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China's quest to build the biggest & tallest

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer

HANGZHOU, China – It's become a truism (and a complaint) that most stories that take us out of Beijing require a flight, plus a four-hour drive. In the past two months, our NBC News team has criss-crossed the country, gathering story elements for features that will be broadcast when the Summer Olympics finally kicks off in August.

So we'd become a bit blasé about the reach of development witnessed in every far-flung corner of China until one particularly long road journey when our cameraman Dmitry Solovyov, on assignment here from Moscow, made the observation that, "The roads here are excellent. We do not have roads like this in Russia. Certainly not everywhere like here."

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
The Hangzhou Bay Bridge spans 22 miles across Hangzhou Bay.

He's right, of course. We have traveled down four-lane highways that, were it not for the rice paddies and water buffalo, could be anywhere in the United States or Europe.

But while road engineering may be one of the most beneficial aspects of China's progress, it's not the most fascinating aspect about its sprint to first-world development status.

More compelling is the Chinese authorities' apparent obsession with building superlatives: the world's biggest dam, the world's biggest airport terminal, Asia's tallest skyscraper and the world's highest railway. You get the picture.

Symbols of political power or intellectual heft?

This obsession with creating and surmounting engineering challenges has not gone unnoticed.  Critics of the central Chinese government dismiss these high-profile projects and massive infrastructure schemes as nothing more than political or nationalistic grandstanding, symbols that reinforce Beijing's power and authority.

Especially when it comes to the splashy landmarks built in the capital itself. "In the new Beijing, the state only protected sites that served to bolster its own self-justifying version of history," wrote Jasper Becker in a new book, "City of Heavenly Tranquillity."

Becker noted that the destruction and reconstruction seen in the capital has not been limited to Beijing, "Across the country hundreds of historic cities, towns and villages have been torn down in the greatest act of historical vandalism in Chinese history."

Others might argue otherwise.  An architecture critic in the New York Times recently wrote, "[T]hese buildings are not simply blunt expressions of power. Like the great monuments of 16th-century Rome or 19th-century Paris, China's new architecture exudes an aura that has as much to do with intellectual ferment as economic clout."

Hangzhou Bay Bridge
Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Driving down the world's longest sea bridge, where drivers are not allowed to stop.

The technocrats

But perhaps there's one other consideration, one that might go a long way in explaining China's determination to out-build everyone else: a technocrat leadership that believes building is the key to sustained economic growth. 

A prime example is China's President Hu Jintao, who started out as a hydropower engineer and cut his Communist Party teeth for several years at a provincial branch of the now-defunct Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power.

This concentration of talent in engineering and other physical sciences is also reflected at the local level. "Most city officials were trained as civil engineers and appointed from outside the area they governed. During Beijing's Olympics bid, the party-appointed mayor was from Jiangsu province, and had majored at university in iron smelting," wrote Michael Meyer in his newly-published book "The Last Days of Old Beijing," a highly engaging history of Beijing's hutongs – the narrow streets and alleys that traditionally characterized the city. In Meyer's view, "the government prioritized construction and modernization" above all else.

Another engineering breakthrough 

Standing at the edge of a pier overlooking Hangzhou Bay Bridge, we gazed at the latest emblem of progress. 

The world's longest sea bridge, spanning 22 miles, was disappearing into the hazy distance this scorching summer afternoon. Connecting Shanghai directly to Ningbo in neighbouring Zhejiang Province, Hangzhou Bay Bridge opened this past May to great fanfare.

"The bridge has been hailed as a 'Made-in-China' model in large infrastructure construction that fully uses home- grown technologies and demonstrates the country's architectural expertise," reported Xinhua. The state-run news agency went on to say that, during construction, the project "had survived 19 severe challenges, including typhoons, sea tides and geological problems."

But the bridge's builders did not account for China's gawkers.

Within days of its opening, the $1.76 billion Hangzhou Bay Bridge was becoming famous for an unexpected special feature: car accidents. 

The special viewing platform built to the side of the six-lane bridge was nowhere near completion, leaving drivers with no space to pause. So many people were stopping to gawk at the much-vaunted engineering and causing so much mayhem that police began cracking down on dawdling drivers and enforcing a minimum speed of 50 mph.