A structural revolutionary

September 21, 2001

Li Shirong could make a packet working for the construction industry in Hong Kong, but believes there is work to be done in her native China, writes Jackie Sheehan

Li Shirong, professor of construction management and real estate at Chongqing University in western China, traces the work ethic behind her impressive CV back to her childhood. Her extensive list of qualifications includes membership of the Chartered Institute of Building, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, together with degrees from Chinese and British universities and a lengthy list of publications.

Growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s in a family labelled as being of "landlord" background, the Li children were conscious of their precarious position in society, and Li Shirong recalls how her father impressed on them the importance of education. "'Your future will depend on yourself,' he used to say. 'Your family cannot help. You must study hard to make your own way in the world'."

As if the "landlord" label were not hindrance enough, Li's education was disrupted from the age of ten by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. On completing her schooling at 18, she was sent to the countryside for a year. But she does not view this experience as entirely negative, and is still proud of the fact that at 18 she was capable of carrying a 90kg load. Perhaps the egalitarian nature of this stint at rural labour also helped prepare her to go into engineering, a field where women are in almost as small a minority in China as in the United Kingdom. Looking back, Li says: "I do think in some ways it was good for us to go to the countryside and see how different life was there. And because we all wanted so much to get back to the city, it made for very intense competition to succeed." Nowhere was this more true than in the 1978 university entrance examinations, the first to be held after the Cultural Revolution, in which Li was competing among a ten-year backlog of high-school graduates all desperate for the chance of higher education. Those who did succeed, she says, were of necessity "a very serious, very hard-working group of students. You really can say that we were the best."

They were also a cohort that varied widely in age, background and work experience, and perhaps this is a factor in Li's present advocacy of continuing and part-time education in her field of construction management. The need for construction-site managers able to cope with China's increasingly market-oriented environment is very plain in Li's Chongqing base, where a million construction workers are employed on some 10,000 sites at any given time, and the solutions Li is working on are practical ones: part-time study through one-day workshops and seminars combined with on-site experience for trainees. She stresses, too, the importance of involving more senior personnel in companies, people whose original training pre-dated China's marketising economic reforms and whose financial, marketing and personnel skills do not match their often high level of technical expertise. With China's recent admission to the World Trade Organisation and the global competition that the construction industry now faces as a result, Li is involved in a three-year project training site managers to international standards. "Good companies are already investing in training and will be ahead of the competition. Other companies still don't really understand the importance of management, and by the time they realise, it will be too late."

After more than two decades of economic reform in China, Li believes that the key is to concentrate on "soft" development - policy research, training and education - and on changing the way people think, and in particular to accustom Chinese people to functioning in a market economy.

The comparisons she constantly made between China and the developed world during her five years in Holland and the UK in the mid-1990s gave her a good sense of what changes were needed at home. She points out that there need be no sense of inferiority involved in learning from other countries. "Chinese people are clever, we are good at lots of things and we learn quickly. It is just that we missed this historic stage of the market economy, so there is a lot we can learn from countries that have that experience."

Li adds that she has received a positive response from the UK to requests for placements for Chinese trainees. "Chinese students have an excellent reputation for their academic and technical skills. With good management, they do extremely well."

On problems such as corruption in tendering for contracts, Li is sanguine:

"You have to remember that it's still very new, this process of tendering for contracts; it only came in with economic reform. It takes time to develop ways of regulating for fair competition." As for the highly publicised construction disasters of the late 1990s, she points out that, in a country employing 34 million construction workers, a certain number are bound to happen, adding that blame has not always been placed where it should be: "There is a need to change client mentality. Too often they are only interested in getting prices down. There is no awareness of the effect this will have on quality."

In higher education terms, Li is an energetic evangelist for the comparatively new field of construction management. She bemoans the fact that it is usually relegated to a subordinate role in management departments in Chinese universities, when it should be located much closer to its engineering roots. Funding and resources, she explains, still tend to follow the longer-established and more prestigious disciplines, departments and individuals in China. Increased funding from industry, as well as from higher tuition fees, will help, but she also believes that universities will have to invest in the area themselves: "If universities don't think about this, they are going to lose out as student numbers decline in more traditional subjects."

For the time being, student numbers are more than healthy, with some universities seeing annual increases of 20 per cent in their intakes in recent years, and as much as 30 per cent on masters courses. Even with this expansion, competition for places is still fairly intense, though less so than in Li's day, and another issue is recruiting enough staff to teach these greatly increased numbers and reforming the structure of universities. Many institutions could operate a great deal more efficiently and with fewer administrative staff than they do, Li notes, were it not for the difficulty of re-employing them elsewhere. Attracting good graduates to an academic career is not always easy, especially in a field such as Li's, where industry offers greater financial reward for scarce skills than academe. Students on her masters courses can out-earn their professors before they graduate. Universities have noticed the problem and are beginning to offer better salaries to academics. As Li points out, there are other advantages to an academic career besides the pay, such as respected status in society and relatively high job security.

But it is clear that Li could walk into a lucrative post in China with any overseas or Hong Kong company, and she is often asked why she doesn't, given her qualifications and experience. "Maybe this is something fixed in us when we were very young. My generation went through all kinds of things in Chinese history, such as the Cultural Revolution, that make us think first about making a contribution to society."

Another echo of her Cultural Revolution experiences can be found in her comments on the need to break down the hierarchical mentality and automatic deference to authority that is still common in China, "so that good suggestions and creative ideas can come from anyone in the organisation, instead of just a top-down process all the time". She includes deference to parental authority in this analysis: although she took to engineering instantly, her choice of university course was made by her father, himself a construction contractor. Li says that many Chinese students today are still influenced by their family's ideas of good future careers as much as by their own preferences.

Li has had only one real academic failure in her career: she didn't pass the multiple-choice exam for a government post, a test based on "just memorisation and regurgitating the correct answers". Given her insights into the reform process and her expertise in a crucial area of development for China, one cannot help but think that this was the government's loss and the gain of the PhD students in construction management at Chongqing University.

Jackie Sheehan is a lecturer in 20th-century Chinese history at Nottingham University.

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