In the past 15 years, China has erected more high-rise towers than in the past half a century but one in the bustling city of Shenzhen is ringing alarms about the building spree.
The world’s second-largest economy is now home to 33 of the world’s 75 buildings higher than 350 meters, according to a list compiled by Wikipedia.
One of those Chinese entrants on the list has found itself on shaky ground – a 75-story, 170,000-square-meter office tower in the southern tech hub of Shenzhen.
Floors and roofs inside the SEG Plaza building, which stands 355 meters and is taller than New York’s Chrysler Building, started to tremble last week with the movement visible from several blocks away.
Fears that the walls may come down in the tower, which was completed in 1999, prompted thousands of tenants to run for the exits in a scene reminiscent of a disaster film.
As concerns about the safety of SEG Plaza and other buildings mount, Beijing has moved to slow its race to build towers to giddy heights as symbols of economic development.
Top Chinese government policymakers ordered a ban on new projects taller than 500 meters in May 2020, as outlined in a document from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. A slew of shovel-ready projects was canceled or had their designs cut short as a result.
Xinhua reported back then that Beijing had long realized that high-rises could be expensive to build and maintain and they would consume too much energy and even pose rising risks to public safety.
In March, as part of broader policies to tame widespread realty speculation, the ministry halted its new project approval of buildings taller than 18 floors in lower-tier cities and counties. This came after the construction spree had spread from key urban centers into smaller towns and rural areas.
Shenzhen’s municipal government later said that after an initial inspection by engineers, the tower’s steel tubes and concrete cores were structurally safe. They blamed the wind, temperature changes and two rumbling subway lines beneath the building for the movement.
However, the SEG Plaza continued to shake in the following days, even after a hastily convened panel of experts gave it a quick all-clear and told tenants they could move back in. Their only advice was to install tuned mass dampers – also called harmonic absorbers – on the high floors to reduce the vibrations.
A video of the building moving, taken from Chinese social media.
Xinhua and the China News Service cited a report by Shenzhen’s government as saying that some strong lateral force might have shaken the skyscraper up and down, not sideways, and that even though it would take time to ascertain the source that caused SEG Plaza to move, the building, with its four square cores and a sound foundation, was as rigid and solid as it should be.
Yet America’s Consulate-General in Guangzhou, whose jurisdiction covers Shenzhen, lost no time in issuing a safety advisory at the weekend, urging its citizens not to enter the towering landmark that usually appeared in shots for Shenzhen in Chinese movies.
In a hint of the authorities’ revised assessment of the SEG Plaza’s state, Li Xi, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo and the provincial party chief of Guangdong that exercises jurisdiction over Shenzhen, paid a surprise visit to the building earlier this week.
Li, accompanied by Guangdong Governor Ma Xingrui and Shenzhen’s party chief Wang Weizhong, reportedly ordered a more exhaustive check on its structure and designs after SEG Group, a state-owned conglomerate and the owner of the tower, decided to evacuate all tenants and seal the building indefinitely.
Li said an expanded expert committee must find the cause and recommend follow-up actions on the double and that the affected tenants must be compensated. The top official’s trip coincided with the resurfacing of a report from 20 years ago claiming that SEG Plaza’s contractors had sought to cut corners and thus prices to win the tender.
It said construction and a completion inspection were hurried as work started before its overall design could be finished because the city’s then-leaders ordered the building must be up and running in October 1999 to mark the 50th anniversary of Communist China.
Other reports by Shenzhen media then hailed “Chinese ingenuity” in speeding up the process as less than three days were needed to build a whole floor.
Still, an interim investigation report uploaded by Shenzhen officials to the city government’s online portal and seen by Asia Times ruled out any imminent dangers or risks, adding that all variables observed by the expert team and two independent agencies were within design parameters and did not hit the top end of the swing or movement band under Chinese building safety codes.
Shenzhen is no stranger to swaying skyscrapers. In 2018, when super typhoon Mangkhut battered the city, its 600-meter Ping An Finance Center, the world’s fourth-tallest, also swung visibly, causing some of its glass facade panels to break. The city said the building sustained no damage to its structure during the storm.
Land-starved Shenzhen has 145 buildings higher than 200 meters. Some adopted designs similar to that of SEG Plaza, with construction in some cases reputedly rushed.