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China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the Worldby Ted C Fishman
Chapter One: Taking a Slow Boat in a Fast China
The banks of the Huangpu River running through Shanghai do not just bend. They mind-bend. For a century and a half, the currents of change coursing through modern China have been more visible from Shanghai's banks than from anywhere else. Here Western powers pushed in most aggressively in the mid-nineteenth century, and later the Japanese made their claim in 1895. The foreigners established an all-but-independent city-state to run their China trade. Western tastes mingled with China's on such a grand scale that The Bund, then Shanghai's commercial center on the west bank of the river, looked like the gleaming boulevard of a great European capital.
In the early twentieth century — until China and the world unraveled in the 1930s — Shanghai counted as one of the world's five most important commercial centers together with London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo. The city was also the world's second-busiest port. Its banks, housed in the imposing hodgepodge of broad European money palaces and slim towers on The Bund, were flush intermediaries in an irresistible trade with Western and Japanese sellers of machines, cotton cloth, medicines, and opium. Chinese factories poured out clothing, paper, and other simple manufactured goods at prices foreigners could not match at home. Commodities in vast quantities moved in both directions.
While foreigners created Shanghai as a world port, the city soon proved a magnet for Chinese looking to work in factories or, during periods of social unrest, for sanctuary. The large migration into Shanghai, and the foreigners' fears that their city would be engulfed, helped lead to the system that ultimately divided the city into separate zones, gated sections of town for the colonists, known as concessions, and the rest for Chinese. Paradoxically, the division also created China's first modern city when the Europeans imposed a formal municipal government over Shanghai. Previously, Chinese cities, though often large, did not have single municipal governments. Interestingly, the English word modern was transliterated into Chinese for the first time in Shanghai, and the city became synonymous with the new.
This Chinese city reborn with Western management built the country's tallest buildings, was home to its most prominent banks, had streetcars and running water, beauty parlors, business suits, and French fashions. The city's modernizers were not always Europeans or Americans of the standard colonial mold. Since Shanghai's modern beginning it was also the home of a small but extraordinary group of Jews, many from Iraq, Spain, Portugal, and India. Controllers of property, entertainment, and financial interests, the Hardoun, Kadoorie, and Sassoon families helped create the new world of Shanghai that was neither Occident nor Orient.
The city, however, was never new enough to wash away old prejudices. Stories are told of the notorious sign outside the British Huangpu Park that forbade entry by "Dogs or Chinese." Shanghai then, as now, collected the world's contradictions. Asia's capitalist hub was also the site in 1921 of the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party. The city that gave birth to the verb shanghaied also played host to the lost. In World War II, the city, which stood apart from the world of nations, became a refuge for as many as thirty thousand European Jews fleeing the Nazis.
In 1949, the Communists seized the country, and for the next forty years the creative power of Shanghai turned away from enterprise. Commercial life stopped dead. Shanghai's grand European architecture and the pre-1940s brick blocks that reflected the city's worldly blend withered.
Today Shanghai is again China's most proudly modern and global city. Yet the city's history of foreign domination is one of China's enduring national wounds. That collective hurt helps to fuel the insistent drive of the Chinese today, as well as China's ambivalence about what it is willing to give and take from outsiders. Historical Shanghai
was corrupt but glamorous, barbaric but sophisticated, repugnant but remunerative. The Chinese government routinely trots out this darker side of Shanghai's past. The government uses the colonial history of Shanghai, once painted "The Whore of Asia," to remind its public that there's an enemy world ever ready and willing to humiliate their proud civilization.
Thus, if ever a people had chips on their shoulders, it would be the Shanghainese, chips they are urgently stacking into skyscrapers. Despite, or because of, their historical feeling of humiliation, the Shanghainese are perhaps the most assured — other Chinese would call them arrogant — among their countrymen. The Shanghainese consider themselves China's best businessmen and -women, most capable public administrators, most global in outlook, and most daring risk takers. It is no accident that a disproportionate number of the Communist Party's highest leadership came from this city, or that China has singled out Shanghai as the city that will first displace Hong Kong as the mainland's top financial center and then take its place as one of the top business and financial centers of the world.
So the middle of the Huangpu is good place to witness the rhythms of the city past and present. Traffic piles up on the water in the same way that it does on the city's overcrowded roads, and the afternoon boat tour takes travelers right into the heart of the maritime rush hour, when hundreds of barges, some shaped like oversize sampans, others like floating mountains of sand or coal, line up four or five across the width of the river under the shadows of orange-hulled oceangoing cargo ships or natty gray vessels that look like floating factories but carry gas and chemicals.
