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Many of today's Shanghainese had ancestors who came from neighboring areas such as Suzhou, Ningbo, Hangzhou, and even from as far away as Guangdong in the south. The Cantonese who came in with the British as their compradors, and the people from the southern seaport town of Ningbo, who were known as astute bankers, contributed greatly to Shanghai's development as a capital of business and trade. It used to be that Shanghai was welcoming to anyone who was smart, enterprising, and ambitious, and while that still holds true today, many of today's urban class-conscious Shanghainese tend to regard all non-native Shanghainese with some suspicion and condescension. Migrant peasants from poorer neighboring provinces such as Anhui and Jiangxi who do much of the work deemed too lowly by the Shanghainese, such as construction or trash collection, bear the greatest brunt of disdain.

This chauvinism is not exclusive to the Shanghainese, of course; the term waidiren is used by Chinese throughout the country to refer to those not of their immediate native soil, and each group naturally tends to think itself superior to all waidiren. Still, the Shanghai brand of chauvinism is particularly strong, and while some of it may be slowly challenged with the increasing influx of educated and ambitious Chinese from other parts of the country, it's still alive and well in the Shanghainese preference for their own dialect whenever possible. Shanghainese is a subcategory of the Wu dialect, one of six major Chinese dialects not including Mandarin, but each of the dialects is so different from the others that some experts consider all to be different languages entirely. Not surprisingly, the Shanghainese consider their dialect the most refined of all.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Shanghainese's biggest detractors are its main competitors to the north and south, the Beijingers and the Cantonese respectively. But in general, the Shanghainese have a reputation, valid or not, among many Chinese as being superficial, arrogant, opportunistic, and unpatriotic. This harsh judgment may have more to do with jealousy over economic success than anything else.

Either way the Shanghainese themselves are too busy to disagree or bother with what they perceive as sour grapes, prefer to think of themselves as cosmopolitan, smart, shrewd, savvy, ambitious, open-minded, progressive, and enterprising, qualities they believe have allowed Shanghai to lead the country's economic revolution and move headlong into the 21st century. The Shanghainese are fashion-setters and conspicuous consumers. That they enjoy a significantly higher standard of living than most other Chinese is, to them, proof that they possess the necessary winning qualities. And indeed, foreign companies doing business in Shanghai hail the locals as smart, eager, and hungry to learn. Some Chinese grouse that the Shanghainese are too quick to both please and ape Westerners, but the Shanghainese will just as quickly tell you that their historical exposure to foreigners has made them more open to Western ways, and therefore allowed them to succeed in today's global village. Whether in business or in social mores, the Shanghainese pride themselves on being pioneers willing to break old rules. Already, Shanghainese men, at least those of the post-Cultural Revolution (1966-76) generation, are considered to be a prime catch for young Chinese women, not necessarily because of their urbaneness or any putative business acumen, but because many younger Shanghainese husbands are known to do all the housework, the cooking, and the grocery shopping for their wives.

Even in China's most cosmopolitan and international city, however, there are still significant differences in customs and modes of behavior between the Shanghainese and foreign visitors. Though Shanghainese today have a remarkable amount of freedom in everything from fashions to critiquing corruption, politics, especially criticism of the government and the Chinese Communist Party, is still a taboo subject for public discussion. If you broach any "embarrassing" topic -- including questions about China's handling of political dissidents, the status of Tibet and Taiwan, restrictions on the media, abortion, prison labor, and the Tian'anmen Square incident -- be prepared for stock answers from most people, especially English-speaking tour guides. Some younger Shanghainese may seem eager to tackle such topics, but Western visitors sometimes find themselves surprised by the sincerely nationalistic responses to such questions. In general, feel free to ask the locals about anything, but remember that visitors can sometimes put their hosts -- who may have government jobs -- on the hot seat when posing politically sensitive questions. In return, visitors can expect some frank questions, not just from the Shanghainese but from the Chinese in general, about everything from your age and income to your marital status. You may answer such queries as you see fit, vaguely if you wish.

The Chinese World View

Another discernible difference in world views derives from the profound influence of Confucianism on Chinese society. Even though this uniquely Chinese philosophical tradition (dating to the 5th c. B.C. when its founder, Confucius, 551-479 B.C., formulated a set of social and ethical precepts about the role of an individual in society, and Confucius's students later canonized his teachings, which then became the state philosophy for almost 2,000 years) was completely repudiated during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and has never been significantly rehabilitated since, aspects of Confucian philosophy continue to permeate Chinese life and culture to this day. Confucius's laying out of hierarchical relationships (between father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brothers, ruler and subject, and between friends) has led the Chinese to view the individual as part of greater wholes -- of the family, foremost; of the workplace; and of the nation. The group has more power than the individual, and it must be consulted before decisions are made.

