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NZCFS 2017 Engineering Delegation to China: Ancient and Modern Wonders

NZCFS Engineering Delegation in front of bird nest.1
Group in front of Bird Nest
NZCFS Engineering Delegation in front of old rewi alley residence
Group in front of old Rewi Alley residence

As the NZCFS engineering delegation to China is funded by the NZCFS Rewi Alley Fund, it was fitting that the first visit for our group of seven professional engineers (pictured in front of the Bird’s Nest in Beijing) was to Rewi Alley’s former residence in Beijing.  Experiencing the place of the pioneer of NZ-China relations set the scene for our nine day programme in Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai, during which we would meet leading engineering firms, visit sites and engage in cultural activities. Our delegation included professional engineers from Beca, Babbage, Aurecon, Transpower, The University of Canterbury and Auckland Transport and represented a range of industries including buildings, infrastructure, power and transport.  In addition to commemorating Rewi Alley’s legacy, our objectives were around building relationships, sharing engineering knowledge and better understanding China professionally and culturally.

A highlight of the study tour came on the day hosted by Chengdu Rail Transit who operate and are building the metro in Chengdu. They are opening 79 km of new underground metro line this year, have seventy tunnel boring machines operating around the city of 16 million people to achieve this and have further expansion planned until 2020.  This scale is unimaginable to our engineering industry in NZ and, during a site visit into the TBM-bored metro line to the airport, it was obvious the Chinese engineers involved were proud of the clearly world-class technology they had developed and put to work around the city.

From this and other experiences, our group came to appreciate China is no longer a place where foreign engineering firms solely need to export technology or skills to, but China is in its own right a huge engineering powerhouse and producer of technology.  They have created leading engineering works such as 600 metre high skyscrapers in Shanghai and brilliant urban spaces in the newly constructed downtown of Chengdu.  We also visited Diujiangyan irrigation scheme which was constructed over 2000 years ago to reduce flooding and irrigate Sichuan province, and is still in operation today.  This showed a clear foresight and excellence in design and operation; solving problems such as sediment transport, flood and river management without construction of a large dam, and maintenance over a long period of operation, which are challenges New Zealand faces today.  Even large Chinese state owned enterprises such as State Grid are far from old-fashioned, producing world-first ultra-high voltage (UHV) power transmission technology and engaging with a vision of renewable energy being transmitted long distances around the globe.

NZCFS Engineering Delegation visiting exhibition hall of beijing construction group
Group visiting exhibition hall of Beijing construction group

As a group, we learnt a significant amount from our meetings with the Chinese based companies and organisations.  The non-Mandarin speakers in our group experienced the challenges of communicating through translators especially on technical topics, with cultural differences added into this.  We also discovered first-hand how making a little effort with Chinese language really helps with building connections, even if it’s just a few words.  We learnt that the meetings were a two-way process; it was not just us that were interested in learning about the Chinese engineering environment, but they were very interested in information we had to share about the NZ engineering industry.  We had to think about what information we could offer on opportunities to engage with the NZ engineering industry in the future by introducing current industry challenges, upcoming large projects, etc.  The Chinese firms we met all had a positive perception of NZ, and we were impressed by the patience by some of their efforts to expand internationally often involving studying what they are uniquely best placed to offer and waiting for the right opportunity to come.  On the other side, there are opportunities for engineering and technology firms especially in the environmental field in China, which evidently becoming more a focus and growth area.

Overall, Chinese companies hugely interested in potential opportunities overseas and especially engaging with the Xi Jinping’s signature ‘Belt and Road’ (OBOR) policy, about which NZ and China have recently signed a memorandum.  The best interpretation we heard about what OBOR might mean for NZ is that it is more of signal about where Chinese companies will look to expand overseas, as opposed to any re-construction literally of the Silk Road route/region.  It also became more evident during the study tour that there is large potential for Chinese firms to assist with capacity issues in the NZ construction industry, including supply of building materials such as steel, providing skilled workers to meet expected shortages, and joint venturing/partnering with local construction firms to deliver larger building and infrastructure projects.  Meetings with Beijing Construction Engineering Group and Bao Steel really highlighted this potential and the increasing capability of Chinese firms operating internationally, and they were interested to hear about some NZ’s engineering challenges such as delivering projects to address traffic congestion, accommodation shortages and other issues.

Regarding the cultural aspects of the programme, we stayed in some authentic Chinese hotels including a bamboo courtyard hotel in Beijing and a hotel near the old monastery site in central Chengdu.  On our day off we visited the Great Wall at Badaling and the Summer Palace in Beijing, as well as going to the amazing face-changing opera in Chengdu (how do they do it?!), trying early morning tai chi and attending the traditional-style banquets warmly provided by our Chinese hosts.  A special thanks from the delegation to every one of our hosts in China, and the onus is on us to keep up the NZ-China engagement in the engineering field going, so watch this space.  Also, thanks to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and NZ Trade and Enterprise for meeting us in each city and helping to put the experience in a NZ context, as well as our generous funders of the New Zealand China Friendship Society (NZCFS) Rewi Alley Fund and the Asia New Zealand Foundation for supporting us on what is an important opportunity in our engineering careers.

Delegates Jenny Chu, Tom Wollerman, Daniel Scott, Warren Hill, Chin Long Lee, Ben Ryder and Vijay Patel