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Shanghai Rising

CPI Writings

 

Arrival at Shanghai

During eight days of the last two weeks, I have been in Shanghai and Xiamen.  This was my first trip to China in 15 years. Although I had read of and seen over television the many changes and developments taking place there especially in the past decade, I was not prepared for the new China that is transforming itself and its people literally by the hour.

The first surprise was arrival at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport.  Opened just over 10 years ago, this is an enormous airport which is already the third busiest in the world in terms of freight traffic. Expectations are that it will be the busiest in the world for freight and passenger traffic in a few years time. 

The second surprise was the Shanghai Maglev train which runs from its station situated between the two passenger terminals to downtown Pudong.  This – the world’s first commercial maglev service - whisked us to the city center in 7 minutes and reached a top speed of 431 km an hour. My team had barely enough time to sit down and make ourselves comfortable when before we knew it, we had arrived at Longyang station in the city center.  

What was apparent within the hour after landing in Shanghai is the efficiency and meticulousness with which China is developing its human resources; and the way in which science and technology are being used to improve the lives of the largest mass of humanity on earth.  Shanghai itself has more than 20 million inhabitants.  Think of a city in which three quarters of Malaysia’s total population is being cramped into, and the need to organize the lives of these people and provide them with jobs, housing, social services, transport and the other amenities of city life. This will provide some idea of the scale of development and mammoth and unprecedented challenge that China faces, and which it appears well on its way to successfully conquering.


Mind Goggling Scale of Development Needs

This ability to organize a huge number of people towards a common end was perhaps best exemplified by a trip to the Shanghai World Exposition. This is a giant fair in which at its peak over one million people enter over a 12 hour period to spend the day.  Consider the clockwork precision and management needed to provide tickets, stands, food, toilets, health facilities, and transport, for one million people.  And to handle this logistical nightmare over a six month period – it is estimated that more than 70 million people will have attended the Exposition before it ends. The lasting impression for me is of remarkable architectural forms and memorable sights and sounds in an environment of cleanliness, cheerfulness and goodwill, whilst standing in the longest orderly queues that anyone could imagine.    

It is not just the scale and breakneck economic development that is staggering.  It is also the vibrancy of the cultural and everyday life - at least as it was found in Nanjing street, the Bund area and the neighbourhood of Xin Tian Di where we spent hours cruising the streets.  In old Shikumen, we gawked at a restoration programme that has breathed new life into old dilapidated buildings transforming them into restaurants, boutiques, and arts and crafts shops.  

Xin Tian Di is without doubt the finest example of historical urban redevelopment in Asia.  The locals point out that the preservation and cultural renaissance of this historic area is due to the birth of the Chinese Communist Party in one of the old buildings found in the area.  The permit for development of the area carried a stipulation that the building where Chairman Mao and his comrades met to discuss their plans for the rebirth of China had to be preserved.  Today, this museum piece building – the First Communist Party Hall – ironically stands in the center of what is probably the icon of bourgeoisie and capitalist high life in China.


Long Way Still for China

Undoubtedly, there is still a long way for China to go before it is a highly developed country and many things can go wrong yet.  Much of China and the Chinese people are still poor.  However, one of the indelible impressions from the trip is of the sense of confidence amongst ordinary people that their lives have improved, and will continue to improve and of the country’s ability to forge ahead.

Indeed, China’s top think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences now estimates that China will be the second most powerful nation by 2050.  This seems a modest prediction from what I have seen.

What is noticeable about the report is that it also does not mince words about the limitations of China.  The same report warned that China’s core competitiveness could not match its ranking when it comes to high-level talents, culture, education, health, science and technology.  For example, China’s index of high-level talents stands at 8.3% of that of the US and 10% of that of Japan, indicating a big gap in the human resources sector.

In the field of higher education, China’s index is only 10% of that of the European Union and one third of the US.  Though China ranked 4th in higher education competitiveness in 2008, most of the first class universities are still in the EU and the US.  The report also said that the country’s science and technology competitiveness index is less than one third of that of the US.  There are 329 famous institutions of science and technology in the US while China has only 61.

Especially instructive was the way the report contained positive and negative data on China’s accomplishments and shortcomings.  Carried in China’s top English language paper, China Daily, the report did not engage in spinning the ranking data or in questioning the methodology of ranking - the way in which our universities try to do so whenever any news of their institution’s low international ranking appears in the media.  In some ways, the Chinese system and media - though embedded in a one party state system - is much more independent and critical of their policies and system of government than in some democratic countries of the world.

Note:  This article originally appeared in the Chinese weekly The Red Tomato.     

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