Head of the Dragon: The Rise of New Shanghai

Pudong New Area and the Huangpu River, Shanghai.
Pudong New Area and the Huangpu River, Shanghai. [Photo by wecand]

Shanghai, 1989

Two decades ago, when Shanghai’s leaders looked out over the new New China born of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, it seemed history had gone off the rails. It wasn’t Shanghai, the city that invented Chinese capitalism, but Deng’s new experimental instant metropolis, Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, that was brimming with factories and drawing thousands of ambitious young people from across the country. It was as if Deng had held a great national casting call for China’s next business hub and upstart Shenzhen had gotten the part Shanghai assumed she was destined to play. Hoping to set things right, Shanghai officials lobbied their superiors in Beijing, urging them to reopen to the world China’s historic global gateway city and financial center.

Back then even Deng’s pro-market political allies were wary of Shanghai. Some officials worried that unleashing China’s cradle of cosmopolitanism and revolution could upend their rule. Others fretted that the symbolism alone would aid their ideological enemies. Deng was already beset by anti-market factions within the Party who warned that his new Special Economic Zones for international investment would become “foreign concession zones” reborn. Though Deng had been able to overrule them in creating Shenzhen, the symbolism of their critique would be much more salient in Shanghai, a city that had actually been a grouping of foreign concessions during China’s “Century of Humiliation,” from the Opium War through World War II.

But the Shanghai city government kept pushing. In the 1980s, “when we prepared the master plan,” Zhang Rufei, a former Shanghai city planning official, explained, “we had the idea to build the [Pudong] side of the river [and] we tried to sell [the central government on] this idea.” The ambitious plans for Pudong were seemingly the perfect antidote to the charge that the new Shanghai would be a revival of the foreign concessions of the old. Shanghai planners called for building a sparkling new downtown directly across the Huangpu River from the Jazz Age skyline that the British and American Shanghailanders had erected on the Bund. By towering over the edifices of foreign-dominated Shanghai, the new development would symbolize the rise of a powerful, independent China. And beyond just dwarfing the foreign-built city, the new downtown would literally rise above Old Shanghai’s shame. The skyscrapers would sprout from the mud of Pudong, the notorious district of foreign-owned factories and Chinese workers’ shacks, where the Chinese had toiled for a pittance to enrich Western companies like British American Tobacco and Standard Oil.


Shanghai street scene, 1983

Shanghai Workers Cultural Palace, 1983
Top: Shanghai street scene, 1983. Bottom: Shanghai Workers Cultural Palace, 1983. [Photos by kattebelletje]

But for all the ideological allure of the proposals, time and again the ambitious plans were scuttled by the central authorities in Beijing. If Shanghai wanted to open up economically, its leaders would first have to reassure the Politburo that they could keep the lid on. The opportunity to prove their authoritarian credentials came with the Tiananmen Square movement of 1989.

The massacre in Beijing is well known. Yet in hindsight, the relative order that prevailed in Shanghai during the unrest may have been even more important. It was Shanghai’s composure during the Tiananmen movement that finally won it the go-ahead to develop Pudong — and ultimately shift all of China to its model of economic openness and political deep freeze, when the ruthlessly efficient pair who ran Shanghai, Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, were given the keys to the Middle Kingdom. Just as Bombay’s quiescence during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 convinced authorities in London to unleash its development and make the city a model for all of India, so Shanghai’s relative tranquility in 1989 convinced the rulers in Beijing to reopen the city as the archetypal Chinese metropolis.

The Tiananmen Square crisis seemed to come out of nowhere. On April 15, 1989, news of the reformist Politburo member Hu Yaobang’s fatal heart attack spread across China. While committed to one-party rule, Hu had been a strong supporter of Westernization; he was the first top official to mothball his Mao suit in favor of Western business attire and even urged people to start using forks and knives, arguing (erroneously) that chopsticks were unsanitary and spread disease. But he crossed the line when he suggested, in a 1986 interview with a Hong Kong journalist, that China switch from its last-comrade-standing gerontocracy, which generally allowed top cadres to serve till the day they died, to a system of orderly succession. The implication that the octogenarian Deng ought to retire did not go over well. A few months later, when Hu refused to stifle a series of minor student protests for political liberalization, he was ousted.

Flag waving in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 1989.
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 1989. [Negatives in the collection of Robert Croma]

In China, a tradition of over-the-top mourning to express political dissent had been established in 1976, when diplomat Zhou Enlai’s death was met with vociferous public lamentations as a tacit criticism of Mao’s erratic rule. Sensing an opportunity to register their discontent, Beijing students were soon massing on Tiananmen Square. In a similar vein, Shanghai’s World Economic Herald newspaper held a laudatory commemorative symposium on Hu’s life and work in Beijing on April 19.

Two days later, the Shanghai Party Committee got wind that the Herald’s editor in chief, Qin Benli, planned to devote several pages of his next issue to a recap of the forum. With commemorations of Hu’s death already a flash point in Beijing, Shanghai Party secretary Jiang Zemin personally went to the newspaper’s offices and ordered Qin to delete one symposium panelist’s critical quotes about Deng from the section. Qin agreed — and then ran the full, unedited text in the paper the next day. Meanwhile, reporters in the Herald’s Beijing bureau leaked the story of the Shanghai Party’s censorship demands and Qin’s wily defiance to friends in the foreign media. Qin Benli’s game of bait and switch went on for a few more days. Each day, he promised to run the censored edition of the paper with a correction. And each day he didn’t. Finally on April 27, the Leading Group for Discipline of the Shanghai Party Committee arrived at Qin’s office and “rectified” the Herald, removing Qin as editor.

While the Shanghai Party, under local chief Jiang Zemin and his protégé, Shanghai mayor Zhu Rongji, presented a united front against “the turmoil,” as it came to be officially known, the Politburo in Beijing was tearing itself apart. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang publicly endorsed “dialogue,” but paramount leader Deng Xiaoping wanted a crackdown, violent if necessary, against the now tens of thousands of Tiananmen Square demonstrators. A mix of workers and students, the protestors rallied around a handmade torch-bearing “Goddess of Democracy” that looked uncannily like America’s Statue of Liberty — hardly the Western import Deng hoped to encourage with his reforms. Though intra-Party disagreements were not unusual, the public daylight between Deng and Zhao was unprecedented.

