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The American middle class is in distress. Here's what that means to the world's largest economy, and the rest of planet earth.

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Here on Changxing Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Zhenhua has 28,000 workers, 280 cranes, and a fleet of 26 ships docked at their private port. (Jonah Kessel/GlobalPost)

America the Gutted: The island of migrant steel

Six thousand miles from the coast of the United States, a new group of ironworkers are building bridges and, slowly, their own economic futures.

SHANGHAI, China — More than six thousand miles from the California coast, Chinese workers still speak with pride about their role in rebuilding the iconic San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

It has been more than a year since they completed the last steel structures for the bridge’s dramatic renovation and loaded them onto ships at the company’s docks. But they say it remains the biggest, hardest, and most exacting project they have ever completed.

Just ask Zeng Ye Huan, a grinning steel polisher who, under his orange safety overalls, continues to wear a T-shirt commemorating the first shipment of steel for the bridge. Or Wang Pei, a 25-year-old welding overseer who says that the five years he spent toiling on the project “left a deep impression.”

“Maybe I will be still able to remember doing it after 10 or 20 years when I can’t remember other projects,” he says.

Yang Zhi Gang, a nine-year veteran welder of the company from Anhui province, echoes him, calling the work “exceptionally tough” to complete because “the Americans have much higher standards.”

These men are just a few of the beneficiaries of California’s decision to send all the steel work on the massive, $6.3 billion renovation to China — a decision that California officials claim saved hundreds of millions of dollars.

They are the lucky counterparts of disappointed American steel workers in Portland whose employer failed in its rival bid.

And they are the face of the Chinese middle class that is rising as America’s is falling.

Here on Changxing Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Zhenhua has 28,000 workers, 280 cranes, and a fleet of 26 ships docked at its private port. The workshop where the US bridge was built is a cavernous building, 90 feet high and the length of two football fields. A riot of saws, echoing clangs, and hissing torches fills the air. Searing white flashes of blowtorches erupt from the welders' stations. 

Like most steel companies in China, Zhenhua is majority state-owned, and is seen as strategically important to the country.

The Bay Bridge project played a particularly large role in the company’s goal of growing overseas. It was the first bridge Zhenhua — largely known for making cranes — had ever built. And though the firm says it made little profit on the $350 million contract with California, it has already used that experience to expand into the European market. In August, Zhenhua shipped steel components to Norway to build a bridge with one of the world’s longest spans.

That is not to say that their work was perfect. On the Bay Bridge project, flaws in the welding of the first steel shipment caused serious delays. Several hundred American inspectors took up residence in Shanghai in order to verify the quality of the welds. 

“Sometimes if the Americans found that the products were not as good as they expected, they would ask why until they were satisfied as to how to fix it,” says Wang. 

Many analysts in California and beyond questioned the wisdom of saving public money at the expense of American workers. “America will never recover if we outsource everything, including our public infrastructure,” wrote Cate Long, an analyst of municipal bonds for Reuters. “In times of fiscal stress it’s easy to understand why public entities are trying hard to cut costs. But this ‘cost cutting’ is really just off-shoring American jobs.”

Eventually, however, the project overcame its critics and delivered on schedule. In 2010, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the plant and thanked the employees for their work. 

Few projects better illustrate the rising fortunes of ordinary Chinese than this one.

More than a thousand Chinese welders were hired by Zhenhua to finish it on time. China's development — which has lifted millions of people from poverty — is in many ways the mirror image of America's loss of manufacturing jobs over the last three decades. As the United States sheds work, China's manufacturing sector has created millions of blue-collar jobs.

Companies like Zhenhua have helped create the world’s biggest middle class, some 350 million strong. In turn, as these workers spend their paychecks, they are powering China’s economic growth. This consumption is crucial to the country’s next phase of development. The Brookings Institution has predicted that