The tour boat is billed as a catamaran, but looks and rides like a slow-moving barge — with a three-story restaurant slapped on top. Except for two giant bug-eyed brass dragonheads jutting from the bow, the boat feels like a low-rent Chinese banquet hall. Filled with baroquely carved and generously marred throne chairs, banquet tables with starched but stained tablecloths, and an immobile, bored staff, the vessel is a floating ambassador from the state-run tourism sector, a nationwide empire of shabby hotels and restaurants. The boat service, one of China's first commercial tourist ventures, still peddles the Communist version of glamour even as it plies the wide gray river for three and a half hours, working its way slowly toward the intersection of the Yangtze River and the East China Sea.
Despite the river traffic, Shanghai was until recently fairly self-contained, bordered close in by a countryside of farms. When the boat tours commenced shortly after China's economic liberalization began in the early 1980s, one could still gaze across the water and see rice and vegetable fields, yards with chickens, pigs, geese, and shady trees. The Bund had grown dowdy from decades of Communist disdain, and for years few businesses saw any good in it. The grandest buildings had been taken over by regional and municipal agencies with ideological grudges to bear against the old foreign banks and hotels. Even as Shanghai bloomed throughout the 1990s, The Bund remained largely dormant, like an urban set from a 1930s Hollywood movie extravaganza that had never found another script.
Then, as Shanghai earned back its commercial bearings, it attempted to restore some international élan by leasing space in one of the big Bund buildings to a giant Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, which at the time was a luxurious taste of the West for locals. Today, KFC is gone from The Bund, but has found new homes all over the city where it has settled into place as a popular indulgence. The Bund, meanwhile, gains the luster delivered in all world capitals by the international purveyors of lifestyle. Now one can find there Italian chocolates, Evian Spa, spruced-up boutique hotels, and world-class restaurants run by superstar chefs from Paris and New York. Three on The Bund, an entertainment complex on the waterfront, occupies an old office tower that underwent a $50 million renovation steered by one of the world's most prominent architects, Michael Graves. It includes what may be the world's most spectacular site for an art gallery, high above the river with windows out onto the water traffic and the riverfront's dancing curtain of colored light.
Making all this change possible is a city with real wealth. Average incomes in town are ten times higher than outside, with a sizable middle class that makes $10,000 or more a year, and often much more. There's an official name for the money that people make above the income they report: "additional sources." Plenty of people seem to have them. Jammed on The Bund and elevated highways are private cars that cost thousands more than they do in the United States or Europe. The Shanghai municipality requires drivers to pay a $5,000 permit just to buy one. Top models are back-ordered nonetheless. The boom in private apartments, many costing $100,000 and up, wouldn't happen in a city without lots of additional sources. A boom is fueling the boom. Shanghai property values climbed so fast that they created a whole new moneyed class in the city. Locals with enough currency and nerve to enter the housing market in the mid and late 1990s saw their property climb in value at least 20 percent year over year. Many properties doubled in price in less than three years. People bought more. Sold some, bought still more. A local scandal erupted on the news that one-third of Shanghai's new crop of luxury apartments had been bought and sold again before they were ever occupied. The result of the boom is a demographic of young Shanghainese who do not truly grasp where their wealth has come from, feeling that if they just stick their hands in the air, money will fly their way.
One of the triumphs of the Communist Party was its success in spreading the easy use of Mandarin Chinese among nearly all of China's population. The Shanghainese, of course, speak superb Mandarin these days, but immigrants to the city from other areas of China are now for the first time studying the city's local tongue, Shanghainese. Phrase books and dictionaries that help Mandarin speakers pick up the dialect are appearing in local bookstores. Shanghainese language schools have begun to pop up. All because the city's Shanghainese upper stratum of managers talk among themselves in Shanghainese, even in the presence of outside workers, executives, or public officials. The knowing nods and glances make others suspect the Shanghainese are keeping secrets. Foreigners wonder the same. Language-learning materials have begun to appear on eBay for American and European buyers.
