CIOB members and staff have been paying tributes to the remarkable life of Professor Li Shirong, the first woman to become President of the CIOB who has sadly passed away after a long battle with lung cancer.
Described as “special” and “hugely determined” Professor Li Shirong, 59, from Chongqing in China became CIOB President in 2009, its 175th anniversary year, and the first person to take up the position from outside the UK and Ireland. Her appointment signalled the growing ties between the Institute and China, which Professor Li Shirong continued to strengthen.
A pioneer in construction management in her home country, Professor Li’s work spanned academia, industry and government and reflects her strong belief in the need for sustainable urbanisation.
She was Professor of Construction Management of Chongqing University, deputy director of Chongqing Foreign Trade and Economic Relations Commission, a member of various advisory groups to the Chongqing government and the author of 26 books published in both China and abroad.
Chris Blythe, CIOB chief executive
Professor Li’s first degree was in civil engineering, she also had an MSc in construction management and a PhD in construction economics and management from the University of Reading in the UK.
CIOB chief executive, Chris Blythe OBE, said: “For those of us in the CIOB our memories are very special. She always had energy, she always had a smile and she always found a way to solve a problem.
“No one she ever came across felt anything other than being fortunate to know her.
“Her leadership of the institute was inspirational, her intellect and energy boundless and her love for the CIOB and what it stood for was immense.
“Whenever she said to me ‘Chris I have an idea’ I would respond ‘What have you done?’ It became a standing joke between us. She made things happen so why not let her have the ideas.
“She was unique as a President, a star a very special person. We have lost a good friend. As chief executive, the relationship with Shirong was very special to me and the legacy is a set of very special memories. Our deepest condolences go to her family and friends.”
The CIOB’s former deputy chief executive and close friend of Professor Shirong, Michael Brown FCIOB, said: “Last week we said goodbye to a great woman, and a close friend of all who knew her. We are deeply saddened by our loss but blessed by so many good memories. In 2009, during our 175th anniversary celebrations, Shirong became the first woman to be President of the CIOB and the first President from outside the UK. She will always be known as ‘Our First Lady’.”
Another close friend, Lord Prescott, said: “I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Professor Li Shirong who I considered a close friend. She was a remarkable woman, who I much admired for her commitment to improving the lives of citizens and communities. She was a real ambassador for Chongqing and I will very much miss her. My sincere condolences to her family.”
Professor Roger Flanagan, who was Professor Li’s supervisor when she did her PhD at Reading and a life-long friend, said: “She held so many posts and achieved so much. She was very determined – and would always do what she set her mind to. But what also struck me about her was that she was very caring. There was something in her DNA which made her very special.”
A member of the CIOB since its early connections with China and regarded as a major factor in its growth there, Professor Li Shirong used her term to ensure that international communications remain high on the agenda. “As the world becomes smaller, it’s easier to share experience about how to make the best use of our resources. But the world is still challenging – we need communication and collaboration internationally, particularly during the current economic crisis,” she said when she took office.
Li Shirong was born in the town of Ya’an in Sichuan province. Her mother was a primary school teacher and her father was a civil engineer, which she cites as the main reason she chose construction as a career.
Her relatively comfortable start in life might well have provided a good base for professional advancement in a different environment, but it was not the case when she was young. When Shirong completed her schooling in 1976, the Cultural Revolution had not quite ended and the “Down to the Countryside” movement was still marshalling China’s educated urban youth into back-breaking labouring jobs on the nation’s farms.
In 1977, policy winds shifted in her favour as young people were allowed to take examinations to enter into universities for the first time in a decade. Having passed the exam, Professor Li was enrolled in the civil engineering programme at Chongqing University. She began her studies in January 1978, a proud member of the first cohort to enter university under the new policy since the Cultural Revolution began.
After graduating in 1982, she was selected to be a teacher in the civil engineering department. Alongside this work, she started studying on the Masters programme in construction management. For China, this was a new and exciting discipline, and realising that she would need to develop an international perspective too, Shirong started studying English.
She was also appointed to sit on the national Steering Committee for Construction Management Education under the Ministry of Construction.
In 1993, she won a scholarship for a year’s study at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Before she left China, Shirong had become aware of the work of the Chartered Institute of Building due to her connections in the Ministry
She became the third of many Chinese nationals to join the Institute, Professor Li’s initiative was to benefit the CIOB as much as it did her and her department.
She was an ambassador for women in the construction industry and during her CIOB Presidency urged female members to upgrade into Fellowship.