Shanghai

A century ago, it was the siren of the East in western eyes, attracting the usual colonial mix of gold-diggers and carpet baggers, and becoming an international symbol of corruption and exploitation, ill-gotten gains and fickle fortunes. Some decades later it was a cradle of the Chinese Revolution, the birthplace of the Communist Party of China in 1921. Today the international gold rush is once again evident in Shanghai, as profit-seeking businesses from all over the world flock to a vastly different but even more fascinating city.

The origins of Shanghai reflected its early character of international degradation. After the Chinese defeat in the First Opium War in 1842, the British quickly used the terms of their victory to establish a trading port on the Yangtze River Basin, at the site of what was then little more than a large fishing village. Other foreigners like the French quickly followed, and the city became the base for the rapidly growing trade in opium, silk and tea.

The term “den of vice” was probably invented to describe Shanghai at that time, as it became a byword for decadence. The essentially colonial foreign business presence, reinforced by the power of the European (and later American) troops positioned there, encouraged the proliferation of opium dens, gambling houses and prostitution. By the early part of the 20th century, the oppression of Chinese workers in Shanghai was worse than even the most extreme stereotype, with the persistence of child labour in slave-like conditions in the most unsavoury activities, the routine degradation of ordinary men and women and the fierce suppression of any kind of workers’ resistance.

So it was not surprising that Shanghai became a breeding ground for revolutionary thought and produced many of the future leaders of the Communist Party. Radical opinion of all sorts has dominated in Shanghai – the now infamous Gang of Four had their power base here during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. (Even now, incidentally, much of the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party tends to come from this city, including former President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji.)

But now the city is the emblem of another kind of radicalism – the aggressive economic expansion that characterises the new China. It has become the glittering and showy archetype of the results of massive state investment in infrastructure combined with active encouragement to private investment. The emphasis until recently was on manufacturing, but increasingly the city also seeks to rival Hong Kong by diversifying into a range of services including finance.

The sheer visual impact of the city is astounding even if not beautiful, and it is clearly intended to astound. Shanghai today is a megalopolis of futuristic skyscrapers and other high-rise buildings held together by a vast network of state-of-the-art motorways. The skyline is as spectacular as that of Manhattan, and even more eager to invite the visitor’s gaze. Tourist boat rides along the Huangpu river in the evenings provide images of the main centre of the city lit up in gaudy colours that highlight the outlines of the surrounding buildings, creating the impression of a city at once brash and self-confident, yet also anxious to attract attention.

And attention – of an international kind – it is certainly receiving. Shanghai is clearly the place to be for multinational capital today: it is hard to think of a major global brand name that is not jostling for space among the neon billboards or vying for offices to rent in the new edifices that are continuously emerging.

Much of the skyline is new. Most of Shanghai’s recent expansion is very recent, dating from the early 1990s when the government decided to develop the hitherto barren area of Pudong which lies to the east of the Huangpu River. Pudong is now full of glitzy ultra modern buildings and commercial centres that compete with the most opulent anywhere in East Asia. Even the new public buildings in the older parts of the city – such as the Shanghai Museum – display an architectural audacity that is very 21st century. The older colonial style buildings lining the famous “Bund” along the river now seem less like the symbols of Shanghai’s complicated past, and more like dowager old ladies bemusedly watching the frenetic development disco being performed all around them.

The central area around People’s Square is chock a block with shopping malls and spanking new office buildings, and the new prosperity is only too evident. The region round Shanghai has grown much more rapidly than the rest of China in the past decade, and per capita income is currently estimated be slightly more than double the national average of $1000 per year. The signs of recent wealth and ballooning consumption are everywhere, from the endless and varied restaurants where huge amounts of food are routinely (and almost compulsorily) wasted by diners, to the split air conditioners  attached outside almost every window even in the workers’ housing complexes, to the gargantuan cars clogging even the very wide streets, to the range of High Street goods on offer in shops that could be anywhere in the developed world.

Across the city, construction continues at a breathless pace. Local residents joke that the official bird of the region is the crane, and indeed it is difficult to turn one’s eyes in any direction and avoid seeing that ubiquitous indicator of ongoing construction activity. Despite the absence of greenery, it would be wrong to describe it as a concrete jungle, since a jungle is a more messy, unplanned and varied environment. Shanghai, by contrast, is highly regulated, with little of the chaotic informal sector activity that multiplies and messes up the streets in other large metros. In fact, it is one of the cleanest cities in the developing world, reflecting not only regulation but also the greater civic sense of its residents.

The massive infrastructure expansion extends well beyond Shanghai to the enveloping regions of Jiangsu and Zhenang provinces. A trip out of Shanghai by road can extend for several hundred kilometres revealing very little farmland and instead only contiguous industrial areas served by gleaming motorways and filled with extensive housing settlements for workers.

If all this seems to have relatively little to do with Communism as it is generally understood, it is certainly very much part of an aggressively expansionist development model that has already been experimented with, especially in other parts of east Asia.

Jakarta in Indonesia, for example, expanded upwards in a rapid fashion in the 1980s, with infrastructure growth both fuelled by and fuelling the state-led export-oriented manufacturing boom that led to a huge shift of the workforce within less than a generation. But Jakarta’s growth was never as regulated, and that particular overall development strategy came to an abrupt and cathartic end during the East Asian crisis, from which the economy of Indonesia has still not fully recovered. In consequence, Jakarta’s woes now resemble those of other third world cities, with overburdened infrastructure, inadequate public services and substantially underemployed urban workforce.

So this is a strategy that involves high risks even as it delivers apparently enormous material benefits very quickly; presumably the Chinese government is aware of at least some of these risks although others can be more difficult to predict. And it is also true that the socio-economic base on which this material expansion in Shanghai is occurring is very different, with a much more egalitarian income distribution at the start of this process, and a more generally educated workforce, especially in this part of China.

The different social nature – the legacy of what could now be called the Communist past – is evident in the Shanghai Book Store, the largest book shop in the city and probably one of the largest anywhere in the world. Located on a road full of book shops, it still amazes with its breadth and range. Its massive seven floors are full of an enviable variety of books on all subjects, including literature, philosophy and social sciences along with the more obvious technocratic disciplines, written in or translated into Chinese. And all of these floors on a normal working day are also full of people, mostly quite young. The very fact that such a bookshop can exist, and be so full of mainly young people, is actually a wonderful comment on the society: that it has produced educated people who are willing to read books in sufficient numbers,  and also have the incomes to buy these books.

If this is indeed the case, then the future may hold different and more varied possibilities for Shanghai’s inhabitants than are currently projected by the material expansion alone. For that to happen, of course, the  life of the city will have to go beyond what seems to be its current intoxicated obsession with growth.