The goal of learning the local language is to capture for oneself whatever particles of the city's energy one can absorb. Colonial Shanghai once prospered by peddling opium to locals hooked on oblivion. Now energy is Shanghai's drug, craved more powerfully by a population pouring into the city to seize its supercharged moment. Shanghai's young glow with an optimism that comes of living in a time when the local economy doubled, redoubled, and doubled again.
dBehind The Bund and just visible from the boat, the city is pushing against every boundary north, south, and west. The world's construction cranes started migrating en masse to Shanghai in the late 1980s, stretching the boundaries into the sky too. More than five thousand new buildings over fifteen stories tall were built by 2004.
If the river is the best place to look up at the city, the best place to look down on it is not from one of the city's tall buildings. From those heights one must peer through a sickeningly brown smog that floats along the upper reaches of the skyline like the film at the top of a coal miner's bath. The clearest view of Shanghai's shape is found in the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. One of the fantasy oddball showpieces on Renmin (People's) Park, Shanghai's festive answer to Tiananmen Square, the Hall is a gleaming glassy white box of a building about the size of an urban department store. It is topped with four giant canopies shaped like inverted circus tents, making it one of the cheeriest buildings in town.
Inside one may see how thoroughly Shanghai is obliterating its low-rise past and building a high-rise future. On the third floor is a scale model of the entire city with nearly every building extant or planned, rendered as a little colorless tower. The model covers an area the size of a basketball court, and no building is more than four inches tall. What other city in the world would take a parcel of its most valuable real estate bestride its main park and devote it to a building celebrating the civic leaders' plans for the future? In another city there might be a computer image of future schemes on a Web site somewhere, a model under glass in city hall or the science museum. But not a whole building. In Shanghai, even civic propaganda falls under the spell of gigantism. And it works. Even scaled down to insect size, the burgeoning city feels like a living thing that is spreading over the earth, its horizon receding out of view.
Locals walk the elevated platform that surrounds the model looking for their homes, or the high-rises that have taken the place of their homes. The model would have looked entirely different not long ago. In Shanghai, people grew up in neighborhoods with local schools (often housed in the former mansions of the city's foreign elite), small shops, and street vendors, and closely quartered two- and three-storied homes, all of which made for intimate, self-contained communities. Kids played ball, moms hung laundry, and granddads played mah-jongg or sat with their caged birds. Today, young people who go off to school in another city or abroad, or graduates who leave the city for work, can return home after a year or two away and find that in place of their little house is a complex the size of New York's U.N. Plaza. The experience is not just physically dislocating. It gives one the sense that no matter how muscularly it is remade, the city is impermanent, that the only thing that will endure in Shanghai is ambition.
The Exhibition Hall competes for attention along Renmin Park, where the city's huge but graceful Grand Theater, designed by a Frenchman and opened in 1998, looms like a Pompidou Center reassembled as a Chinese temple. Across the street is the round Shanghai Museum, built of pink Spanish granite and designed to resemble an ancient Chinese bronze vessel, complete with rooftop arches in the shape of handles. The museum was China's first planned on the modern American model. Appeals for money and artifacts went out to philanthropists, especially overseas Chinese millionaires wanting to give something to the motherland — and perhaps get something back from the motherland too. It is the place in Shanghai where foreign tourists feel most comfortable, connecting the majesty of ancient China with the new. Through the galleries move a throng of foreigners mind-numbed by jet lag and five thousand years of Imperial display.
Not all of Shanghai's ambition is homegrown. Far from it. Though the model at the Urban Planning Exposition Hall means to give the impression that the city is in control of its destiny, the view from outside reveals how much the current Shanghai has been remade by foreign energy, money, and world-class talent pouring in. One area of Shanghai once well out of view that now rises in the skyline is the city's newest foreign enclave, the locus of Shanghai's resurgence.
In the 1990s, foreigners began rushing in again, and a whole district of the city, the Gubei New Area, was reconfigured for them. For the newcomers, the welcome mat replicated — no, topped! — the relative opulence of Taipei, Hong Kong, and other Asian cities. Huge deluxe apartment complexes the size and subtlety of giant Las Vegas hotels sprang up. Though set back several miles from The Bund, the Gubei complexes — together with those of Shanghai's other new skyscraper districts — are so enormous that they make the older buildings look like a row of town houses. And, like the international settlements of old Shanghai, which catered to the creature needs of the Europeans and Japanese, Gubei is now a city within Shanghai that replicates the prosperous Asia that lies outside China.
Interestingly, guidebooks offer virtually nothing about Gubei. Lonely Planet Shanghai describes it in nine sentences; Let's Go: China does not mention it at all. What they overlook today is likely to be exactly what tourists in the future will find so extraordinary. As with old Shanghai, Gubei is something of a foreign concession, the wholesale importation of an alien lifestyle created for and by outlanders.
