GW Expat: A welding nation

Senior Sam Sherraden, an international affairs major and former Hatchet photo editor, spent the summer studying abroad in Beijing, China and is spending the fall semester further north in Harbin, China. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from East Asia as one of GW’s many expats.

The joke started when we saw someone just off campus, squatting on the ground, welding without eye protection, but instead using a white dinner plate to shield his eyes from the intense light. He would move the plate occasionally to see what work he had done, cover again and keep on welding.

Because rapid urbanization in China’s cities and suburbs has created a vast market for construction, seeing people welding is commonplace. So, after seeing people welding with dinner plates, on the sidewalk, on campus and in quantities that we have never seen before, we have running joke among friends that in China, welding is a hobby. Not necessarily a hazardous or skilled profession, but rather something one does for entertainment in a park with friends or in the 11th story at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night because the blue light and sparks look cool.

One day we were carrying on about welders everywhere, and my neighbor Du Lin, an HIT junior, heard us joking and told us that he was a welding major. We explained the joke, and then he told us among all students at HIT, welding majors have the easiest time finding employment. HIT is the only University in China with an undergraduate welding department, and its graduates are in high demand.

While we make jokes in jest of the haphazard nature of some welding in China, we realized so many people working in construction sites melting steel together is quite a poignant symbol of China’s rapid urbanization.

Since I drove in from the Beijing airport last June, I have felt like I was walking through the computer monitor of the classic computer game, SimCity. Buildings are being erected everywhere. In Chaoyang, one of the most modern and developed districts in Beijing, flocks of cranes litter the sky. Migrant workers from the west and central provinces sleep in bunkhouses on site, and during the day work long hours to finish construction before the 2008 Olympic Games.

Olympic deadlines have made the pace of construction in Beijing particularly fast, but I realized after traveling around China for a while seeing welders and construction sites in every major city I visited, that rampant construction is not just an Olympics phenomenon. From Ulumuchi, Xinjiang to Chengdu, Sichuan, cities across China are rising up out of the ground.

I was once told that more skyscrapers are built annually in Shenzhen, Guangdong, than exist in the city of Chicago. Shenzhen, now a booming city across the border to Hong Kong was once a small town. After being designated a Special Economic Zone in 1979, it is now the home of numerous manufacturing enterprises and one of two stock exchanges in mainland China.

Shenzhen is one of China’s 166 cities with more than one million residents which together have average growth rates are 10 percent annually. The New York Times’ recent profile of another Guangdong metropolis, Dongguan, reported that during the past 20 years, Dongguan has transformed from a small town to a city with seven million residents and soaring annual growth rate of 23 percent.

The large capital investment that goes into each new building and the returns investors expect to make back, makes me think about where this country is going to go in our lifetime. But, urbanization carried out at such a rapid pace without proper government oversight naturally has costs. It has led to social problems, poor usage of arable land and misallocation of resources.

In this way, China’s urbanization is similar to the profession of welding that my friends and I commonly joke around about. Welding and urbanization are both necessary to build and grow, but when done with a dinner plate on the side of the road, the welder and China are likely to later encounter significant structural problems.

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