A 70-story building swayed from side to side. Now China is enacting strict skyscraper laws.

·4 min read

It resembled a scene from a disaster movie.

As the 70-story skyscraper swayed above them, thousands of people ran screaming through the heart of the major Chinese city of Shenzhen.

Footage of the May 18 incident outside the 1,167-foot SEG Plaza quickly went viral and the U.S. Consulate in nearby Guangzhou advised Americans to stay away from the area.

The building's board of directors said in a statement July 15 that an investigation had concluded the building was safe “and can continue to be used.” It added that investigators believed that removing the building’s mast could “solve the issue of perceptible vibrations in the building."

The report came less than two weeks after China began to enforce new rules on the construction of skyscrapers, which banned new buildings above 1,640 feet. Proposals for buildings above 820 feet will also be “strictly limited,” and will require a specific reason for topping that height, they said.

Guidelines on the changes were issued by the country's National Development and Reform Commission to architects, property developers and urban planners last year, allowing them to alter designs if necessary. Buildings already under construction would not be affected.

The commission saidthis was a result of mounting safety and quality concerns over some projects.

China is home to five of the world’s 10 tallest buildings which exceed the 1,640-foot mark, including the Shanghai Tower which stands at just over 2,000 feet, according to the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the world's tallest with a height of 2,716 feet.

But Chinese policy toward the iconic indicators of economic fortitude has gradually shifted in recent years, according to Daniel Safarik, assistant director of research and thought leadership from the CTBUH.

“There's probably no country that has really taken the building of skyscrapers as a symbol of its economic prominence more than China,” he told NBC News over the phone last week.

“It's head and shoulders above anyone else by a good margin,” he added.

Economic reforms launched in 1978 by the ruling Chinese Communist Party under former leader Deng Xiaoping opened up the country to foreign investment, Safarik said.

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Experts in many different fields were invited from the West to bring the nation “up to par,” because “China as a nation wanted to announce its arrival on the global economic scene,” he added.

Foreign architects arrived in droves, encouraged by a welcoming government and a new source of revenue, which was a good testing ground for groundbreaking ideas, he said.

“By the late 90s, things were really starting to snowball,” he said, adding, “You were starting to see buildings that were the rival of anything that you would see in North America.”

But the nation's most recent move, he said, might signal a subtle shift in the country’s attitude toward its economy and development.

“China doesn't want to be seen as just copying the West,” he said.

Image: Boats travel on the Huangpu River as the skyline of the city is is seen, including the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Shanghai Tower (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images file)
Image: Boats travel on the Huangpu River as the skyline of the city is is seen, including the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Shanghai Tower (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images file)

The number of new buildings measuring 656 feet or higher fell by almost 40 per cent in 2019, according to a report by the CTBUH. Various regions were beginning to apply height restrictions to new projects.

For Bin Jiang, an associate professor in landscape architecture at the University of Hong Kong, financial considerations were also a key factor for the shift in policy.

"Money is borrowed from China's central bank, and the development of skyscrapers creates a big hole in government resources," he said, adding that they were also expensive to maintain.

"Most skyscraper buildings create a financial deficit,” Jiang said. “They are losing money everyday.”

There was no practical need for them, he added.

For Shanghai resident Jian Shi, 23, the decision to limit their height was a welcome one.

“I would live on the second or third floors of a residential building instead of the high-rises,” she said, adding that she feared for her safety whenever she was inside a skyscraper and preferred buildings with lower heights.

But Safarik maintained that the limit does not mean a ban on skyscrapers altogether.

“There will still be very tall buildings in China,” he said. “There just won’t be any excessively tall ones.”

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