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Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Department of History

Last modified: Monday, July 28, 2003

IU Feature: The new Shanghai

Dragon's head or just a mask?

It's still a word in every English dictionary: "shanghai," to kidnap a sailor for compulsory service aboard a ship. It recalls the legend of Shanghai as one of the most notorious and glamorous port cities of the world. The 2010 World Exposition will be hosted there, and the city's leaders hope it will put Shanghai on the international map once again.

"The two decades following World War I was when the image of Shanghai as an anything-goes cosmopolitan center of dramatic events, decadent lifestyles and dangerous characters took hold in the West, thanks largely to Hollywood films," writes Jeffery Wasserstrom, professor of history and director of the East Asian Studies Center at Indiana University Bloomington. In an article in the summer 2003 issue of World Policy Journal, Wasserstrom discusses the latest changes in a city that has seen its reputation rise and fall.

"In a famous 1992 speech, Premier Deng Xiaoping announced that henceforth the Yangzi Delta would serve as the 'dragon's head' of China's modernization and opening to the world. He thus gave his personal blessing to the energetic program of urban renewal and internationalization that has, in a surprisingly brief period of time, transformed Pudong from a relatively undeveloped riverfront zone into a high-tech forest of glittering skyscrapers, and changed Shanghai from a city that had largely become cut off from the capitalist West to a place where more than half of the world's 500 leading corporations have branch offices," Wasserstrom writes. "Shanghai is again, as it unquestionably once was, one of the hottest cities in the world for globetrotting travelers and foreign investors."

Shanghai must compete with Hong Kong for the world's attention, however. Hong Kong's stock market is still much more important than Shanghai's, for example, and the first Chinese Disneyland will be in Hong Kong.

A visitor who looks closely at the sparkling new district of Shanghai will find that some vital parts are still missing.

"Take the new Shanghai cafes," Wasserstrom writes. "Local boosters proudly compare them to the cafes in Amsterdam or Paris, where one can loiter and read the newspapers and the latest magazines. Foreign commentators point to them as positive signs that the free market is bringing greater openness to China.

"The problem is that the only reading materials available in many of the cafes I visited were fashion magazines. Outside one cafe, I noticed a lifelike sculpture of a street musician playing a saxophone. Yet on my last several trips to the city, I have never actually encountered a street musician. In a truly great city, the public sphere is one in which more than fashion can be discussed. It is one in which street musicians can play songs of protest if they wish. This is not the Shanghai -- or any other mainland city -- of today."

Outside the skyscraper district, some crucial realities are apparent. The city is again becoming a place divided between rich and poor, as it was in its quasi-colonial days. "For all their problems, Chinese cities of the Maoist era, including Shanghai, were ones in which most people (high-ranking officials being the main exceptions) lived lives that, in material terms, were quite similar," Wasserstrom writes.

He is skeptical of claims that a free market and economic choice will automatically lead to political openness. "One only has to look at Singapore, where authoritarian structures remain firmly in place," he notes. "Has there been real change in Shanghai? This is a valid question, one that may take years to answer. We would do well to keep in mind the dazzling record that both Shanghai and China itself have for confecting beguiling illusions."