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  Chinese Way>Life

Book report: Shanghai and China from the Eyes of a Western Scholar

2014-04-29 17:28:20

(China Today)


In the author’s eyes, the city of Shanghai physically embodies the dynamism of China’s vision of modernity. The new and evolving skyline of Pudong leaves lasting impressions on all first visitors. In 2012 alone, two major Hollywood films, Skyfall, the latest in the 007 James Bond series, and Looper had key scenes set in Shanghai. In the first, Bond tracks down an assassin, with links to global organized crime, who has arrived in Shanghai to assassinate a target inside an immense new skyscraper at the city center. In Looper, the character played by Bruce Willis finds himself in the city 30 years in the future. Just like popular Western imagination, Shanghai is linked to futurism and not just modernity. The flashing neon lights and modern skyscrapers in the films are similar to what a visitor would find already existing in the actual city today.

Shanghai is embracing the challenges of the future. It is doing this by rearticulating its identity as these dynamic changes occur all around it, rebranding itself in ways that link its history, as a place distinctly Chinese but also international, with a vision of what a big city should be in the 21st century. Shanghai links the local with the global in ways which could pique interest and trigger resonance of other places also aspiring to globalize while maintaining their distinctive character. Shanghai therefore, while in the process of development, also has much to teach others.

In 1990 the Chinese government decided to grant Shanghai the status of a special economic zone. The decision boosted land development, manufacturing of export goods, and new processes of integrating with the world economy. By 2001, the year China entered the World Trade Organization (WTO), Pudong had changed beyond recognition. It boasted the world’s tallest hotel, and some of its biggest skyscrapers, including what would become the world’s tallest building. A deepwater port, built in 2010, allowed the city to become the world’s busiest freight port. In Lujiazui, the city had constructed a financial district, attracting banks, insurance companies and multinationals to set up representative offices and joint ventures. Delegations from Shanghai’s 64 twin cities marveled at this new city being constructed. Its population swelled by half a million each year, exceeding 23 million by 2012. In 2010, the Shanghai Expo saw over 70 million people visiting from all over the world. In 2013, the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone was established, making the city a pioneer and test bed for further reform in the country.

All of these epic and dramatic changes in modern China and especially in Shanghai, much of which is unprecedented in human history, may be attributed to its people. It is people’s energy, their hard work and their aspirations that are building the future and shaping China. Bringing the story of the city’s development down to this human level is an important challenge in this work. The book tries to look at things from the perspective of those intimately involved with its current and future planning, either as officials, or as businesspeople, citizens or residents. Capturing the human face of Shanghai, and seeing how it represents the rest of China, is even more important than just detailing the scale and rapidity of the changes.

By integrating his personal understanding of the city and years of in-depth research on Chinese politics, economics and culture, Brown has set down his vision of Shanghai’s future. He believes that understanding what is happening in Shanghai and how things may develop in the future is to understand the complexities, ambiguities and challenges a modernizing China faces along the path toward middle-income country status by 2020. In 2012, Shanghai reached US $10,000 in per-capita GDP, more than double the national average. It has one of the best healthcare systems, along with some of the best universities and most innovative companies. Its economy is quickly moving towards the service industry and going beyond manufacturing. Gazing over the modern skyline of the city from the Bund, people often feel as if they are looking not just at the present, but at the future – the face that the rest of China will become in a few years. This book therefore goes beyond the limitations of simple research on the city, to convey a Western scholar’s observations and explorations on the future of China.

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