People’s Liberation Army troops in Beijing, 1989.

Men watching PLA vehicles burning, Beijing, 1989.
Top: People’s Liberation Army troops in Beijing, June 3, 1989, on the eve of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Bottom: PLA vehicles burning, Beijing, June 4, 1989. [Negatives in the collection of Robert Croma]

Escalating the situation was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s long-planned May 15 state visit. “How big is this square?” the USSR’s general secretary asked en route, high over Mongolia, when his advance team reported there were now, a full month after Hu’s death, well over 100,000 protestors in Tiananmen. 1 Ironically, it was Soviet urban planners who had helped expand Tiananmen in the 1950s, but Sino-Soviet relations had so soured over the intervening decades that this would be Gorbachev’s first visit to the world’s largest Communist country.

When Gorbachev’s jet landed at noon, the Soviet premier was welcomed at the airport rather than in Tiananmen Square, as had been planned. The next day Gorbachev was spirited into the square-fronting Great Hall of the People through the back door, two hours behind schedule. Beijing’s leaders had doubted that the path to the front door could be cleared without the use of force. As Gorbachev spoke inside, the crowds outside welcomed him with shouts of his name in Chinese and handmade banners reading “Welcome the initiator of glasnost.” 2

On May 18, the Soviet general secretary escaped the chaos engulfing Beijing and flew to Shanghai for the second leg of his state visit. While roughly 7,000 protestors had rallied on People’s Square, the former racetrack, and then marched to the front of Mayor Zhu’s office, the former HSBC building on the Bund, the city never descended into the kind of anarchy seen in the capital. 3 In contrast to Beijing, Gorbachev’s trip to Shanghai came off exactly as planned. The Soviet leader met with local officials and laid a wreath at a statue of the 19th-century St. Petersburg poet, Alexander Pushkin, in the former French Concession. On the tree-lined streets of the old French district, Gorbachev paid quiet homage to the Russian writer who had described St. Petersburg as “a window cut through to Europe.” 4 As part of the Sino-Soviet thaw, China’s historic Window on the West, Shanghai, had fittingly become an official sister city to Russia’s Leningrad in 1988.

Statue of Alexander Pushkin, Shanghai.
Statue of Alexander Pushkin, Shanghai. [Photo by kafka4prez]

For all the viciousness of the restoration of order in Beijing, with the People’s Liberation Army opening fire on its own people in the early morning hours of June 4, the most enduring image of the crackdown betrayed the hesitation of the People’s Liberation Army: the famed defenseless “Tank Man” stopping a column of armor simply by standing in front of it. In Shanghai, there was no such hesitation. Upon hearing news of the massacre in Beijing, Shanghai protestors began massing and erecting barricades along the main train tracks connecting Shanghai to the capital. On the evening of June 6, as a passenger train from Beijing came careening down the tracks toward protestors atop their barricade, which included an entire locomotive, the demonstrators anticipated Tank Man-style hesitation. Instead, the train plowed right into the barricade, mowing down nine people, five of whom died. When the train finally came to a halt, enraged protestors pulled the train’s engineer from his cab and beat him before setting several train cars on fire. It took 700 police sent by the municipal government to restore order. 5

The next night, Shanghai mayor Zhu Rongji gave a televised speech. “Shanghai cannot afford any turmoil,” he intoned, invoking the official euphemism for the protest movement. “Many comrades have asked us to call in the People’s Armed Police, and some have even suggested bringing in the army. As mayor, I solemnly declare that neither the Party Committee nor the Municipal Government has considered calling in the army. We have never envisaged military control or martial law; we seek only to stabilize Shanghai, to steady the situations, to insist on production, and to ensure normal life.” 6 A master of public relations, Zhu created a sympathetic public persona in his speech before spending the rest of the week playing the remorseless commissar behind the scenes. In short order, he oversaw the arrest, conviction and execution of three people who had beaten the train conductor.

Mayor Zhu’s public statement on the need to “insist on production” — that the business of Shanghai was business — echoed a private statement that Jiang Zemin, had made at a Politburo meeting weeks earlier, in the thick of the crisis. “We will never allow protests to disrupt Shanghai’s production routine or social order,” Jiang had declared. “[We] will never permit the rise of illegal organizations, will ban all illegal demonstrations and marches, will forbid all forms of networking. … In particular, we will strive to win over the masses in the middle, to defuse confrontations, and to get things settled down as quickly as possible.” 7 This strategy of caring less about hearts and minds than about actions, of preferring intimidation to violence, and, above all, of keeping the economy humming would become, in time, the governing philosophy for the whole of China. When General Secretary Zhao Ziyang refused to declare martial law even after the diplomatic humiliation of Gorbachev’s state visit to an out-of-control capital, Deng had him replaced. On May 27 Jiang Zemin became general secretary, and he ultimately supported the June 4 crackdown. Having proven themselves during the Tiananmen crisis, the Deng-backed “Shanghai clique” of Jiang and Zhu took over China, and the Shanghai model became the nation’s model.

But before joining General Secretary Jiang in Beijing, Mayor Zhu would lay the foundations for the new Pudong, a shimmering glass-and-steel vision of the new authoritarian capitalist China.

Left: Pudong Skyline 1993, DvYang; right: Pudong skyline 2010, Slawomir. Images © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0.

Wall Street of the East

The Tiananmen crackdown initially appeared to slow down Shanghai’s reopening. Following the massacre, a development loan for the construction of Shanghai’s new subway system got held up for six months; work stalled, as well, on Atlanta architect and developer John Portman’s Shanghai Centre, an office, shopping mall, and hotel complex that constituted the first foray by an American architect into the city since the days of the international settlements. But seven months after the crisis, during his Chinese New Year visit, Deng told Shanghai’s authorities to fast-track the development of Pudong. Two months later, the State Council approved the Pudong New Area as a Special Economic Zone. And Deng himself christened the city the “Head of the Dragon,” re-anointing Shanghai as China’s economic hub. 8 The following year, Mayor Zhu convinced the visiting Deng to support his ambitious plan to turn Pudong into far more than just another manufacturing SEZ. Zhu envisioned the new Shanghai as the trade and finance capital of Asia, the Wall Street of the East. The possibility of supplanting the soon-to-be-returned but frustratingly free city of Hong Kong as China’s financial hub greatly appealed to Deng.

