Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Chinese Embassy in Washington DC is Open

The new Chinese embassy in Washington DC has officially opened, something that I, as an amateur critic of embassy architecture, have been happily anticipating. Today's Washington Post story has the details.

In a symbol of its growing stature, China inaugurated its new Washington embassy this week, a fortress of glass and limestone that consumes almost the length of an entire block of the international enclave just off Connecticut Avenue.

The opening last night drew a large crowd of diplomats and politicians, many of them swooning over the vaulted ceilings, skylights and wood-paneled walls. The building [TSB note: actually five buildings over a ten-acre site], which is far larger than neighboring embassies, was designed by two sons of I.M. Pei, the renowned Chinese American architect who beamed from the stage.

China's decision to import its own workforce has prompted criticism from some U.S. labor leaders, who contend that the jobs should have gone to American workers, particularly at a time when an economic slowdown has rattled the construction industry.

"We're allowing them to import Chinese construction workers to do work that American construction workers should be doing," said Terry O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, a Washington-based group that represents 508,000 construction workers. "We play by their rules in their country. Why shouldn't they do so in our country, with all due respect?"

Evidently Mr. O'Sullivan doesn't quite grasp the purpose of that imported Chinese labor. But his AFL-CIO counterparts do.

Not all unions share that sentiment, however. Tom Owens, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO's building and construction trades department, which represents 2.5 million plumbers, iron fitters and electricians, said that the union understands that foreign countries feel compelled to use their own workers.

"We would love to have the jobs, but at the same time we understand diplomatic security," he said.

Wang Baodong, an embassy spokesman, said he is unaware of the reason that China brought in its own workforce [TSB note: I'm sure Wang Baodong appeared perfectly sincere when he said that], nor could he detail how many workers were brought in at any time, except to say "several hundred." He also could not say how much the project cost. Wang said, however, that a local construction company he identified as Cherry Hill was hired to work on the site before the building was constructed. In explaining why Chinese workers were imported, he said the custom "is not special to China. It's an international practice to have your own workers build embassies".

Bringing your own laborers is, in fact, not all that common in international construction, but it was the practice in this case.

Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman, said that it is unusual for foreign governments to use only workers from their countries. Thompson also said that a bilateral agreement between Chinese and U.S. officials, enacted for the construction of the two embassies, allowed the countries "to use their own workers to build their respective facilities."

Building an embassy on foreign soil has often been fraught with cloak-and-dagger complexity, especially between superpowers that do not trust each other. In 1985, the United States halted construction of an embassy in Moscow after U.S. officials found electronic surveillance devices in the walls.

The United States has shown that it, too, can dabble in embassy espionage. In 2001, federal investigators revealed that the United States built a secret tunnel beneath the Soviet Embassy in the District, with the hopes of checking up on Russian chatter.

In Beijing, as well as anywhere else that the United States builds embassies, American workers construct the areas in which intelligence or sensitive information is disseminated, said Joseph Toussaint, managing director of project execution for the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. American-hired contractors are free to employ local workers for unclassified areas, such as a cafeteria, parking lot or auditorium.

In Beijing, where the United States' $464 million embassy is to open Aug. 8, contractors employed as many as 1,000 Chinese workers, Toussaint said. He said 300 to 400 Americans worked on the project.

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