China has been building massive numbers of skyscrapers. It’s difficult to comprehend the numbers involved, but one jaw-dropping statistic relates to the amount of cement China has used in its construction boom—in just three years, China consumed much more than the US did in a century.
But when it comes to skyscrapers, let’s be honest—a lot of it is pretty symbolic of, shall we say, other pursuits.
A particularly unfortunate angle of a skyscraper under construction in Zhengzhou, Henan Province.
Recent years have seen China construct some truly impressive skyscrapers and more are on the way. Of China’s top five buildings, three of them were completed just last year.
It’s important to note, though, that it can be surprisingly difficult to rank the tallest buildings—for example, does putting spire or antenna on the top count toward height? Does it need to contain apartments or retail stores, or is just an observation deck acceptable? Was it “finished” when it reached its maximum height, or when it opened to the public?
For the purposes of this article, we’re gonna break it down to the simplest definition: tall things built by humans on mainland China that were finished as of April 2017 (though we’ll also include a few mentions planned buildings that will be even taller).
And yeah, the spires count toward height. However, as we go, we’ll endeavor to explain some points of contention. Without further ado, here’s the list, starting from the (only) indisputably tallest building in China, the Shanghai Tower.
1 – The Shanghai Tower – 632 meters
Status: Finished in 2014/2016
Is part of that a spire: No
From below (Liu Jue)
Although most of the construction was finished in 2014 and parts were opened up, the building wasn’t entirely opened to the public until last year. At a height of 632 meters, it’s both the tallest skyscraper and general built structure in China. The Shanghai World Financial Center, another item on this list, is just a stone’s throw away (but don’t try that out from that height, seriously). The roof and pinnacle height of the Shanghai Tower are the same—no cheap spires to boost its height here, this thing is all building.
From inside (Liu Jue)
Its viewing deck is open to visitors, so if you’re visiting Shanghai, it’s well worth the trip. The Shanghai Tower is now the second tallest building in the world behind the Burj Khalifa, though there are plenty of contenders being built around the world that might soon upset these ranking.
2 – The Ping An Finance Center in Shenzhen – 600 meters
Status: Finished in 2016
Is part of that a spire: Yes, 50 meters of it
Completed last year, Shenzhen’s Ping An Finance Center stands at 600 meters if you include its spire, but is just 550 meters if you subtract that. Plans were afoot to try and steal the Shanghai Tower’s thunder by building an even taller spire and becoming the tallest building overall, but apparently it was a risk to planes, so the no-doubt disappointed architects had to shelve those plans. Construction was also delayed on this building, reportedly due to the builders using the wrong kind of sand in cement which might have corroded the steel beams. This one’s the tale of the building that could have been number one, but, as they say, it was a day late and a whole bunch of meters short.
3 – The Canton/Guangzhou Tower – 600 meters, possibly just 595
Status: Finished in 2010
Is part of that a spire: Yes, a quarter of it
This structure is a bit of a controversial entry, because it’s not really a skyscraper at all. In fact, a lot of things are disputed about this thing, but it is clearly pretty damn tall. Known as the Guangzhou Tower, Canton Tower, or the Guangzhou TV Astronomical and Sightseeing Tower, as well as a whole host of local nicknames like the “Slim Waist” (just look at it), the top quarter of this structure is basically just a metal frame with a viewing deck. The tower stands at 450 meters, with a 150-meter antenna on the top.
To make matters even more controversial, it’s basically the same height as number two on this list, but Guangzhou’s city planners have actually indicated they think it’s just a whisker short of 600 meters, actually standing at 595.7 meters, probably to the chargrin of some architects somewhere, so feel free to develop a bizarrely strong opinion about which one actually deserves the number two ranking. It will probably help if you’re either from Guangzhou or Shenzhen so you can really stick it to the other team.
4 – The Guangzhou Chow Tai Fook Finance Center – 530 meters
Status: Finished in 2016
Is part of that a spire: No, but the height is inflated by an atrium
This one is mostly all building, yet another recent addition to China’s burgeoning skyline. The Guangzhou CTF building is also known as the “East Tower” because it’s the taller twin of part a pair – the West Tower stands at 439 meters.
As for the height, the top floor stands at 494 meters. The remaining 35 meters can be chalked up to the glass roof of the top section, which tapers off in a kind of slope.
The building is also in contention for having the world’s fastest elevator, so that’s something. It calls itself the tallest building in Guangzhou, but perhaps supporters of the Guangzhou Tower will have something to say about that.
5 – Shanghai World Financial Center – 492 meters
Status: Finished in 2008
Is part of that a spire: No, but it has the “bottle-opener”
This is another one that’s mostly all building. Known colloquially as the “bottle opener” due to its shape, the building has a distinctive gap at the top, but this design only adds about 10 meters on top of the highest inhabitable floor, so we won’t quibble about it. Construction on the building was delayed due to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, redesigns, and even a fire, so it was in limbo for a very long time. It’s located in Shanghai’s Pudong District, very close to the Shanghai Tower.
With the rate of construction going on, it’s inevitable there will be more challengers within a few years. Even the world’s tallest, the Burj Khalifa, is poised to lose its crown to both a building in Saudi Arabia and another in Dubai.
China’s tallest building is supposed to be in Suzhou, though construction on the 729-meter-tall Suzhou Zhongnan tower was halted in 2015. It’s important to remember that in China’s development circles, there have long been some pretty grandiose claims that have fallen through—a Chinese developer who specialized in prefabricated buildings once boasted they would build the world’s tallest building, at 838 meters, in 90 days in Changsha. This was in 2014, and the development, Sky City, never materialized.
When construction broke ground on the Wuhan CTF Center in 2017, it was to be 648 meters, with a spire that puts it just over 700 meters; spire notwithstanding, this would have been be taller than the Shanghai Tower, though city authorities later restricted the height to 475 meters, the same as Wuhan’s current tallest skyscraper, the Chushang Building.
Wuhan Greenland Center, which was to stand at 636 meters and have been finished in 2018, has been likewise scaled down to 475 meters with an estimated completion in 2021. 2018 was also the forecast completion year for Tianjin’s Goldin Finance 117 building, which was to stand at 595 meters, but this contender for China’s second tallest building remains unfinished at the time of writing. For the time being, it looks like the Shanghai Tower will keep its crown.
Post updated on July 31, 2020.
Cover image from Baidu