With Communism collapsing in Eastern Europe and then in Russia itself, the Chinese Communist Party wagered that only massive economic growth fueled by foreign investment could keep it in power. Modernizing Shanghai would be the centerpiece of the Party’s project. “Before liberation,” ousted General Secretary Zhao Ziyang wrote in his memoir, “Shanghai was a highly developed metropolis in the Asia Pacific Region, more advanced than Hong Kong, let alone Singapore or Taiwan. But after a couple of decades, Shanghai had become rundown and had fallen far behind Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. This made people ask, ‘What exactly is the advantage of socialism?’” 9 Only by turning Shanghai into a showcase of its authoritarian development model could the Party reassert its right to rule. Much as the British felt they could vindicate their colonial domination over India through the awe-inspiring edifices of Bombay, so the Chinese Communist Party felt it could win adherents to the system it called “the people’s democratic dictatorship” by rebuilding Shanghai as the world’s most futuristic city.

Aerial view of Pudong.

 Shanghai from the Lupu bridge.
Top: Pudong. [Photo by wecand] Bottom: Shanghai from the Lupu bridge. [Photo by Jakob Montrasio]

The speed and efficiency with which the Communist authorities would move Shanghai from mothballed relic of the past to stunning vision of the future would rattle the world. In just 20 years, the city’s people would go from commuting to run-down factories by bicycle to riding to the city’s new international airport on the fastest train on earth. Makeshift huts would be replaced by a high-rise cityscape boasting more skyscrapers than Manhattan. And the Shanghainese would go from agonizing over each year’s rice harvest to enjoying a life expectancy higher than America’s. Looking to Shanghai, the masses of China’s interior finally had evidence that, as Mao famously declared upon taking power but never quite proved, “China has stood up.” And the world would again have to reckon with we-will-bury-you Communism — the ruthless efficiency of a system of rule by fiat, where people build wonders by shutting up and doing what they’re told.

The man who would launch the building of the new Shanghai, Mayor Zhu Rongji, like all of history’s authoritarian city builders, had the mind of an engineer. As one famous anecdote has it, at a state dinner in Australia, Zhu went to the bathroom and was gone for so long that his worried hosts went to check on him. Found in his shirtsleeves tinkering with the toilet tank, Zhu embarrassingly explained that he had grown so fascinated by the Australian water-conserving commode that he couldn’t resist taking apart its dual-flush system and putting it back together again. “We must introduce this toilet to China,” Zhu gushed in his fluent English. 10 But the engineer-mayor’s ultimate passion wasn’t for minor advances in toilet hydraulics. He preferred civil engineering on a pharaonic scale.

Soon after Deng approved his Wall Street of the East plan, Zhu held a meeting with Western financial executives at the top of the Peace Hotel (formerly the Cathay) on the Bund. Zhu directed the assembled bankers to look out across the Huangpu River to Pudong. The blighted spit of land they looked down on, he explained with the calm assurance of the certifiably insane, would become the world’s leading financial center. “It was just warehouses and shacks and rice paddies,” a Wall Street executive in attendance later recalled. “And there were people living there. So I asked Zhu, ‘What are you going to do about all of those people?’ And he just said, ‘We’ll move them.’”

Pudong, seen from the Shanghai World Financial Center.
Pudong, seen from the Shanghai World Financial Center. [Photo by Bernt Rostad]

And move them he did. In Pudong, 300,000 residents were pushed out of their homes and relocated to high-rise apartments. 11 The repetitive rehousing slabs — just stacks of simple rooms rising 25 stories in the air — may have been a physical improvement over the shacks of the old Pudong, but many inhabitants were loath to move, fearing the destruction of their village-like neighborhoods’ sense of community. Those who failed to appreciate their government’s largesse were forcibly evicted by armed police and hired goons. Oftentimes, the authorities would cut off water and electricity to neighborhoods they were clearing to convince the hesitant. Overall, one million families were moved in the effort to remake Shanghai. 12

The new slab high-rises hardly presaged the ultra-modern neighborhood Pudong would become. The rehousing developments looked like something out of the Eastern Europe of the 1960s and ’70s, the years China was busy tearing itself apart with the Cultural Revolution, not building. But Zhu envisioned Pudong as much more than an East Bloc-style residential improvement scheme. The real purpose of the evictions was to clear land for new, quasi-private real estate development — the first permitted in Shanghai since the revolution. Stacking people vertically who had been spread out horizontally opened up land that the authorities then leased to wealthy developers often based in Hong Kong or Taiwan. These leases brought the government a windfall that it plowed into building the world’s greatest civic infrastructure, including the brand new international airport linked to the financial district by maglev train, a new subway system larger than New York’s or London’s, and a plethora of bridges and tunnels connecting the historic center of Shanghai in the former foreign concessions to its new financial center in Pudong. In the first decade of developing Pudong, Chinese authorities spent over US$10 billion on the neighborhood’s infrastructure. 13

Construction near The Bund, in central Shanghai, and the Pudong skyline.
Construction near The Bund, in central Shanghai, and the Pudong skyline. [Photo by leniners]

The Chinese government moved companies into Pudong as easily as it moved people out of it. Bringing in domestic financial firms was just a matter of telling them to move. China’s state-run banks soon erected skyscrapers along the Pudong riverfront. With each company wanting a signature Shanghai headquarters to brand its business, the towers of Pudong became a kind of fashion-show runway of recent skyscraper designs. “It’s like ladies’ outfits at the opera,” a German architect working in Shanghai explained. The key is being unique — standing out from the crowd — even if it means being outrageous, over-the-top, or downright ugly. “Shanghai clients really will object if they think the design for their building looks like another building. That’s why the city has no unified style,” the modern-day Shanghailander explained. But spending billions on infrastructure with no guarantee that foreign private companies would set up shop in Pudong was a risky development strategy. When critics argued that the state-sponsored building boom in Pudong wasn’t justified by market demand, a successor of Zhu Rongji’s, Mayor Xu Kuangdi, replied that building Pudong was like buying a suit for a growing boy: you get one a few sizes too big and he grows into it. 14

To lure foreign businesses to Pudong, the Chinese government offered tax incentives and launched a savvy starchitecture-based marketing strategy. For the first of three supertall skyscrapers planned for Pudong, an international competition was held in 1993 with Western and Japanese firms competing to design an 88-story tower — 88 being an auspicious number in Chinese numerology, since the word for “eight” in Chinese sounds like the word for “wealth.” “The whole concept behind the tower was to create an element that would give the property developers [in] the area, a comfort level that this would become … the financial center of the East,” explained Adrian Smith, the Chicago-based architect who won the commission despite having never been to Shanghai.

Skyline view with Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai Oriental Pearl Radio and Broadcasting Tower, Pudong.
Skyline view with Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai Oriental Pearl Radio and Broadcasting Tower, Pudong. [Photo by Sieghart Michielsen]

As in the city’s previous Jazz Age building boom, the pace of construction was as stunning as the backwardness of its methods. Sleek skyscrapers rose up behind bamboo scaffolding on a round-the-clock building schedule as workers moved bricks by hand-pushed wheelbarrow. Speaking about his 88-story Jin Mao Tower, Smith said, “The first time I saw the site, it was all squatter villages … and the next week I went there, it was cleaned off completely, with a brick wall around the site. … It was flat. It wasn’t piles of rubble. … It was flat.” Today, with Pudong’s financial district almost completely built out, only the trees lining its main boulevard, Century Avenue — just spindly saplings still held up by stakes — bring home how new the development is.

But the fast-forward timescale of Pudong is the same one on which Chinese Communism has reinvented itself — a reinvention written into the cityscape itself. At one end of Century Avenue stands the last Soviet building: the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Radio and Broadcasting Tower, which is anchored by a plodding concrete tripod and punctuated by a series of bulbous pink spheres (the “pearls”). Conceived in 1988, a year before the Tiananmen Square protests and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the tower, which opened in 1995, was built to broadcast television and radio programs. Symbolizing the state’s power to control the masses through propaganda, such towers were staples of East Bloc cities, and they dominated Communist-era skylines everywhere from Leningrad to East Berlin. That it took China’s leading city until 1995 to erect its TV tower bears witness to how stunted China was, even by East Bloc standards. Most Chinese lacked TVs long after East Germans and even Russians took them for granted. By the time it opened, Shanghai’s TV tower already had the feel of a building that is supposed to look futuristic but instead evokes some now-defunct conception of what the future would look like.

At the other end of Century Avenue sits Shanghai’s new civic plaza, with a stunning concert hall, science museum, and new administration building. As in its sister city on the Neva, the concert hall exposes locals to foreign cultures, the science museum encourages them to think for themselves — and the administration building stifles the worldly, free-thinking urbanites the other two institutions breed. The administration building’s style can only be called the architecture of intimidation. Its squat gray appearance echoes the old Shanghai Municipal Council building near the Bund, a plodding stone symbol of a colonial government that thought it would rule for centuries even as its days were numbered. Save for the red-and-gold seal of the Communist regime, the building is entirely unadorned. Its gray glass is completely reflective: the cadres inside the building can observe Pudong, but the denizens of Pudong cannot observe the cadres.


Pudong New Area Government Building.
Pudong New Area Government Building. [Photo by Baycrest]

That the people cannot even know if they’re being watched is the essence of China’s new Communism. In the old Communism embodied by the Pearl TV Tower, the authorities proudly hurled their propaganda down upon the people; today, Chinese Communism operates on a kind of secret society model. While it is estimated that tens of thousands of Chinese bureaucrats work day and night to censor the Internet, there is no official acknowledgment in China that the web is censored at all, beyond vague statements about ensuring that online information is “wholesome.” Blocked websites are disguised with the routine Internet error message, “The connection has been reset.” The secret of power in post-Tiananmen China is its invisibility. 15

The ultimate invisible power is the power to design the structures in which people live their lives. The authorities in contemporary Shanghai clearly understand how architecture structures the human experience of the city, how it sets the terms on which people are brought together in urban space. The monumental, alienating feel of Pudong, with its mismatched office-atop-shopping-mall towers set back from the speeding multi-lane traffic, is no accident. There are several factors why this style predominates: the dominance of Hong Kong and Taiwan developers who build as if they’re in their stiflingly hot home climates where an air-conditioned mall is a seductive place to hang out; the speed with which unimaginative boilerplate designs can be transformed from blueprints to reality in an environment where time is money for developers as well as for government officials on the make and on the take; and the legacy of Soviet planning, with its penchant for monumental buildings, squares and avenues passable on foot only via underground passageways. But the ultimate factor is the government’s social engineering scheme. Wide boulevards are nearly impossible to shut down with street protests; allowing crowds to gather only when engaged in the solipsistic activity of shopping is a recipe for a de-politicized city.

While Pudong represents (in effect) a tabula rasa where the authorities have been able to build their dream city, across the river the former foreign concessions have been retrofitted to bring them into accord with this vision. Innumerable lilongs have been demolished and replaced with Pudong-style skyscraper-topped shopping malls set in concrete plazas. And People’s Square, the former racetrack that became the city’s leading site for staging officially sponsored political rallies during the Maoist era, has been filled up with civic buildings. In addition to a new city hall, a theater, and a museum, there is Reform-era Shanghai’s salute to itself, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, an official “Patriotic Promotion Site” that boasts a Socialist Realist bronze sculpture of heroic muscle-bound workers erecting Pudong’s banking towers. Filling up the square with these imposing new buildings allows the authorities to shrewdly herald the city’s revival while simultaneously rendering its main green space unusable for demonstrations. The only place the people can congregate in the renovated People’s Square is in its underground shopping mall.

Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, People’s Square, Pudong.
Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, People’s Square, Pudong. [Photo by Michael Renner]

Shanghai Now

The new Shanghai is as much a testament to social engineering as it is to civil engineering. A complete inversion of the historic city — where anyone in the world was welcome to move at any time — the new Shanghai centrally-planned the composition of its population as much as its bridges and buildings. The authorities’ power to curate their city’s populace was well established. Since the late 1950s, China has had a system of local residency registration, complete with IDs that function as internal passports, affording the government discretion over who lives where. To create the new Shanghai, the authorities brought in several different types of people — a working class of imported rural laborers to physically build the city, a class of foreign experts to advise its multinational businesses, and a white-collar class of university-educated, English-speaking Chinese professionals to staff its companies. Taken together, the different housing forms used by each group have created the disparate urban fabric of the rebuilt Pudong.

Throughout the metropolis, at the bases of the most sophisticated corporate office towers, modular dorm trailers, hung with laundry, house migrant workers, the new class of coolies building contemporary Shanghai. Lured by work as well as the opportunity to live in China’s greatest city, a laborer with a documented offer from a Shanghai employer is permitted to relocate from his rural area for the duration of the job. Once in Shanghai, he is housed in the dorm on his worksite. Given the staggering scope of the construction boom in Shanghai, temporary trailer dorms have become a near-ubiquitous housing form in the city, akin to the lilongs of Old Shanghai. But unlike the lilongs, the trailers, like their inhabitants, are temporary.

Wujiang Lu street under demolition, Shanghai, 2010.
Wujiang Lu street under demolition, Shanghai, 2010. [Photo by bricoleurbanism]

The employment requirement for city residence allows newly capitalist Shanghai to present an image of the perfect socialist city where there are no beggars. The poor of Shanghai are all disguised, invariably dressed in their work uniforms. While rural people often stay illegally in the city after the temporary job for which they were brought in is completed, they need to find new jobs fast. Indigent, unemployed rural people routinely get sent home in sweeps, especially before high-profile events like Shanghai’s World Expo, the 2010 world’s fair that served as reopened Shanghai’s international coming-out party. And police harassing guest workers, standing over them examining their ID cards and barking questions, is a common sight on Shanghai’s streets. The official 2008 Shanghai Demographic Survey reported that fully one-third of Shanghai’s overall population is composed of domestic migrant workers. But the real numbers may be even higher. After all, the survey listed the city’s total population as 18.88 million, a number likely chosen for its string of auspicious number 8s, not its statistical accuracy. 16

Inland from the financial district’s office towers and their modular coolie dorms, the Western-style housing developments that dot Pudong eerily resemble the 1920s developments still standing in the former foreign concessions across the river. The gated communities house the foreign experts who have been imported to manage the new businesses of Shanghai after a 40-year gap that wiped out most Chinese people’s knowledge of the basics of corporate capitalism. The authorities have set an official goal that Shanghai aim for a foreign population of five percent — enough to help manage the city’s global businesses but not enough to threaten stability. (Citizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan, both major presences in Shanghai, are not counted as “foreign” because of the “One-China” ideology of the People’s Republic.) When Shanghai first reopened for international business in the early 1990s, foreigners could only live in hotels; in the mid-1990s, an official list of (presumably bugged) apartments were opened up to foreign renters. Finally, in 1999, the authorities dropped even that requirement and began relying on a state-influenced market system to corral foreigners with carrots rather than sticks. Pudong’s Western-style suburbs are the final result of the authorities’ strategy for luring expatriates to live and work in the city.

Pool scene at Green Villas, Pudong.

riental Garden (Cambridge Water Town), Zhujiajiao.
Top: Green Villas, Pudong. [Photo by Marc van der Chijs] Bottom: Oriental Garden (Cambridge Water Town), Zhujiajiao, Shanghai. [Photo by bricoleurbanism]

Green Villas, a Pudong gated community of single-family homes that opened in 1999, is one such development designed to woo foreign professionals and their families. The neighborhood was explicitly modeled on the houses built for Westerners in the old foreign concessions, as Star Chen, an executive at the state-backed real estate firm that developed Green Villas, explained. At the outset of the project, said Chen, “I would take every weekend to go look at all these old single houses in [the former foreign concessions of ] Shanghai. And I would take notes.” Chen completed her research by traveling beyond the west bank of the Huangpu — to the actual West.

For Green Villas, Chen’s primary model was a Vancouver subdivision. To create the neighborhood of single-family houses with the typical West Coast suburban mix of Tudor- and Mediterranean-style homes, her company imported all of its materials from Canada — right down to the plumbing and electrical wiring, and even the construction equipment. Her company imported the designers, as well. Three Canadian architects were brought to Shanghai to draw up plans for the neighborhood. To further woo foreign families, Chen helped open up two international schools, one British and one American. The British school, Dulwich College, an overseas branch of the prestigious boys school outside of London, was all but flown in from England. To build Dulwich, Chen explained, “We went to London, to the real Dulwich College, the original one, and we hired the staff architect.”

Not far from Dulwich College Shanghai, Star Chen’s real estate firm commissioned an Australian architect to design a new shopping mall. With its black-and-white-striped façade — inspired, according to its soul-patch-sporting designer, by the bar code, a nod to the impersonal global capitalism for which it stands — the mall offers the area’s expatriates a taste of home, much as the foreign department stores of Old Shanghai did a century ago. Inside the mall, a multicultural mix of American bankers’ and German engineers’ spouses hop from the health club to the Starbucks. The mall is anchored by a supermarket where all of the exotic luxuries of home — cheese, bread, breakfast cereal — can be had at a shocking markup. In the mall’s Indian restaurant, turbaned Sikh teenagers enjoy a taste of home. While in Old Shanghai Sikhs were imported for their skills in law enforcement, in today’s reglobalized Shanghai, they are prized as computer programmers. Outside, on the mall’s grounds, white children play under the watchful eyes of Chinese amahs as they did a century ago in the Public Garden.

