roads, and highways grow more crowded by the day, but they are relatively new and in good condition. 

All the growth has led to significant water and air pollution, especially in the larger cities. It will take a monumental effort and probably decades to clean this up. The U.S. may be 50 years ahead in regards to pollution control. 

Now back to the important reason for this trip. Xi’an was our next stop to visit the tomb of China’s first emperor, guarded by an army of full-sized Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses. The story of the brief reign of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, is fascinating. He “consolidated” the six kingdoms and spent most of his time in a search for immortality. When that failed he went to work building a fabulous tomb for himself guarded by an army of full-sized Terra Cotta warriors and horses. 

The Terra Cotta army was destroyed in an uprising and was forgotten until in 1976 some farmers discovered their remains. Now a museum houses hundreds of the figures that have been unearthed and restored. I recommend reading about it. After you do you may be tempted, as I was, to travel to China just to visit the museum in Xi’an. Qin Shi Huang translates to First Emperor of Qin (Dynasty), but I think in his time he must have been known as “Emperor Badass”. 

Now back to business. None of my discussions with our counterparts in the roofing trade entered the arena of geo-politics. It just didn’t come up. But I was curious, so asked our good friend, Mr. G.Q.  Zhao, for his thoughts about the trade arguments between the U.S. and China. He said average folks on the street are not terribly concerned about it and don’t really know why our two countries have to fight about it. He did, however, know the deadline for the U.S. to begin a new round of tariffs. 

In the media, as you might suspect, the story of who reneged on whom is the 180-degree opposite from what we hear from our administration. The headline on the Global Time Weekend Edition reads, “China Vows to counter U.S. tariffs”. Not to be outdone, China Daily declares, “Beijing vows retaliation on U.S. trade”. And the beat goes on. I believe Chinese people’s reputation as fierce negotiators is well-deserved. I see it in action every time I come over here. 

Zhao retired from the staff of China Building Waterproofing magazine (CBW) a few years back. He still does the occasional translation of English periodicals into Mandarin Chinese for the publication. He arranged for us to enjoy a luncheon with the CBW publisher, Mrs. Xu, and her staff. As is usual when we meet, our discussions are more about the publishing business than the roofing business. As with trade publications in the U.S., CBW has undergone massive changes since the advent of the Internet as a means of delivering information. 

Their advertising revenue is 50 percent below its historic peak, but the publication is now producing three seminars a year in locations all over China. While tied to other government-owned enterprises, CBW operates much the same way as Roofing Contractor. The management hierarchy is, however, much different. When I ask him about it, Zhao just says, “It’s complicated”. 

As this is being written, Micki and I are on a bullet train from Suzhou to Beijing. As we traveled through the cities of Beijing, Xi’an, and Suzhou, we could not help but notice all of the spectacular landscaping along the main roadways. Not just trees and shrubs, but beautifully manicured flowers and topiaries. We’ve never seen so many flowering rose bushes. Miles of them. 

We assume the government has programs to make all this happen. And it is good to see in these very densely-populated urban environments. Many of the farms we saw as we went through the countryside were plant nurseries. 

We fly home from Beijing tomorrow. It is always good to visit our friends in China, but it will be good to be back home. 

Link to the China Roof and Waterproofing Expo 2019: