Shanghai Postcard: Reflections from China’s Ever-Changing Metropolis

Photo courtesy wikimedia. A massive model of Shanghai greets visitors to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.

I’m attending an international symposium here in Shanghai (“Beyond the Crisis: From Recovery to Long-term Sustainable Development of the World Economy”) co-hosted by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

The discussions here reveal continuing differences between those who primarily seek a restart of the economic engine to overcome the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and those who argue that we need to have a green recovery and perhaps, as the U.N. Environment Programme and others have demanded, a Global Green New Deal. It’s also clear that green jobs advocates like myself need to be careful to figure out how such strategies work not just to the benefit of richer countries but also provide real hope for overcoming poverty and inequality.

Out in the streets, in a metropolis of close to 20 million inhabitants, it is unwise to draw hard and fast conclusions. Shanghai, of course, is a city of superlatives. Apparently, the number of skyscrapers (office and residential) in the city is more than double that in New York City, though the reported numbers differ. (And at just what height is a building considered a skyscraper?) Where New York has its midtown and downtown assemblies of tall buildings, Shanghai has multiple such jungles of concrete and glass, with plenty more going up.

A visit to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, in the city’s People’s Square, makes this clear. Occupying an entire floor of the building, you find a massive model of the city—a bird’s eye view without having to ascend into the heavens. The Hall is a paean to Shanghai’s urban expansion, which has been given a new boost by the World Expo that’s taking place from May to October.

Just as New York is often not representative of the United States, Shanghai is rather different from the rest of China. And it is an urban colossus with many contradictions. Walk down Nanjing Road and you might as well be on Fifth Avenue—with temples to modern consumption beckoning shoppers left and right, day and night.

It’s tempting for Western environmentalists to bemoan and criticize this. In fact, we too often fall for the line that if every person in China were to go for the material delights and seductions we have taken for granted, then surely the planet cannot be saved. But as long as Westerners are not prepared to consider different lifestyles, all we are left with is a double standard.

Take a quick turn off Nanjing Road, and a more pedestrian Shanghai quickly appears, less dominated by giant screens extolling the latest consumer must-haves. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Old Town, which is dominated by narrow lanes and back alleys.

Both Shanghainese and foreigners flock to the famous Bund, a stretch of recently restored riverfront. Across the Huangpu River is the famous vista of ultra-modern and super-tall skyscrapers, including the Jinmao Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower, and the Shanghai World Financial Center (the latter, owing to the peculiar shape of its top, might be thought of as a giant bottle opener in the sky). In a matter of 20 years or so, this area was transformed from rice paddies to the financial nerve center of a metropolis.

Shopping here means paying with banknotes on which Mao’s visage is emblazoned. Mao himself did not have his face put on the currency. That was done after his death by his wily successor, Deng Xiao Ping, who is credited with saying that “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”

That quote, of course, famously refers to Deng’s pragmatism. So perhaps it is fitting to end this story with a subversive thought. In the West, and in much of the world, some have long insisted that the cat be only one color, as expressed in British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s insistence three decades ago that “there is no alternative” to free market capitalism. But at a time of tremendous crises—economic, social, and environmental—perhaps we need to heed Deng’s advice and allow that the cat that will catch the mice might have a different color after all. But let’s be careful to understand what we mean by catching mice.

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