High-rise drama in Nanchang

The unnecessary demolition of a 10-year-old hotel in south-east China exposes a shallow commitment to low-carbon development, argues Li Taige.

It only takes eight seconds to demolish a four-star hotel.

Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province in south-eastern China, which claims it is en route to becoming a “low carbon city”, has done something almost unbelievable. On February 6, the landmark 22-storey, 86-metre high Wuhu Hotel, which only opened in 1997, was dynamited. The hotel was owned by Hong Kong’s Kaimei Group, which bought it in July, 2007 with a view to adding a further three floors – raising the building to a height of 90 metres – and refurbishing the interior to five-star standards.

The changes were approved by the local planning authorities, but the company then changed its mind. According to a city planner quoted in the city’s Information Daily on November 19 last year, Kaimei became nervous about possible subsidence and abandoned its plans. A new proposal was submitted: to demolish the original building and replace it with a new 25-storey hotel and six-storey auxiliary building. The Nanchang government signed off the plan in early November, approving both demolition and reconstruction.

The news of the demolition was met with scepticism from the public, with some commenting that the Wuhu was “the best hotel in the city” and demolition would be an “enormous waste” and others calling for an investigation. But the hotel was nonetheless demolished, to the bewilderment of the local community.

The quality of the original building can not have been the issue – otherwise, how could Kaimei have planned to extend it to 25 storeys? Furthermore, professor Xue Fengsong of the People’s Liberation Army University of Science and Technology, an explosions expert who was responsible for the demolition, told the media that the building was “solidly constructed”. The official line from Kaimei’s spokesperson, Qi Xiaoxing, was that there were failings in the structure and design of the hotel and that reinforcement would have been insufficient to enable the planned increase in height. Perhaps they are right that the Wuhu Hotel could not have been transformed into a 25-storey, five-star hotel. But it was designed as a 22-storey, four-star hotel. Why force these changes upon it?

Kaimei’s behaviour is strange enough. But the really odd thing is that Nanchang’s planning authorities played along. Surely, they realised the demolition would waste a huge amount of social resources, not to mention produce large quantities of dust pollution and building waste. Governmental neglect of duty led directly to the destruction of the hotel. Since Jiangxi is one of eastern China’s less economically developed provinces, the demolition of a perfectly good hotel in the provincial capital is particularly surprising. Its reconstruction also entails the pointless consumption of large amounts of energy, which will doubtless increase the city’s carbon footprint.

The ironic thing is that Nanchang talks endlessly about developing a low-carbon economy and creating a low-carbon city. In November last year, the city held the “First World Low-Carbon and Eco-Economy Conference and Technology Exhibition”. Low carbon banners and slogans were plastered everywhere and the conference even earnestly announced a “Nanchang Declaration” on the development of an eco-friendly global economy – through the promotion of low energy consumption, low carbon emissions and low pollution.

Prior to the conference, the UK’s Strategic Programme Fund had launched a low-carbon cities project, with Nanchang the first signed up. The Nanchang Daily reported that Nanchang, along with the provinces of Guangdong and Hebei, and the cities of Chongqing and Baoding, had been named as “National Low-Carbon Economy Pilots” at a climate-change conference in Beijing. The city is clearly very concerned about its environmental labels. Clean energy has an important place on Nanchang’s low-carbon roadmap, with plans for a world-class photovoltaic park. And several months ago, solar energy firm Saiwei’s thin film solar-cell plant went into operation in the Nanchang High-Tech Development Zone.

Many other Chinese cities have the same ambitions and plans for low-carbon economies and new energy. Indeed, a wave of “low-carbon cities” is sweeping across the land. The development of new energy sources is, of course, to be encouraged. But it would be short-sighted to think it is all that is required for a low-carbon economy. Other methods such as waste reduction through urban planning and advocating the use of public transport are equally important.

Demolishing a hotel that has been in use for little more than a decade is not common. But unnecessary demolitions do often happen in China. In one district of Fuzhou, the capital of the south-eastern province of Fujian, the local government recently released a startling piece of news: it plans to demolish a 15 million yuan (US$2.2 million) primary school, which only opened last year, along with a number of residential buildings that are less than ten years old in order to allow construction of a “Central Business District”.

Last summer I visited a project in Wuhan, central China’s most populous city, linking two urban lakes with a 1.7-kilometre long canal. The work involved the relocation of 8,932 households – but the majority of those homes were not actually in the area needed by the project. In early 2007, a Zhejiang University building on the bank of Hangzhou’s West Lake, east China, was also dynamited. The 20-storey, 60-metre high building was designed to last a century but ended up being used for just 13 years. The university had sold its lakeside campus to Hong Kong’s Kerry Properties, which plans to build a new complex.

The legal system should be the strongest guarantee of development of a low-carbon economy. But many take advantage of loopholes or a lack of legislation or simply forget about the law altogether. The unavoidable truth is that many of China’s local government officials have not appreciated the true meaning of a low-carbon economy. They like the low-carbon city label, but not what it really entails.

Li Taige is a Beijing-based journalist. He obtained a master’s degree in engineering from Sichuan University in 1997, and studied as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003-2004.
Homapage image from Lotus prince.