The first wave of newcomers were actually returnees of a sort, the "overseas Chinese." Mostly they came from Taiwan, which made them an unusual addition to the local scene. Since their own government in Taipei has no official standing in the People's Republic, the Taiwanese arrived with little political protection, but they did bring with them money and know-how, two things Shanghai could not resist. Official Shanghai has even created a special bureau that serves as a de facto consulate for the Taiwanese, offering them the sort of resources that citizens of less murky legal status get from their governments. Accurate counts of the Taiwanese in Shanghai are hard to come by; even the city bureau cannot offer one. The official number lies somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000. Shanghai officials do have a count of the number of Taiwanese businesses in town, however; there are more than five thousand of them, representing more than $10 billion in foreign investment coming into the city. Taiwanese businesses have been moving to China so enthusiastically that there are deep fears back home that Taiwan's economy may hollow out as money and expertise migrate to the mainland.
How much is foreign investment changing the view out the riverboat window? By the end of 2003, a total of 14,400 wholly owned foreign companies were in the city, with another 13,000 businesses underwritten with foreign money. In 2004, the city attracted more than $12 billion in foreign direct investment, the overwhelming share of which went for industries that export, mainly to the United States. In other words, Shanghai alone attracted roughly the same level of investment as all of Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, and Mexico, the country that the North American Free Trade Agreement was supposed to turn into a magnet for world capital. Overseas Chinese are the most active investors, providing more than half of the foreign money spent to set up businesses. In the early 1990s, their share was 70 percent.
Years into Shanghai's boom, it is still easy to feel the fever that electrified the city's early investors. Coming in close contact with China changes one's perspectives on the possible and the permissible. The river tour alone jolts the imagination, stirring up all kinds of schemes and plans to lasso one's fortunes to others' schemes that will somehow allow some small bit of the commerce of this great multitude to drift in one's direction. Matters that in other contexts might seem repulsive here glisten. There is the inescapable, peering crowd; the all-embracing political footprint of the Communist Party; the mushrooming of cities and sprawl; the common and pathological desire to exchange time for money, no matter what the social cost. From afar, these qualities in China look like demons. From up close they seize one's thoughts and look like riches. Indeed, whole countries have abandoned their worldviews as China enters the picture.
Imagine how this psychic pressure has worked on the Taiwanese, for whom China has always been in view. The island pseudonation that has lurched toward democracy and now struggles with the issue of independence feels most intensely what the rest of the world does about mainland China. Its opportunities force a rethinking of its identity. Consider the political complications of intermixing Taiwan's economic jewels with China's expanding opportunities. The Taiwanese have reason to fear for Taiwan's pesky, newly democratic soul. The Communist government insists lately that the Taiwanese who have chosen to do business in the mainland disavow the aspirations for independence of the Taiwanese leadership at home. The edict comes like the demand of a patriarch who knows his children's wealth, social connections, and identity lie within the family. In Chinese melodramas, fathers often cast out sons and daughters but find their hearts soften enough to welcome a long-overdue reconciliation. Or find tragedy when their realizations come too late. The mainlanders and the Taiwanese both wonder when the other will come around. Communist China would never change for Taiwan's reasons. Taiwan may well change for Communist China's, but the odds are far from certain.
Up to one hundred thousand Taiwanese traveled home to vote in the island's elections in 2004, many casting ballots for the first time in their lives. The Communists banned political meetings among the Taiwanese in China, fearing open discussion of Taiwan's independence. They miscalculated. The Taiwanese working in China tend not to side with the pro-independence crowd. They already live a version of unification. The Taiwanese in Shanghai are believers. They already bet on bigger China, and not just on low-wage manufacturing industries that can pick up and move to cheaper locales on a whim. More important, Shanghai is the new home of Taiwan's cutting-edge global conglomerates. When they come into China, they don't just bring investment dollars, they bring advanced technology, business practices, and an international network tied to the world's best companies. Taiwanese banks, insurance and securities companies, and high-tech research laboratories are included in the mix.