Statue of James Bond, Thames Town, Songjiang, Shanghai.

Thames Town.
Top: Statue of James Bond, Thames Town, Songjiang, Shanghai. [Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen] Bottom: Thames Town. [Photo by bricoleurbanism]

As in the early 20th century, the English-speaking Shanghai Chinese professional elite favor Western-style homes; a belt of ersatz Western developments has duly sprouted on former farmland around the city, now linked to Pudong’s financial district via the massive new subway system. Shanghai’s authorities have consciously built up this class of Chinese professionals to staff the city’s global businesses. Today’s Shanghai is essentially run like a college with a competitive admissions process, with city residency permits given to those who hold a degree from a national-level university and have passed tests in computer literacy and English fluency. The system also allows well-to-do Chinese to buy a Shanghai residence permit outright: in 1996, the Shanghai municipal government began bestowing local residency on anyone who purchased an apartment in Pudong worth at least US$60,000. Goosed by the policy-augmented demand, the reintroduction of market-based development has led to a building frenzy for Western-style housing as developers catered to this growing class’s tastes.

The 2009 Holiday Real Estate Market expo — held in the old Sino-Soviet Friendship Palace (now a rentable exhibition hall)— hawked developments modeled on Shanghai’s former colonial powers to the professional newcomers. American-themed projects included Park Avenue, a high-rise luxury apartment building; for an ersatz France, buyers could choose between La Vill (sic) de Fontainebleau and 16ème Arrondissement; Anglophiles could opt for a Tudor-style cottage in Cambridge Village or British Manor. Many of the projects being touted at the expo were still under construction, but Thames Town, opened for business in 2006, had long ago proved the model a great success. Channeling a complete English country town, the development is centered around a typical High Street lined with redbrick buildings and even a statue of Winston Churchill. The town square has a full-scale fake church whose grounds are popular with a new generation of Shanghai g irls taking wedding photos, decked out in white wedding dresses, part of a vogue for what can only be called “white weddings” that has swept Reform-era China.

Chinese and Modern

For all Pudong’s metropolitan might, the new Shanghai has yet to live up to the city’s historic promise — to sort out what it means to be Chinese and modern. The experiments of the 1930s that worked to combine traditional Chinese forms with modern institutions and technology are conspicuously absent from reopened Shanghai; in the Jiangwan district, a library designed by Dong Dayou sits empty in a weed lot, its windows broken and boarded up, its façade still marred by remnants of Red Guard graffiti. With the Cultural Revolution having destroyed so much knowledge of traditional Chinese culture, the forms airlifted in from the West face little resistance from indigenous styles. This may be a key to China’s rapid economic growth: there are few traditional ways of life militating against the new life of feverish work and consumption. The questions of cultural authenticity that dog other developing countries and once dogged Shanghai itself are largely absent. To the extent that there is interest in integrating and updating traditional Chinese forms in contemporary Shanghai architecture, it comes from foreigners, sometimes non-Chinese Sinophiles, but more often from diaspora Chinese raised in Hong Kong or Taiwan, where Chinese culture escaped the ravages of Maoism on the mainland.

Abandoned Shanghai Municipal Library.
Abandoned Shanghai Municipal Library. [Photo by Carsten Ullrich]

The extinction of historical knowledge among even educated mainlanders is stunning. As real estate executive Star Chen explained of the wood-framed houses typical of American suburbs, “Green Villas uses a timber structure. This suits the tastes of the foreigners. Chinese live in concrete houses and the Americans live in timber houses.” In fact, historically, it was precisely the reverse. When the Americans, British and French first came to Shanghai in the 1840s, the Chinese lived in wooden houses and it was the stone lintels of the Westerners’ homes that marked them, to Chinese eyes, as foreign. Only after the revolution, with the construction of Soviet-style apartment blocks, themselves a take on the modernist style pioneered in Western Europe, did the Shanghainese start living in concrete homes. But the frightening success of the Cultural Revolution in stamping out historical memory of traditional Chinese architecture means that today even educated Chinese have come to think of concrete architecture as authentically Chinese while wooden homes have come to seem foreign.

This strange mix of pride in China’s new wealth and ignorance of China’s traditional civilization is the great contradiction of China’s rise. When an American reporter asked a Beijing man on the street — a fruit vendor — to explain China’s core values on the eve of National Day, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, he replied, “The ability of China to adapt … to learn from the West.” In his estimation, the essence of the new China was that it knew to stop being so Chinese. Amazingly, in Pudong, filled with Western-style homes, malls and office buildings often housing foreigners and Western companies, the obvious question of whether this is a disturbing redux of the foreign concessions — of whether China is, in some sense, assisting in its own recolonization — is never raised. And it is not merely that such a question is politically taboo or that in contemporary China there is no incentive to have strong opinions (and lots of incentives not to have them). It is that Chinese-ness has been so gutted of meaning. The social tabula rasa the philosophes dreamed they’d find in 18th-century St. Petersburg really exists in 21st-century Shanghai.

Under these conditions, even the return of forms of extra-territorial privilege is rarely discussed. Unlike the Chinese, the new Shanghailanders enjoy freedom of worship and some freedom to organize independent nongovernmental organizations. Satellite television is allowed in hotels catering to international travelers but prohibited in private homes. Moreover, is the new Dulwich College really that different from the Oxbridge-style Cathedral School for British boys, built in 1929 a block behind the Bund, or the colonial-revival Shanghai American School, built in the French Concession in 1923? When Chinese professionals take jobs in Britain or America, they send their children to the local vernacular schools — something foreign residents of Shanghai would never deign to do.

Xujiahui Park, former French Concession, Shanghai.

Shanghai intersection.

