All Aboard the Shanghai Express - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
All Aboard the Shanghai Express

There was a lot happening in China these past few weeks. Among other things, I visited Shanghai, my first visit to this part of the world.

The “other things” included the first Chinese moon probe (the Chang’e I, named after a goddess who flew to the moon); the “re-election of President Hu Jintao as leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which amounts to the same thing as running the government; and the release of the Bloomberg News survey indicating that China had achieved 11 percent growth in GDP for a third straight quarter.

The headline in the Financial Times of October 24 reported that “Iron ore prices set to surge 50% as Chinese demand strengthens,” which caused my seatmate on the homebound flight to utter an expletive. His company supplies steel parts to major furniture companies in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Iron ore is a key element in the cost of steel, and this price rise is the sixth consecutive rise and the second largest in recent history.

There are 1.3 billion Chinese. Eighteen million of them live in Shanghai, approximately 7,000 people per square mile. If my experience is any guide, about 1 in 5 are in the business of hawking knock-off Rolex watches to tourists strolling, riverside, along the European-style Bund (Anglo-Indian for “embankment) or power-shopping on Nanjing Rd or at the beautiful Yuyuan Gardens, an artifact of the Ming dynasty, ransacked during both the Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion.

Full disclosure: my seemingly in-depth knowledge of Shanghai, after only a four-day trip, is due entirely to the excellent Best of Shanghai: The Ultimate Pocket Guide & Map (2006) by Damian Harper, a knowledgeable British writer and student of Modern and Classical Chinese. It is part of the series of very useful guides published by Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd.

Marx called religion the opiate of the people, but President Hu’s quest for a “harmonious society” appears to be grounded in consumerism. Despite the World Bank estimate that China is not likely to reach the per capita income level of Portugal, roughly half that of the U.S., until 2020, the amount of retail and commercial activity in Shanghai is truly astonishing. A lot of pollution comes with the territory, but we did a pretty good job of polluting during our boom years. Think Pittsburg or Bubbly Creek in the Chicago stockyard and packing house neighborhoods. Still, the constant smog and haze is a bit depressing despite the hustle and bustle on the ground.

Shanghai, being on the coast, is part of the surging Chinese economy, and its port ranks third in the world for traffic in 20-foot equivalent trailers or containers at 21 million, based on 2006 figures. Los Angeles, which ranks tenth, ships 8.5 million.

The Chinese are very serious about economic development and do not appear to be constrained by Maoist, Marxist, or Communist ideologies. Deng Xiao Ping, the “reformer” who survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution, is reported to have said, “It does not matter what color the cat is, so long as it catches mice.” Indeed, Boston Consulting Group now claims that China may very well become the world’s second largest consumer market by 2015.

Unfortunately, economic liberty has not yielded an expansion of political or civil liberties in China unless “shop til you drop” qualifies. I spoke to several very hospitable, courteous young people in Shanghai, all of whom spoke English, without touching upon any topic remotely political. In a conversation with one young lady, I mentioned that I had 7 kids, some close to her age, to see if I would get a reaction on the one-child policy. She gave me a look of surprise and a dropping jaw, but otherwise no comment.

Hipsters view the government-controlled media as a total drag. In the October 25 issue of the New York Times, reporter Howard W. French quotes Fu Guoyong, “an independent cultural critic”: “Nowadays singers can sing many songs, but in the end, they’re all singing the same song, the core of which is, ‘Have fun.’ Culture has become an empty vessel.” According to French’s sources, “alternative rock” is rarely heard on the radio.

“What prevails here is worse than garbage,” says Liu Sijia, a bass player and vocalist for an underground Shanghai band, Three Yellow Chicken. “Because China emphasizes stability and harmony, the greatest utility of these [government-sanctioned] pop songs is that they aren’t dangerous to the system. If people could hear underground music, it would make them feel the problems in their lives and want to change things.”

Another young college student, Xu Jinlu, describes current pop music on the radio as “brainless mouthwash songs that all copy each other.”