And so too is the crowd of young internationalists who sport a style and creative energy that can mediate between the manufacturing prowess of the mainland and the less tangible, but no less essential, global technology of being cool. For the young overseas Chinese jet set — parents from China; raised in Taiwan or Hong Kong, or perhaps Cleveland, Vancouver, São Paulo, or eastern Siberia; who were schooled in the United States, Australia, or Great Britain — Shanghai is a digital, club-hopping, warp-speed update on Paris in the 1920s. Picasso is not coming, but in Shanghai, warehouse districts are being converted into galleries, while movie studios from Hollywood, Hong Kong, and elsewhere move in, creating a nexus of literati, digerati, and glitterati that China has never before seen.
No longer just for Taiwanese, Gubei also caters to Koreans, Japanese, and to other overseas Chinese, mainly those from Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. An enclave of subcontinental Indians is forming into "India Town." Now Gubei boasts fashionable department stores, five-story restaurants made up almost entirely of private rooms, and designer boutiques and upscale salons all of which set prices with a happily blind eye to the low local cost of living.
One amenity the newcomers crave in Shanghai is companionship, and Gubei grew into a district distinctly capable of keeping its growing population of mistresses and "second wives" happy. During the day, one can spot the local Chinese women who have attached themselves to men, mostly Chinese, who live in the city for business, and buy the women their name-brand clothes, high heels, and posh handbags. Sex is still one of the allures of Shanghai. The disparity of wealth between expats and the local rich on one side, and a vast population looking for a way up on the other, is a recipe for all sorts of contact. The drop in local ginseng sales is a small sign of how many men have switched to Viagra, which, with demand for it enormous, is now no longer protected in China by patent laws.
Here, the middle-aged overseas Chinese can find willing youth, burly German mechanics can find lithe girls who simply don't exist at home, and nerdy Western engineers can find girls so hot their friends at home would laugh. Outside of Shanghai's crowded clubs pass a stream of Porsche coupes and decked-out, open-top SUVs rolling to their own Chinese-rap sound tracks. Behind the wheel are the pudgy deal makers who dine out nightly with clients and party afterward, or the buff, spiky-moussed Party princelings whose connected fathers have bought them China's equivalent of a Bel Air lifestyle. One hand on the wheel, the other on the latest $800 phone, they steer their cars slowly down the street, dialing friends on the inside to assess the scene. At the clubs' doors stand gangs of bruisers who must engage in nightly brawls to keep out demanding, unwashed proletarians, who, drunk on domestic booze, insist on slugging their way into where they are not wanted.
"This is China! Who the hell are you to keep me out," they shout. "Shanghai's best hookers are in there and I want to sample one!"
Every night the police, otherwise mostly invisible in the city, come by to haul the angry away. The gate-crashers are right. The city's best hookers are inside. Expert students of the Hilton sisters, they see to it that their clothes are tight and ripped in all the right places, their high heels as long as their skirts, and their hair and makeup done up in the style of Asia's adult-comix dreamboats. They stop hearts and no doubt garner their share of foreign direct investment.
And, there are those who find that far from home they can pair up with partners of the same sex, also young, lithe, and hot. Shanghai's gay scene is lively, and Bangkok is only one time zone away. Sex does not bring as many foreigners to China as does money, but it brings them, nonetheless.
The most stunning anachronism on the boat is not its dragon design or its moribund service; it's the sign describing the river tour to customers. The sign promises one of the most beautiful water rides in China, one where every turn reveals a lush natural vista. The endurance of the cheerful promotion speaks for the malaise of government enterprise. The sign is as out of touch with its city as a tour boat around Manhattan that still marveled at the wonders of Grant's Tomb or the magnificent spire of the Woolworth Building, neglecting entirely the appearance of the skyline and the filling out of the metropolitan region. Today, twenty years after the launch of the boat, there is no escape from Shanghai's urban landscape, nor from its surrounding factories. Up the Huangpu, city and industry stare down the dragons at every turn.
Nowhere is this contrast more dramatic than with Pudong, Shanghai's, and indeed China's, iconic glass skyline. Across the Huangpu from The Bund, and rising from land that was once fields, Pudong is a parallel twenty-first-century downtown growing in fulfillment of an implausible fifteen-year-old pronouncement that a great urban center ought to fill in for the swampy, low-lying turf. Officials call it the "Microcosm of China's Economic Miracle," and it is in fact a kind of miracle. Today, the Pudong district is home to nearly six thousand foreign-funded businesses, including the offices of nearly three hundred of the Global Fortune 500 companies (the old-Shanghai side of the river has another one hundred). Foreign businesses take advantage of Pudong's status as a Special Economic Zone, or SEZ, earning tax breaks and other incentives, including friendly relations with the Chinese leadership, which proudly pushed for the project. The development — full of needle-nosed towers, neon, and video shows playing over skyscrapers, and revolving restaurants perched high like spacecraft visiting from the pages of Amazing Stories magazine — projects an H. G. Wells-like vision in which a technologically advanced future delivers the Chinese from the brute realities of the present. Pudong is the propaganda of hope.