Shanghai residential development.
Top: Xujiahui Park, former French Concession, Shanghai. [Photo by bricoleurbanism] Middle: Shanghai intersection. [Photo by wecand] Bottom: Shanghai residential development. [Photo by wecand]

The wholesale abandonment of traditional Chinese forms and culture renders the world’s largest rising power strangely absent from a global conversation that — as in the last era of globalization — hinges on forging a global culture that is more than just a universalization of Western culture. For all the global links made possible by the new Shanghai Pudong International Airport, which opened in 1999 and already has annual passenger traffic comparable to New York’s JFK, the city remains oddly cut off from global debates. In a telling example, Chinese officials were dumbfounded when the Indian architects responsible for designing their country’s pavilion at Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo wanted to top their building with the world’s largest bamboo roof. The Indian architects had hoped their innovative dome would send a goodwill message to their fellow rising Asian power: by choosing bamboo, a local Chinese material, the Indians were respectfully acknowledging the host country and positing a world that can be environmentally sustainable even with a developed China and India. But when the Indian architects requested to see the section of Shanghai’s building code governing bamboo structures, they were told there was none. While the wider world wrestles with issues of site-specific sustainability, the Chinese, so eager to build Western structures, rarely use local materials like bamboo for anything other than scaffolding. It is the disconnect of a country whose leaders have culturally cut it off from the wider world even as they have linked it to the global economy, and who use the phrase “global values” as an epithet to mean “not ours.” It is the curious face of China that foreign visitors glimpse when they are invariably asked how many children their government permits them to have.

Amid the financial towers and luxury shopping malls of Pudong sits the Stellar International Cineplex. It is a preposterously grandiose name for a movie theater, since no movie house in China can legitimately be described as “international.” Only 20 foreign films a year are permitted to be shown in Chinese theaters, and even those are censored. In recent years, China’s government has privatized its movie production sector, but this just means that the predictable propaganda has higher production values than under Mao; the days of ham-fisted Socialist Realism have given way to glitzy historical thrillers in which crafty, dashing Communist agents outflank savage Japanese occupiers and blood-thirsty Nationalist officials.

Out on the streets, of course, vendors hawk bootleg DVDs of anything and everything. It’s evidence of Reform-era China’s de facto social contract: what you do in the privacy of your own home is your own business, but what you do in public, in large groups, is a different story. Under this philosophy, the wide-ranging civic conversations that are a hallmark of the world’s great cities, which rely on publications, panels, exhibitions and performances, cannot take place. Nowhere are the film restrictions more jarring than in Shanghai, where the former foreign concessions are studded with stunning Art Deco cinemas from the prewar period, reminiscent of Bombay. Between 1931 and 1941, fourteen cinemas were built in Shanghai, among them the Grand, by Ladislav Hudec, and the Majestic, by Fan Wenzhao, who had been among a cohort of Chinese architects trained at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1920s. Hollywood studios flocked to Jazz Age Shanghai, where MGM, United Artists, and Warner Bros. all rented offices on the ground floor of Sir Victor Sassoon’s Embankment Building. Today, Shanghai’s theaters remain, but they show fluff and propaganda. Live theater in Shanghai is similarly unstimulating. As the organizers of the nascent Shanghai Fringe Festival complained on the web in 2009, they had been forced to move its international performances to smaller peripheral cities because “the SH [Shanghai] government culture department has some nonsense issues with our foreign performancer [sic] this year.” 17

Shanghai IFC Mall.

 Shanghai street crossing.

Wujiang Lu street under demolition, 2010.
Top: Shanghai IFC Mall. [Photo by wecand] Middle: Shanghai street crossing. [Photo by wecand] Bottom: Wujiang Lu street under demolition, 2010. [Photo by bricoleurbanism]

In its de facto deal with the central government, Shanghai’s economic openness is contingent upon the authorities keeping the city’s cultural and intellectual life under wraps. Even apparatchik-packed Beijing lets more cultural flowers bloom. Notably, dissident artist Ai Weiwei was held under house arrest in his Beijing studio, but his Shanghai studio was demolished outright. In music, too, Beijing now hosts a burgeoning scene, while Shanghai is held back. “Shanghai is more restricted than Beijing,” said Zhang Shouwang, the lead singer of Beijing rock band Carsick Cars, who was anointed an “indie-rock wunderkind” by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. 18 “Once, when we played there, someone called the police. That kind of thing always happens in Shanghai.” In September 2006, several of the city’s leading indie rock clubs were simultaneously shut down by the Ministry of Culture, all cited for the same lack of “performance licenses.” 19 Zhang explained that the restrictions on venues have stunted Shanghai’s music scene. “In Shanghai, there’s no space for local bands to get good crowds,” he said, “so they don’t have good local bands.” Though top international orchestras perform regularly at Shanghai’s stunning Oriental Art Center, a Paul Andreu-designed complex of glass lobes arranged like the petals of a flower in Pudong’s civic plaza, international pop music acts have trouble getting visas, especially since Björk’s 2008 Shanghai concert in which the Icelandic superstar ended her song “Declare Independence” with shouts of “Tibet! Tibet!”

But for all the restrictions, there are signs that the worldly, sophisticated people that the reinvigorated city is assembling and forging are demanding a voice. The Fringe Festival organizers couldn’t thwart the government’s edict — but they did have the audacity to call it “nonsense” on their (eventually censored) web posting. Similarly, Shanghai residents now resist evictions in ways that would have been unthinkable just two decades ago. Faced with the public embarrassment of homeowners who refuse to move and their so-called stubborn nail houses, in 2005 the Shanghai government forbade developers from cutting off water and electricity to pressure people to leave. Today, the unpopularity of the evictions has slowed development in Shanghai as residents hold out for fair market value of their land. “It costs [as much as a] nice two-bedroom apartment in New York to get someone out of a rowhouse,” complained one American architect who has been engaged in Shanghai projects for nearly a decade. 20 His shock that people are getting anything approaching fair market value for their homes — which really do sit on plots worth millions — bespeaks his experiences in the not-so-distant era of forced blackouts. In 2009, residents of historic homes near Nanjing Road put up protest signs against an American firm’s high-rise project simply because it would block their sunlight and violate the city’s own stated height limits for the district. Not even threatened with eviction, these Shanghai residents were willing to mount a protest solely over rule of law and quality of life.

