A City of Contradictions
“So, why did you come back to China?”
For the first time in the hour long conversation, Queenee, whose malleable face had the divine power to generate novel expressions at truly astonishing speeds, took a pause to soak what I had just asked. Around us, small framed Chinese waitresses, dressed in smile and cute pink silk coats, poured tea in thin spic porcelain cups. The sound of piano filtered in from the half open door and fused gently with the clank of the crockery. The plush settings of the luxurious hotel were one of the many available for us to choose from that evening in Shanghai, and we settled on one that nested the Maserati and Ferrari showrooms.
Within a few seconds, Queenee gave up in exasperation, “Because we have to! It is like that here.” She had a privileged childhood, heading out to Australia at the age of 16 to study. A continuance in Switzerland followed and after working abroad for a few years, she returned to her hometown carrying with her the unique gift of speaking English fluently. “It is really hard to find people who speak good English”, Queenee’s employer, Peter, had told me earlier. “But in the last five years, a lot of young people have picked up the language, especially in Shanghai and Beijing.”
Shanghai has been Queenee’s home from the time when it was a disregarded coastal city handling minor trade volumes, when Europeans backpackers still sifted the lanes hunting for the oriental and the opium, when poverty was still visible, and when there were no tall buildings. The Godzilla like mutation of the sleepy town into a megacity has not been gradual for the residents to not remember the past. Rather the city transformed almost overnight with multiple layered flyovers and skyscrapers popping out at breakneck pace one after another, all in the last one decade. On a bright afternoon, lean by the glass window on the 100th floor of World Financial Centre to learn the story of the new Shanghai through the spread of the sky rises.
“The new reality is that we are living in the world running at ‘Chinese speed’” a Danish friend exclaimed mournfully when he learnt that the Shanghai city has added 20 new lines in the underground metro network totaling a spread of more than 400 kilometers in the last five years. In Denmark, it takes eight years to approve and add one line.
“It is glorious to be rich”
Den Xiaoping’s words spoken at Shenzhen in 1991 and claiming the success of controlled special economic zone experiments that had ran for more than a decade and a half by then, “released the entrepreneurial energy of China”, as Chen Min, professor at Jiaotong University puts it. In the seventies, after being orphaned by Russia, China was left with its brand of communism and mass poverty. The Party feared unrest and its wipeout. Japanese has their manufacturing capabilities, and Koreans their reverse engineering prowess; China had none. Its natural resources were locked in the vast plateau of Tibet, whose land shifted few inches higher every year making it impossible to create any kind of sustainable infrastructure (the first railroad to Lhasa was completed only in 2006). China was left with only one resource – its people.
However, opening the economy in a single step guaranteed loss of control, an experience that never makes The Party comfortable. Those yearning for turning points, recall Den Xiaoping’s visit to the USA in 1979 as an important one in the Chinese history. Den Xiaoping was advised to go slow and he carefully orchestrated the foreign investment towards only three regions in south China including Shenzhen, which was a natural choice given its trading history with Hong Kong. Xiamen and Hainan provinces were the other SEZs. Such was the fear prevailing at that time that the SEZs were cordoned off and run like separate countries. Visitors were required to present passports at the entrance and little, if at all, news was released out to the public. These first capitalistic experiments were so successful that Den Xiaoping would claim such to be the new model of growth (for instance, Huawei, world’s second largest telecom network equipment manufacturer, was a product of this experiment).
Since Den Xiaoping mouthed those words 20 years ago, China has never looked back.
I visited Suzhou, a suburb of Shanghai to study how such an industrial zone may look like. Suzhou is two hours from Shanghai; a well connected and very industrial looking town, it serves as a manufacturing base for multiple international companies. The growth in China spurted in the coastal regions first (generally referred to as tier 1 cities) and is now moving inwards into tier 2 cities such as Changsha, Fuzhou, and Guiyang. The shift is majorly propelled by the salary increases of workers in the coastal regions. An educated professional in the urban area, such as Suzhou, earns upwards of 30000 RMB, a leap of 500% in less than 10 years. “Why stay in China?” I asked Martin Bach Andersen, an expat working in Suzhou. “It is not so easy to shift, majorly because the supply chain networks are extremely difficult to replicate elsewhere” he offered. Chinese town have grown into an intricate network of suppliers, manufacturers and distributors all co-habiting and well integrated to serve efficiently. Suzhou, for example, draws close “cooling” supply chain, allowing refrigeration and air-conditioning manufacturers to set up shops.
Suzhou had a long association with silk. The transformation into an industrial town may have taken some of its beauty away and it may seem difficult to imagine the town’s historical significance, however, the city is more prominent in the world map today than perhaps it ever was. On the road back, I passed a 18-hole golf course; its membership aimed particularly at the expat community. Few meters ahead was an advertisement of an excavator mechanic, the first one I had ever seen.
“There are 63,500 dollar millionaires in China today”
So claims Leslie Bowman, co founder of Hurun Report, a publication that makes money solely on reporting the stories of the rich. “It is only the tip of the iceberg; there is a lot of under-the-water wealth that we cannot even estimate as these people do not disclose their wealth”, he adds. Hurun Report’s publications include the ranking of the richest (11 of the top 20 dollar women billionaires are Chinese), their rich tastes (French brands and yachts), preferred exercises (yoga and swimming), donations to the charity (Chen Guangbiao decided to donate 95% of his wealth away), and similar deafening cacophony of vulgar statistics. It is said that if you are in the Hurun Report, you are in.
What do the rich do to burn the excess cash? Well one particularly preferred hobby is to drive their Ferraris and Aston Martins in the Shanghai F1 track for four days once every year. Million dollars worth of luxury reduces into worthless metal heap as cars driven by non-professionals pile into one another. But well, that serves as another reason to buy yet another expensive piece.
