Building a better 'Made in China' reputation

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    One of the four sections of the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge sits on a dock in Shanghai, waiting to be loaded onto a ship that'll carry it to the United States.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    A man peeks inside the headquarters office for the Bay Bridge construction at the Chinese engineering firm Shanghai Zhenhua. California estimates it saved nearly half a billion dollars by choosing Zhenhua to construct a portion of the new bridge, which is scheduled to open in 2013.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    One of the main reasons California chose Zhenhua is cost. Zhenhua pays many of the nearly 4,000 workers who helped build this bridge around $12/hour.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Project Director Li Jianghua stands in front of one of the Bay Bridge sections. Li says after Zhenhua landed the Bay Bridge contract, orders from Norway, Scotland, Macau, Denmark and Italy came in. Zhenhua is now truly an international engineering firm.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    All this new business has turned Changxing Island, Zhenhua's base of operations, into what Li calls the world's largest steel construction site. The island, located where the Yangtze River meets the Pacific Ocean, is home to parts of various bridges that will soon be shipped to various locations throughout the world.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Director Li says Zhenhua's accomplishment of constructing part of the new Bay Bridge to specifications challenges the long-held notion that 'Made in China' is synonymous with poor quality products.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Zhenhua is one of many Chinese firms that are becoming the 21st century Fluor or Bechtel; engineering firms that have a global presence.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

Jeremy Hobson: For decades, China's exported toys, clothes, electronics, you name it. Now it's exporting part of a bridge. And not just any bridge: The Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco and Oakland -- a bridge that carries a quarter million vehicles a day -- one of the longest bridges in the world.

Marketplace China Correspondent Rob Schmitz takes us to Shanghai, where a ship that'll carry the bridge across the Pacific is about to set sail.

Rob Schmitz: Here, on an island where the Yangtze River meets the Pacific, is where Li Jianghua wants to prove a point. For years, he says, the world has looked down on anything made in China. Times are changing.

Li Jianghua: This project should help finish off the idea that 'Made in China' stands for poor quality.

China is upgrading from the world's factory to the world's engineer. Li's crew is putting the finishing touches on the last of four sections of bridge that'll be shipped to San Francisco this week. California officials estimate they've saved nearly half a billion dollars by hiring Li's company, Shanghai Zhenhua, to build the eastern span of the new Bay Bridge. In the five years it's taken the company to build it, Li says this island has become the world's largest steel construction site.

Li: After we landed the Bay Bridge project, more international projects came our way. We're now working on bridges for Denmark, Italy, Scotland, Macau and Norway.

Four sections of bridges are scattered all over the island. U.C. Berkeley engineering professor William Ibbs says Zhenhua reminds him of big American engineering firms like Fluor and Bechtel, firms that have spent decades building a global profile.

William Ibbs: And they've been exporting American skill and expertise to those countries. Well, here we have a reversal of the situation, where Chinese skill and expertise is being exported into America.

Unlike other international construction firms, Zhenhua's labor costs are low -- workers here are paid $12 a day. And there's another difference, says Li: Zhenhua finished the project five months ahead of schedule.

In Shanghai, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.


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