Pudong may also be one of the biggest boondoggles of all time. Where did all the money come from to build a city neighborhood that will soon match the size of Paris? The Chinese government has invested more than $12 billion in infrastructure projects just to get the land in shape for more construction. The municipal infrastructure costs aside, Pudong's building boom, like much of China's recent development, has been underwritten by a fortune of public money spent and lent with too little regard to the hard question of whether the investments make economic sense. So far optimism is keeping it up, and a whole social apparatus exists to make sure that optimism itself stays up.
So should one bet against Pudong? Maybe not. This is Shanghai after all, where buildings rocket from the earth, where the men gobble knockoff Viagra, and where the city's leaders crave projects that will drip with superlatives every time they get public mention. From their conception, buildings and public works are bulked up to be the biggest, tallest, longest, fastest, or otherwise most something.
Pudong's most recognizable landmark is the Orient Pearl Television Tower, the highest TV tower in Asia and the third highest in the world. Spiking straight into the air, the tower holds up three metallic orbs of decreasing size that are meant to look like jewels. The largest and lowest is a dance hall and karaoke bar, the next up is, de rigueur, the rotating restaurant, and the smallest orb is an observation deck. Built in 1994, the spire no longer matches Shanghai's sophistication, except that it is acquiring the sentimental affection that comes when big structures are simply present for year after year. It may even have a postmodern gloss, providing inspiration to the architects of Shanghai's newer buildings to break the conventions of joyless international style and to have fun with their buildings. City tour guides like to point out that when one's view of the tower is aligned with the two nearest bridges, it looks like two dragons playing with pearls. Yet, in front of the tower is another building that lines up in a more interesting way. It's the International Convention Center, a curved rectangular building with two large glass halls in the shape of the world on either end. As the tour boat heads up the river, people rush to the rail for a shot of the TV tower centered over the Convention Center, the tower's spike rising proudly between the two glass globes. Is it possible that the planners overlooked this possibility? Or that they were excited by it?
In 2004, Toho Pictures of Japan paid Pudong its highest compliment, making Pudong the location for the climactic fight scene in Godzilla: Final Wars. The big amphibian stomps through several major cities around the world in what is said to be his farewell film, but the firefight against a dragon in Shanghai is the topper. That should lend the Orient Pearl Television Tower the pop-icon status King Kong gave the Empire State Building.
But this is not all. Another one of the towers under whose shadow the tour boat passes is the shiny silver Jinmao Building, raised to a lucky eighty-eight stories in Pudong on the east side of the river. The skyscraper, which was briefly China's tallest building, houses the Grand Hyatt Hotel, the world's highest inn. The Jinmao Building, like the boat, is outwardly clad in Chinese accents. Instead of dragonheads, however, its exterior has the aggressive contours of a bronze from the Warring States epoch, or alternatively of a Chinese robot toy. It's the kind of muscular, opulent skyscraper once built in New York and Chicago to express their cities' gilded ambitions, proclaiming that Shanghai intends to takes its place among the world's top cities, but in its own sinocized version of global moneyed culture. The accents were designed by the building's American architects, the giant Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owens and Merrill, the same firm that designed the Sears Tower. Rooms in the Shanghai Grand Hyatt begin at around $240, one-quarter of the average annual income of the Chinese, who are more accustomed to paying $10 a night in the country's innumerable hotels that cater to the much bigger, less comfortable demographic.
Again, that is not all. The projects now on the boards that will finish the current decade in the Shanghai area alone include the world's tallest building, the world largest shipyard, and on The Bund, the world's tallest Ferris wheel, which at 656 feet tall will top England's London Eye by a mere 213 feet. Add to that hundreds of miles of highways in and around the city, and a major expansion of the city's ultramodern subway system out to areas of Shanghai being newly redeveloped.