MY VISIT TO SHANGHAI arose from an opportunity to participate in a conference on water management, a true crisis in China today. Despite the serious purpose of the trip, I was seized by nostalgic, romantic, yes, irrational, recollections of the Oscar-winning, pre-code film classic, Shanghai Express (1932), starring the unforgettable Marlene Dietrich, the forgettable Clive Brook, and directed by Josef von Sternberg.

Dietrich plays a woman of questionable virtue whose most famous line is: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

My wife and I saw this movie, oh, 30 years ago, part of a retrospective film series at the wonderful Saint Louis (my hometown) Art Museum. It is a fantastic romance cum train adventure amidst the upheaval of a Chinese civil war, a British army doctor who once…Well, let’s just say that I was taken by von Sternberg’s attempt to match the film’s pace and dialog to the rhythms of the train — and Marlene Dietrich. The black-and-white cinematography was spectacular and the reason for the Academy Award.

So I arrived in Shanghai carrying all this cultural baggage with romantic notions of Westerners in China going back to Matteo Ricci, the amazing 16th-century Jesuit missionary who wrote the first European memoir on visiting the country. Ricci learned the language and ingratiated himself with the ruling class by giving them clocks and taught them to use “memory palaces” — mnemonic devices — to help their sons pass rigorous civil service exams to qualify for top government positions.

The idea was to store information, mentally, in various rooms in the house or palace as an aid in easy retrieval. Educated Europeans excelled at feats of memory, which were a crucial part of the educational process at the time.

Ricci also used this as a way to evangelize the Chinese, with mixed results, by associating various parts of the palace with episodes from the Gospels.

There is a definite European flavor in Shanghai due to its history of partial occupation by imperial powers for many years. The Bund was the center of foreign commercial power. The charming French Concession, now a trendy area of the eastern part of the city, Puxi, was actually governed by the French independent of the Chinese government. The British had a similar arrangement.

But make no mistake. Notwithstanding its fascinating, cosmopolitan history, Shanghai is a mighty Chinese metropolis with a skyline that is a forest of skyscrapers. Its people are not rich, poor by American standards, but they are a dynamic engine of economic growth.

The Shanghai Express is now a German-built Maglev train Maglev train that can achieve speeds approaching 270 miles per hour to and from the airport, whose main terminal looks to me to be 4 or 5 times the size of the one at Washington Dulles.

The wealth evident in the high-rise office buildings, hotels, and public works projects does not appear to extend to the living conditions of many Shanghai residents, at least in relative terms. Apartment buildings look pretty dreary with rust dribbling down the sides of outside air conditioning units, laundry hanging and junk piled up on balconies and in yards. One frequent business traveler to Shanghai describes the apartments of Chinese colleagues as “austere.”

In the interior of the country, the Economist (“China, beware,” October 13th) claims that 700 million “left-behind peasants” are becoming increasingly frustrated with their situation. Forty percent of China’s villages have no access to running water, while the country’s defense budget is increasing by double-digits annually.

By the way, even in Shanghai, the rule among hotel guests is still “Drink only bottled water.”

SO, WILL THE CHINESE SUCCEED in modernizing their country despite the continued limitations on political and civil liberty? Yes, for the foreseeable future.

The CPC congress in Beijing was pretty much a closed affair. Zero transparency. The new political leadership joined President and General Secretary Hu Jintao in very stiff, formal introductions to the media without any questions or discussion. The “harmonious society” is not likely to change anytime soon.

Singapore, with its large Chinese population, is no libertarian utopia, which did not seem to inhibit its rush to join Hong Kong as one of the Asian Tigers of economic growth. The Chinese prosper economically wherever they live, throughout the Pacific Rim and elsewhere, if allowed a degree of freedom in the marketplace even when denied political liberty.

Hong Kong achieved great things economically due to enlightened low-tax, supply-side policies, imposed by paternalistic British rule, without a complete liberalizing of the political system.

One hopes that economic growth and the rise of a robust Chinese middle class will, eventually, lead to greater emphasis on the rule of law, limited government, political liberty, and, maybe, cleaner air and water. But that is only in the future for this very ancient, unique society.

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