Office of the President

June 21, 2006

Shanghai: a 21st century boomtown

Office of the President

Tuesday, June 20

If Beijing is a bustling, modern city, then Shanghai is an explosion of urban energy. The new skyline — nicely featured in Mission Impossible III — has emerged from what was literally a pasture and farmland the last time I was here.

To stand at the famous Bund and look across the river to this completely new cityscape is both amazing and dislocating. The architecture is a fusion of the contemporary, art deco and the Jetsons.

I cannot think of another city on earth today — or in history for that matter — that is changing so fast. The transformation of Berlin after German reunification has been very impressive. Shanghai’s development is mind-blowing.

The cultural and economic metamorphosis is just as amazing as the construction. My first visit here in 1989 revealed much of the old, drab past, including no shortage of older residents in Mao jackets and loudspeakers blaring political rhetoric. Today the city is electric with color and commerce. Indeed, the place and all its citizens seem to be constantly engaged in business and hustle. Shanghai is a 21st century boomtown in every way.

Government’s investment in infrastructure is astounding

Such transitions do not occur by accident, of course. While there is much to be concerned about regarding national policy here (more on this below), the government’s investment in infrastructure is astounding. With the combination of a commitment to a more market-oriented economy and massive international private-sector investment, the power of capitalism and government action is on full display.

Perhaps nowhere is the government’s investments more evident than at Fudan University. In the 15 years since I was last on this campus, the university has become wholly unrecognizable from the one I knew.

The capital construction projects would make any university president jealous.  But I was even more pleased with the highly sophisticated approach Fudan is now taking to international student and faculty exchanges. They understand their need for transnational engagement in a way that very few others do.

A beautiful campus, new buildings galore and an open, student-oriented approach to exchanges; it was all quite amazing to see.  It takes no imagination at all to see our students strolling these grounds, learning from new Chinese colleagues. What a truly different scene from the one I visited just months after the student unrest of 1989.Â

Disparity between rich and poor: an enormous challenge

Of course, no place is a utopia. Taking in the sights of Shanghai, it is easy to forget some of the great challenges facing this nation. At no time have more people — 300 million to 400 million — been lifted out of poverty and given a chance at real affluence in such a short span of time. For this, China can be very proud. However, this fact also means that 1 billion more residents have a long way to go.

The disparity between rich and poor is an enormous challenge. As the rural poor learn more of the riches of their urban cousins, they want more too. Interestingly, in a situation very familiar to most of us, manual labor on construction sites and domestic work in hotels and homes are being done by waves of poor rural immigrants, many arriving illegally. It seems urban residents don’t want these jobs. To simply keep pace with the need for new jobs to absorb the influx to urban centers, the economy must grow 7 percent annually, which is the highest rate for any nation.

Meanwhile, the expanding needs and demands for educational opportunities, health care, protection from environmental threats, new sources of energy, freer flows of information  and infrastructure in rural as well as urban areas grow as rapidly as everything else here.

Traffic – and you thought it was bad in Seattle!

Take one example: the impact of automobiles. In 1989, there were 13 million bicycles in the city. Movement by car was slowed not by automotive traffic jams, but by bicycle jams. Today the situation is completely reversed. Traffic is difficult at best. (After a day in a taxi in Shanghai, you will never again complain about Seattle traffic.). And here’s the rub: The Chinese are adding 400,000 new cars and drivers to the roads every year. The roads and the air simply cannot handle this rate of growth. Policy-makers are faced with some difficult choices to say the least.

Everything in China today seems to be happening faster and bigger than anywhere else, opportunities and challenges included. One UW alumnus living in Shanghai — and a great fan of China — described the situation nicely by saying, “Today China is skiing ahead of an avalanche.”  As long as they ski very fast, they’ll be OK. But the one thing they can’t afford to do is to fall down.