Jan 23, 2015 12:26 PM

Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade

AWhile Shanghai surely appears toward the top of any list of the world's leading cities and is the most populous city of the most populous country on Earth, its top-of-mind awareness doesn't come so much from hard-number achievements like per capita GDP – at roughly US$20,000 per year, Shanghai's per capita GDP rivals that of Hungary, but trails by a fair margin that of any EU capital city. Rather, Shanghai's stature derives in part from its mythic history – by turns the "Paris of the East" or "Whore of the Orient" during the first few decades of the last century – and since the mid 1990s from its position as the leading face of China's globalization and the most international city (again) in the country.

A city with such a history and presence, and with more than 20 million residents, is of course immensely complicated, with more facets than 1,000 finished diamonds – a city of depth, breadth and surprise. Some writing on the city has focused on a few of the facets, such as the unremitting descent into Cultural Revolution insanity revealed in Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai. Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby, despite being word-of-mouth marketed for its titillating bits, turned out to be an evocative look at the young generation of the late '90s metropolis, increasingly engaged with the wider world.

Anna Greenspan's Shanghai Future features an astonishing range of facets – of depth, breadth and surprise – worthy of the city she's lived in for more than a decade. She combines an obviously close look at the city streets, born of incessant walking through them, with a prodigious study of the literature of urbanization and modernity. One line of her discussion connects French architect and "modernist" Le Corbusier, the Japanese property magnate Minoru Mori and the Mori-backed Shanghai World Financial Center (by one standard, the world's tallest building for a brief period in the last decade), younger sibling to Tokyo's Roppongi Hills, likewise designed as a "vertical garden city", a concept Mori inherited from Le Corbusier. Her contrasts with Paris after Baron Haussmann and New York after Robert Moses, and the dynamic she poses between the "road" (cities built for cars) and the "street" (cities built for people), are alone worth the price of the book.

Greenspan properly rubbishes Xintiandi and most of Pudong, especially the Lujiazui district, as marvels of sterility – bureaucrat onanism – while devoting pages to the organic development and virtue of the Tianzifang district of the city. And she keeps readers engaged with a number of entertaining one-liners. Referring to the inflate-a-suburb phenomenon that's likely to bring China to its economic knees within a decade, she describes one of the (many) under-populated developments on the fringe of Shanghai as "a ghost town haunted by those who have yet to arrive." Describing Pudong, she writes that it's "designed to look good from afar, but get up close and the district has a Legoland feel."

Greenspan also displays a gift for capturing the bon mot of others, such as Theodore Dalrymple's "Le Corbusier was to architecture as Pol Pot was to social reform." And Milton Friedman's late 1980s quip that Pudong is "not a manifestation of a market economy, but a statist monument for a dead pharaoh on the level of the pyramids." And a Beijing academic, describing the pervasive influence and contrived invisibility of the CCP: "The Party is like God. He is everywhere. You just can't see him."

Despite Greenspan's obvious understanding and love of Shanghai, she repeatedly amplifies one malignant mistruth, that of the "speed and efficiency" of Party-led development in China – a delusion beloved of bureaucrats everywhere who seek to increase their power, but one belied by the reality of China today. She quotes Thomas Friedman to this effect (an author whose last good book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, was published in the late 1980s – why are we still referencing him?):

One-party autocracy certainly has drawbacks, but when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.

This is the Henry Kissinger approach to explaining China – brown-nose the leadership and gain lucrative speaking invitations, regardless of the veracity of the claim.

One proof point: a PRC government-backed study in November 2014 suggesting that perhaps half of all Chinese infrastructure investment during the previous several years had been wasted – US$7 trillion dollars in total. Another proof point is immediately, blindingly and appallingly apparent to anyone who spends time here – we see constantly, whether in small-scale projects or behemoth undertakings, the breathtaking waste of sloppy resource allocation, driven by a lack of accountability for such resources.

But that's a small point: Greenspan's Shanghai Future covers so much valuable territory, in such depth and breadth, that anyone interested in this city's past, present and future should acquire it, study it and reference it.

John D. Van Fleet, resident in Shanghai since 2001, is Assistant Dean for the USC-SJTU Global Executive MBA in Shanghai. His book, Tales of Old Tokyo, a romp through the city's history from 1853 to 1964, will be published in 2015.

Reprinted with permission from The Asian Review of Books

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