If you want to gauge the current state of China’s construction boom, look no further than Hong Kong’s dynamic neighbour, Shenzhen. Defying the searing heat of the Chinese summer, construction workers are busily building a state-of-the-art stadium for the 2011 World University Games.
I was there last week on a five-day tour organized by Guangdong Province, and the stadium was the first stop, indicating how intensely proud officials are about the “Lotus Flower” stadium.
The 60,000-seat venue looks strikingly similar to the Bird’s Nest national stadium, the world’s largest steel structure and the centerpiece at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, local media boast that the Shenzhen stadium, designed by a German architectural firm, aims to outshine the Bird’s Nest because the engineering is said to be even more challenging.
The whole games village project is a powerful symbol of municipal pride. It is set to cost a whopping 4.1 billion yuan ($600 million), all of which will be financed by the city government of Shenzhen.
It’s true that Shenzhen, one of China’s richest cities with a municipal budget of 902 billion yuan ($132 billion), should have no problem finding the cash. And you can argue that all this construction isn’t a bad thing to have going on during an economic downturn. But looked at another way, it still seems a waste.
China is no better than other countries in finding uses for prestige sporting venues. It is just a year since the Beijing Olympics, but the Bird’s Nest already looks deserted. When I visited it last month, paying 40 yuan ($5.82) to enter, it seemed folorn. There were few visitors. Two giant TV screens showing the opening ceremony from the Olympics did their best to remind people of its glory days. If that is what has happened to the iconic Bird’s Nest, how promising could the long-term plans be for Shenzhen’s “Lotus Flower”?
China has seen those sporting events as the best opportunity to showcase its economic muscle to the world, but China is still a very poor country and this money could be put to other, perhaps better, uses. In Shenzhen itself, tens of thousands of migrant workers have recently lost their jobs and are in need of retraining. Even though the market seems to have come back, many migrant workers have struggled to find new jobs because they do not have the right skills.
What else can you do with 4.1 billion yuan? Well, you could establish as many as 10,000 schools to train migrant workers and their children. That might be a better “trophy” for Shenzhen than another deserted mega stadium showing its past glories on a video loop.
Photo caption: The National Stadium in Beijing, also known as the Bird’s Nest stadium, shown here on July 3, 2009, nearly a year after it was the centerpiece of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. REUTERS/David Gray