Increasingly in contemporary Shanghai, if you’re with-it enough to be a worldly resident of your nation’s most international city, you’re also knowledgeable enough to understand that, through happenstance of history, your society remains yoked to an antiquated political system, a bizarre holdover from the previous century. Walking down Nanjing Road today, with all the world’s products for sale and all the world’s peoples assembled in the context of political deep freeze, is the closest one can get to strolling down Gogol’s Nevsky Prospect in 19th-century St. Petersburg.

Composite image showing Nanjing Road, pedestrian shopping district in 2010, 2001 and 1993.
Nanjing Road, pedestrian shopping district, in 2010 (top), 2001 (bottom right) and 1992 (bottom left). [Photos by Payton Chung, 2 dogs and Gary Stevens]

Interspersed among the international businessmen and wealthy Chinese shoppers are rural migrant workers. Called out by their leathery skin and ill-fitting, raggedy sport coats, they are the great human contradiction of the new Shanghai. Surrounded by the modern world, the migrants are in the city but not of it, second-class citizens too poor to enjoy many of the city’s amenities. In colonial Shanghai, the parks of the foreign concessions were famously closed to Chinese and to dogs. Today, Pudong’s newly built Century Park proudly proclaims on a sign, “You are all invited to Century Park!” but charges ten yuan admission (US$1.50) — enough to make migrant workers think twice. Will the millions of migrant workers who live in Shanghai accept such status forever? Or will the city again face the instability that rocked it during its last coolie-powered economic boom in the 1920s and ’30s?

China’s authorities are betting that Shanghai matters more as a symbol than as an actual city — a wager reminiscent of the one the British rulers of Bombay made and came to regret. In the new master-planned Pudong financial district, each of the stylistically mismatched skyscrapers sits on a pedestal set in a vast, empty plaza, pulled back from the massive avenues. With few traffic lights, limousines and taxicabs speed down the broad streets, making them all but impassable for pedestrians. Built to be impressive, not enjoyable, Pudong is meant to be viewed from across the river on the Bund — and in photos or films shot from the Bund — rather than from its own streets; for Pudong is less a city than an ad for a city.

Pudong intersection.
Pudong. [Photo by Jeremy Keith]

For the 98 percent of the Chinese population that doesn’t live in Shanghai, the official images of the city present an urban perfection airbrushed of any social tensions. In 2006, film censors chose Mission Impossible III, which had been filmed on location in Shanghai, as one of the 20 foreign films to be shown in Chinese cinemas. But before granting the film a license, they cut out shots of Shanghai buildings hung with drying laundry. To the Chinese masses, Shanghai had to be portrayed as the pinnacle of modernity. The skyscrapers that dwarf contemporary Manhattan could be shown but the laundry lines, reminiscent of Manhattan’s tenements from a century ago, could not. Any images of Shanghai as anything but the most modern city in the world had to be excised.

In 2009, on the 60th anniversary of the Communist revolution, posters of Shanghai’s imposing skyline were featured in the official celebration in Beijing as a vindication of China’s authoritarian system. And on one level, of course, Shanghai’s breakneck redevelopment constitutes the perfect advertisement for the Party’s authoritarian rule: the ability to move a million families, order companies to relocate, and devote resources on the basis of a long-term investment strategy rather than the short-term profit motive has made the city’s global re-emergence possible. But on another level, opening up a great global city in a bid for stability betrays a stunning hubris. Historically, global Shanghai brought many things to China — technology, culture, ideas, trade — but the one thing it never brought was stability.

As it did a century ago, the city’s embrace of modernity is breeding groups that will be hard to control. There is only so far the gap between the migrant workers and the local Shanghainese they serve can grow before the foundations of the city buckle — and only so many well-educated, English-speaking, computer-literate, world-traveling young people the city can welcome before they demand change. Modernity is about more than fast trains and tall buildings. Despite the authorities’ strict controls, some among Shanghai’s millions have surely figured this out.

Editors' Note

“Head of the Dragon” is excerpted from A History of Future Cities, copyright © Daniel Brook, published this month by W.W. Norton & Company. It appears here with the permission of the publisher.

  1. Michael Fathers and Andrew Higgins, Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking (London: Transworld Publishers, 1989), 60.
  2. Father and Higgins, Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking, 61.
  3. Zhang Liang, The Tiananmen Papers (New York: Public Affairs, 2001), 110.
  4. Dmitry Shvidkovsky, Russian Architecture and the West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 196.
  5. Zhang, The Tiananmen Papers, 403.
  6. Zhang, The Tiananmen Papers, 410.
  7. Zhang, The Tiananmen Papers, 135.
  8. Thomas J. Campanella, The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), 71.
  9. Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journals of Zhao Ziyang (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 151–152.
  10. “Dear John: Tapping into China’s Toilet Revolution,” ChinaOnline, December 18, 2000.
  11. Tarun Khanna, Billions of Entrepreneurs (Cambridge: Harvard Business Press, 2008), 72.
  12. Philip Pan, Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of New China (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 164.
  13. Yawei Chen, Shanghai Pudong: Urban Development in an Era of Global-Local Interaction (Delft, Netherlands: Delft University of Technology, 2007), 150.
  14. Trish Saywell, “Pudong Rises to the Task,” Far Eastern Economic Review, November 2, 2000.
  15. James Fallows, “The Connection Has Been Reset,” The Atlantic, March 2008.
  16. Xinhua News Agency, “Shanghai’s Registered Population Grows,” China Daily, March 14, 2009.
  17. City Weekend (Shanghai) website, accessed September 29, 2009; dead link: http://www.cityweekend.com/ch/shanghai/events/52749]
  18. Alex Ross, “Symphony of Millions,” The New Yorker, July 7, 2008.
  19. Zachary Mexico, China Underground (Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2009), 113.
  20. James von Klemperer, “KPF in Shanghai,” lecture, The Skyscraper Museum, New York, October 27, 2009.
Daniel Brook, “Head of the Dragon: The Rise of New Shanghai,” Places Journal, February 2013. Accessed 03 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/130218

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Past Discussions View
  • 03.18.2013 at 08:20

    Thanks for posting this excerpt, DO.