Probable too is the extension of the world's fastest train, a magnetic levitation train that now runs only over a single short run between the east and west side of the river to deliver people to the new airport. The $1.2 billion "maglev" train now traverses the short route as a test for a system that may eventually provide the world's fastest intercity train, running at nearly three hundred miles per hour between Shanghai and Beijing. The test train was built by two German industrial giants, Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, in an attempt to sell the Chinese their technology, but they may not get a bigger project. The Chinese, with the confidence of the age to boost them and the easy seepage into the country of foreign technology that others have already bought and paid for, have their own ultra-high-speed trains in the works. Forty years ago when Japan was still seen as a low-cost copycat producer, its Bullet Train, the Shinkansen, helped rebrand the country as a technology leader. The train made its first run the same year as the Tokyo Olympics and was a star of the worldwide blitz of broadcast and print images that showed the country at its best and turned the Olympics into a cutting-edge coming-out party. Barring slipped deadlines, the high-speed link between Shanghai and Beijing will begin its run in 2008, the year of China's first Summer Olympics. When China's leaders weigh whether it's folly to spend $1.2 billion on a twenty-mile test run for their fast train, or $16 billion on the intercity system, they reject the logic that the money would be better spent on programs that serve the hundreds of millions of people for whom a ticket on the ultra-fast train will always be an unobtainable luxury. Investing in the nation's prestige will, it is assumed, ultimately pay dividends for everyone. Letting the world know China can top Japan also has psychic rewards that money cannot measure.
Again, this is not all! The city fathers are also planning three big bridges and four traffic tunnels, one of which will be — that's right — the world's longest. Today, the world's longest single-bridge project is outside Shanghai, but still very much driven by the city's interests. It is the planned $1.4 billion highway in the sky that will connect the road that extends south of the city to Hangzhou Bay, twenty-two miles of which the bridge will cross. The south end will connect to Cixi City, a gateway to Zhejiang Province, just to the south of Shanghai, which is filled cheek by jowl with industry.
All this local gigantism is carefully documented each day on the front pages of the Shanghai Daily, the English-language paper put out by the government press. It is a quick, mostly cheery read, peppered with local news, summaries of government commissions and state visits and, less prominently, wire service stories on select world events — perhaps in Denmark or Tonga — that often seem to have no conceivable local relevance. The tour boat's trash bins fill with copies even before the boat departs.
Yet, the paper is still worth reading, and rereading. Its news — like that in most of China's state-run media — is both a measure and stimulus of China's ambitions. While the rest of the world's press leads with war news, celebrity scandals, or political coverage, the Chinese press logs every effort, public or private, that is being made to push China to the top in every contest it publicly places itself. The China news, of course, also has a "lift the race" message, in which Asians, and Chinese in particular, are encouraged to try harder in all things. One day's big story might describe how Chinese mobile-phone makers are winning the contest against foreigners, painting the victory as a point of pride. The math, however, is strained, and the surveys it rests on are highly targeted. Chinese phones are not leading the market, but Chinese phone users say they hope homegrown brands will someday lead. The headlines in the paper will, it is hoped, help make the wish come true.
Great personal achievements also fill the front page. There are, for instance, top stories about the young winners of one of the nationwide English-speaking contests. Imagine an American newspaper attempting to pump up sales with the story of a hardworking, likable local boy who trounced his competitors in a conversational-French contest by giving a fine speech on the merits of international brotherhood. The Chinese press regularly carries such stories. In a country where so much rides on the achievement of the upcoming generation, and where families must bet all on the achievements of the one child that the government allows families to have, parents and grandparents apparently find the triumphs of other people's superstar children entertaining, a kind of vicarious thrill in a country where good test scores and the right academic track are as sexy as six-pack abs. Smart children, after all, hold the key to China's ascendancy. If they are diligent enough, they too may one day build the world's biggest something or other. They will certainly help build what is destined to be the world's biggest economy, and if all goes as the Chinese expect, the most influential geopolitical force in Asia and perhaps the world.
As the tour boat ride ends, the dragon bow bumping lightly against the dock, one can't help but see the destiny of China in its cities, in Taiwan's subservience, and the return of the overseas Chinese to the motherland. For now, big projects are the public prelude to dominance, parts of a national temple in the making. The vistas from the Shanghai tour boat may not be lovely to someone wanting respite from the whirring urban-industrial engine that is Shanghai, but they possess a certain beauty to those who see industrial might and architectural bravado as the path to a world where China has regained its rightful place — at the center, certainly respected and maybe even feared.
Copyright © 2005 by Ted C. Fishman
Copyright © 2005 by Ted C. Fishman
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