The rise of Shanghai has been subject to academic scrutiny during last few decades. The study of Shanghai and other major coastal cities provides an window to understand China’s past, present and future, but sometimes, misdirects observers to believe that Shanghai (and a few other major coastal cities such as Guangzhou) represents China’s urbanism. As one of leading cities, what Shanghai does sets an example for other inland cities that admire Shanghai’s re-emergence as a world city. In this regard, understanding Shanghai’s urbanism is an interesting and necessary endeavour. On the other hand, it is necessary to understand China’s inland cities experience a differing degree of exposure and possession of economic, political and geographical assets (both existing and expected) that would influence the particular trajectory of their growth. Shanghai’s rise may not be something that can be easily replicated by other inland cities.
The view of Shanghai Pudong (top picture, left) from the Bund would probably represent the present and future of Shanghai. The dense cluster of modern high-rise office buildings with some additional commercial luxury condominiums may represent the kind of wealth and power that Shanghai as well as China as a whole would like to achieve on the globe. On the other hand, the view of the Bund from Pudong’s riverside promenade represents Shanghai’s past and present. The Bund is already a densely built area, but as seen in this picture (bottom picture, left), the hinterland of the Bund experiences denser, commercial development. The historic buildings along the Bund that date back to the early 20th century would probably remain conserved, possible to be dwarfed by taller buildings behind them.
These historic buildings would probably stay for much longer than any other historic buildings, as I would assume they represent the time and space of Shanghai’s early period of ‘globalisation’ (though reactive to imperial intervention), which the municipal government would like to highlight in its pursuit to make Shanghai a ‘world city’. But, Shanghai still has a long way to go. It aspires to become a world financial centre, but still, most international investment banking firms for instance are based in Hong Kong. A couple of them including the Goldman Sachs have a licence to operate in mainland China, but are based in Beijing where face-to-face contact with the central state officials would be much easier.
Shanghai’s (and indeed China’s) pride of socio-economic transformation and the rising confidence in their future can be seen from the flags that now wave on top of every historic building along the Bund (see the picture below). I cannot remember if these flags were there back in 2001 or 2003 when I last visited Shanghai, and am not sure if there are regulations that dictate these buildings to fly national flags in this manner. In any case, the view of red national flags with five stars along the Bund shows that for China, capitalism or socialism may no longer matter as long as it puts China at the centre of the world.
Then, how would one make of China’s socialist history in a few decades to come? The lonely statue that stands next to the Bund promenade (see the picture below) is typical of socialist realism, which may no longer be a fashion among the post-80s generation in particular. Shanghai’s future and past may become as wide as the width of the sea that lies between the Bund and Pudong. Bridges and tunnels are constructed to link them with each other. It would be interesting to see how stable and solid these bridges and tunnels are going to be in the near future.