‘China grows and grows, but no one is sure into what’ claimed one newspaper article that I had wolfed down during my research. In mature economies of the West, investment, finance and real estate are the moneybag professions. The riches in China are a product of manufacturing. Very little of such source of wealth is seen elsewhere.
To understand what happens to the tons of manufactured goods, I followed the Donghai sea bridge, worlds longest at 32 kilometers, leading to the Yang Shan port set up on an island that once used to be a fishing village. When the government decided to construct the port, the 100 odd fishermen families were transferred overnight to another town in the mainland, the name of which no one seems to remember now. The operations manager at the port, a certain Chinese gentleman, beamed with pride when, after the tour, we finally stopped in front of a picture portraying the ‘before’ and ‘after’ states of the island. An investment of 32 billion RMB went into constructing the port and the accompanying bridge, and yes, it was completed in two years.
Inaugurated by Wen Jibao in 1997, Yang Shan is a deep sea port, by volume the largest in China, set further away in the sea to minimize the impact of tide variation and allow largest of the cargo ships to dock in. On most days, one would find both 160k and 320k DWT ships and several smaller ones lined up alongside the lift area. The sea breeze carries with it some salt and a tame hum of the approximately 40 human operated cranes in motion, constantly lifting containers and settling them on the trucks that queue up like ants for ration. Every movement is coordinated from the monitoring station perched on the only hill on the island. The only other hill that existed before was dynamited away to level the port. The port never sleeps, and to the far end of the three kilometers stretch, containers from Maersk, Cosco and others are stacked over and next to each other waiting for their delivery. The dispatch for the winter holiday season in Europe and America had left this port and I wondered what of all that I bought this Christmas was routed to me via Yang Shan.
“It is my duty to defend the Chinese government as you outsiders think it is evil”
The admonition came not from a particularly nationalist Chinese but from Christian Havrehed, a Danish expat living in China for the last 15 years, and who considers Shanghai home. We sat in a plush restaurant eating peanut ice-cream. Christian is in his forties, uses his hands expansively while making grand judgments, is natural at oratory and speaks, as it seems to outsiders, fluent Mandarin. First timers may consider him an unofficial spokesperson for The Party, but he feels it important to educate the uninitiated.
“In fact, the government of China is highly predictable and supports business. Forget about the claims from the free world that newspapers are not transparent. In China, you can be extremely critical of the government.” The advice sounded counterintuitive to what I had heard so far, and to be fair to Christian, most of what I heard came from the media outside China. During my stay, I often picked up China Daily and Shanghai Daily newspapers to find reports mostly on economic development, education and basketball. A few stories of corruption scandals also filtered in these Party’s mouthpieces. “Government allows certain stories to be published as it shows that there is serious drive towards curbing corruption”, so was I told by Tor Morseth, a Norwegian journalist who had spent three years in China.
It was fast becoming difficult to eliminate bias and cynicism. Any argument on China is a passionate argument, especially when made in Shanghai where foreigners and locals blend at all levels, and each group evokes its own China. In the city of 23 million, there are good chances of hearing as many singular thoughts on any matter.
In the past five years, the confidence of Asian men has grown considerably, Christian felt. The two events that contributed to the feeling of arrival, and in some cases superiority, in Chinese people are the Beijing Olympics and the World Expo that ended on October, 2010 in Shanghai. Late one weekday afternoon, I visited the World Expo Puxi site overlooking the slow moving Huangpu River. Driving on the Lupu Bridge, the pavilions start appearing on the other side through the thick Shanghai fog. In my previous visit three years back, the process of cleaning the 4.8 square kilometers was ongoing and thousands of volunteers were being recruited and trained. Now, there is an inherent quietness around the pavilions; the air smells fresher and small cargo boats slowly sail by in the background. The silence has followed the storm of ruthless displacements of 18000 families and chemical factories from the region. As the sun began to set on this early winter day, I carried back bunch of mixed feelings about the efficacy and accompanying cold-heartedness that I saw. Yet again, I was lost on what to make out of what I have learnt.
But then, Shanghai is a city of contradictions. Once it grows on you, confusion would be a happy acceptance.
On my last day in Shanghai I set out to study the antimony of the streets.
From my hotel room window, I could see what looked like a decrepit slum by the side of Bund. It is one of the few remaining corners where poverty on the street is in sight. Mostly migrant workers from villages come to live in the cheap quarters and either go to work in the construction industry or hawk fruits, live crabs, fish and snakes, and cheap plastic goods on the streets. The small enclosed square is also the recycling centre of Shanghai and hundreds of laborers, including children, sieve through millions of discarded waste to mine any leftover value.
In contrast, the paseo of the Nanjing road, one of the busiest streets in the world, is an unblushing parade of luxury brands: GAP and Cartier shout their existence from twinkling neon lit blue corners, next to the vaporous Apple store. Not far off is an eight storey fake market. Draped in filthy smog and defined by bendable traffic rules, this cafés and shopping malls ridden road stretches for six kilometers. While I walked the road, the urban air accorded a deviling cough, the remains of which are left to date.
My journey was coming to an end, and for indescribable reasons, the streets seemed to be a fitting stop. I realized that the only common denominator between the two otherwise inconsistent corners of Shanghai is: people, in hoards and occupying every imaginable corner. Perhaps, there was something more – a feeling running undercurrent, and faintly identifiable with pride, or with hope.
“We are better than the Americans” I turned to Queenee when she spoke. She had finished her ginger custard and was busy submerging herself into a thick jacket. She meant what she had said.
“And it is the people not the government that is incredible about this country.”
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu