By GONG DI
BEIJING (China Daily Show) – Arriving at work one morning, bank teller Zhao Chen was mildly surprised to find large heaps of broken stone on the steps outside the branch of Agricultural Bank of China, where he normally pulls an eight-hour daily shift playing Pac-Man.
“At first, I was puzzled: where does this stuff keep coming from?” he said. But after going online, 29-year-old Zhao was soon beaming with pride: “It turns out we’re the world’s number-one producer of useless rubble!”
Until 1978, China was a largely bleak, rural country with relatively few built-up areas. Today it is still bleak, but a program of rapid urbanization has replaced many agrarian and ‘green belt’ areas with large piles of debris.
Now the rubble miracle is moving out of the countryside – and into the city streets.
“Most days, on my way to work, I’ll pass at least one or two heaps of mashed-up masonry and gravel,” said white-collar worker Pi Yuan. “No idea why.”
He’s not alone.
“There’s been a large pile of smashed rocks and asbestos outside my dormitory for the last month,” said art student Pippi Li. “No one knows where it’s come from. But it sure as hell isn’t going anywhere.”
As pavements crack and jerry-built roads and bridges buckle, loose masses of angular rock fragments, tarmac and masonry are turning up in the most unlikely of places.
Meanwhile, breakneck economic reform has meant that it is now impossible to walk more than five paces without coming face-to-face with a pile of quarried rock, interspersed with dust and shingle.
China has become the world’s largest producer of building debris, says Tony Ling, editor-in-chief of Concrete!, one of China’s biggest-selling rock magazines. “We’re leaving developing countries like Brazil and India in the dust – literally,” Lings wheezed, his face coated in construction dust.
Yet despite China’s huge reserves, analysts say rubble exports are slow.
“You’d have thought there’d be huge demand from overseas for ground-up pieces of cement and broken bits of roof tile, but that simply isn’t the case,” said baffled Shanghai trader Tony Bao.
Bao blames a downturn in consumer confidence for the West’s lack of appetite for twisted fragments of crumbling granite, rusted metal spokes and broken brick.
Now the country has so much of the stuff, it simply does not know what to do with it. Children play in it, pedestrians wearily circle it and residents choke on it, but few seem willing to exploit rubble’s huge potential.
“To anyone who complains about the demolition of cultural relics, violation of property rights or the destruction of living history, I have just one message,” retorts Concrete! magazine’s Tony Ling. “‘Look at all that free rubble!’ I mean, who doesn’t like free stuff?”
But as growth slows and building projects are abandoned, many mid-way through, China’s largest domestic product is becoming rubble trouble – which has some economists ringing alarm bells.
“At current estimates, China stands to be two-thirds rubble by 2030,” noted the World Bank’s Gabriel Gouldini. “If the trend doesn’t slow soon, China risks becoming one giant, rebar-filled building site. In a situation like that, the country could even end up being ruled by giant cranes.”
Yet others remain bullish.
“Let’s think big picture,” said Tsinghua University’s Professor Tang Tian, a longtime advocate of more rubble. “In the event or scenario where the world urgently needed gigantic volumes of potentially toxic building debris at short notice, then China’s economic worries would be a thing of the past.”