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Building a better ‘Made in China’ reputation

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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.

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