Engineers build China connections
on anniversary of Rewi Alley's birth

Leadership Network members Jenny Chu and Daniel Scott learnt about the amazing advances Chinese engineering has made in recent years when they travelled to China as part of the New Zealand China Friendship Society's (NZCFS) engineering delegation. The objectives of the visit were to facilitate knowledge-sharing between New Zealand and Chinese engineers and to commemorate New Zealand-born writer, educator and political activist Rewi Alley and his legacy in developing connections between the two countries. NZCFS and Asia New Zealand Foundation supported Jenny and Daniel to take part in the delegation. In this article Jenny Chu describes the trip.

The New Zealand delegation standing outside Rewi Alley's house in Beijing

Given this year is the 120th anniversary of the birth of Rewi Alley, it was fitting that the first visit for our group of seven professional engineers was to Rewi Alley’s former residence in Beijing. 

Visiting the house of a pioneer of New Zealand-China relations set the scene for our nine-day programme in Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai, during which we would meet leading engineering firms, visit building sites and engage in cultural activities. 

In addition to commemorating Rewi Alley’s legacy, our objectives were around building relationships, sharing engineering knowledge and better understanding China professionally and culturally. 

Engineering at a scale unimaginable in New Zealand

A highlight of the tour came on the day hosted by Chengdu Rail Transit, who operate and are building the metro in Chengdu.

They are opening 79km of new underground metro line this year, with 70 tunnel boring machines operating around the city to achieve this, and have further expansion planned until 2020. The scale is unimaginable to our engineering industry in New Zealand.

During a site visit into the TBM-bored metro line to the airport, the Chinese engineers involved were clearly proud of the world-class technology they had developed and put to work around the city.

Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium is one of the country's most iconic engineering feats

The changing face of engineering in China

Our group came to appreciate that China is no longer a place reliant on foreign engineering firms and skills, but is now a huge engineering powerhouse and producer of technology in its own right. They have created leading engineering works such as 600m-high skyscrapers in Shanghai and brilliant urban spaces in the newly constructed downtown of Chengdu.

We also visited Diujiangyan irrigation scheme, constructed over 2000 years ago to reduce flooding and irrigate Sichuan province, which still operates today. 

This showed clear foresight and excellence in design and operation - solving problems such as sediment transport and flood and river management without the construction of a large dam, which are challenges New Zealand faces today. 

Sharing knowledge, skills and resources

As a group, we learnt a significant amount from our meetings with the Chinese-based companies and organisations.  

We also learnt that the meetings were a two-way process; as much as we were interested in learning about the Chinese engineering environment, they were interested in information we had to share about the New Zealand engineering industry. 

Visiting the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall

The large potential for Chinese firms to assist with capacity issues in the New Zealand construction industry also became evident during the study tour.

China has a lot to offer in areas such as the supply of building materials, providing skilled workers to meet expected shortages, and joint venturing/partnering with local construction firms to deliver large building and infrastructure projects.

Meetings with Beijing Construction Engineering Group (BCEG) and Bao Steel really highlighted this potential and the increasing capability of Chinese firms operating internationally. The companies were interested to hear about some of New Zealand’s engineering challenges, such as delivering projects to address traffic congestion.

Overall, Chinese companies are hugely interested in potential opportunities overseas and especially engaging with Xi Jinping’s signature ‘Belt and Road’ (OBOR) policy, about which New Zealand and China have recently signed a memorandum.  

The best interpretation we heard about what OBOR might mean for New Zealand is that it is more a signal about where Chinese companies will look to expand overseas, as opposed to any re-construction literally of the Silk Road route/region.  

By Jenny Chu