In practical terms, this translates into a respect for hierarchies. Those of higher rank within any organization, be it a family or a business, hold the power over others and decide what those of lower rank may do. The individual often has far less autonomy and power in Chinese society than in Western societies -- even when it comes to apparently insignificant matters. Many Westerners are often shocked to learn that until 2003, Chinese still had to seek permission from their assigned work unit (dan wei) in order to get married. Other Confucian holdovers that generally still endure in modern Shanghai are the respect for age, which is synonymous with wisdom and stature; the respect for higher education; and the respect for family matters, which are of more importance than those of work, politics, or world affairs. The importance of guanxi or connections in all aspects of Chinese life can arguably be traced back to the Confucian view of the individual as part of a larger nexus of social relationships.

While women are equal to men by law and by Communist dogma, in fact, women are often considered as they once were in traditional Chinese society: second best to men. Male children, who alone continue the family line, are still preferred over females by many couples. Even among foreigners, men are often treated with slightly more respect than women, although modern education and the influx of Western ideas have begun to erode such prejudices at the edges.

Confucianism, which stressed moral and ethical behavior, is mocked in the current exaggerated worship of money and the resultant corruption that now pervades every level of government, party, army, police, state, and private enterprise. Ever since Deng Xiaoping told Chinese peasants that getting rich is glorious (part of his 1982 "opening and reform" [gaige kaifang] programs -- all but sounding the death knell of Communism), this every-man-for-himself mentality has become the new de facto Chinese ideology. Of course, lip service is paid every now and then, usually on China's National Day (Oct 1), to Communism, or at least to the Communist Party, but all savvy Chinese know to watch out for number one since neither the Party nor anyone else is particularly watching out for them. Periodically, some egregious offender unlucky enough to be caught is given a capital sentence and made an example, but by and large, corruption continues at every level, even as some in the government are doing their best to curb it.

Prices are marked up so high not because one person or party is raking in all the spoils (though sometimes that happens, too), but because everyone along the way is skimming his or her share. These days, even when the laobaixing (ordinary Chinese) complain about corruption and graft, it is usually not out of any true moral or ethical outrage, but from their own failure to get a piece of the pie as well. In April 2008, Chen Liangyu, Shanghai's former mayor and the Communist Party's top official in the area, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for taking bribes and stealing money from Shanghai's pension fund. While President Hu Jintao's government was ostensibly cracking down on corruption, some observers thought that Chen's close association with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his "Shanghai faction" were what led to Chen's downfall.

Doing Business

The vision of one billion consumers for their products has driven countless foreign companies to do business and set up factories in China in the last decade. More than 500 multinational corporations have their regional corporate headquarters in Shanghai. However, as almost all foreign companies have discovered, some of whom have pulled out, the consumers have not materialized as envisioned, and government red tape, inertia, corruption, false financial information filed by companies, and "mysterious" Chinese business practices, such as they are, have proven to be significantly more challenging than expected.

Like the rest of Chinese society, Chinese business relies greatly on connections or guanxi. Blood ties (however thin, even if it's the fourth uncle of your father's second aunt) and who you know will often get you in the door where a solid business proposal may not. The idea that business deals are often closed not in the boardroom, but indirectly over the umpteenth cup of maotai (a potent Chinese spirit) at a Chinese banquet, followed by a night of karaoke singing and more, and that the outcome is sometimes dependent less on the merits of the deal than on the willingness to play the game, can take foreigners (not to mention their livers, vocal cords, and other body parts) some getting used to. What is at play here, though, is the building of a relationship. Chinese business practices tend to emphasize building a strong relationship before closing a deal, and it is ultimately the quality of the business relationship that will determine the success of the venture. Even when a deal is closed, however, there is no guarantee that it will be honored. Any reneging, though, is usually never direct, for that would entail a loss of face (see nearby box); instead, some important element or condition of the deal, which is always out of the control of the Chinese partner, will somehow fall through. As a result, contracts and agreements cannot necessarily be counted on to be worth more than the paper they're printed on. In fact, it is quite common that the Chinese will continue to press for a better deal even after the contract is signed. While the government has tried to establish something resembling an integrated legal system with enforceable pro-business laws, at present the Chinese court system is still enough of a quagmire that many foreign companies often just write off the losses.

As China's commercial center and gateway to the international business community, Shanghai's business environment is better regulated and business practices are more codified here than elsewhere in the country, though a number of the same challenges exist. The Shanghainese believe that it is their previous exposure to foreigners that allows them today to be the quickest to adapt to international business practices and ways. But lest the foreigner think the Shanghainese are pushovers in their eagerness to do business, the Shanghainese are some of the shrewdest business and trades people you will likely encounter anywhere. Attitudes towards "getting mine" are just as prevalent (if not more so) here as elsewhere. Many foreign businessmen have discovered, much to their chagrin, that while the Shanghainese may be openly welcoming of foreign expertise and know-how, the hospitality sometimes extends only until they've received all the help they need to make a run of their own enterprises and become competitors to the foreigners who helped them in the first place. Still, the business opportunities are here for the taking, and those who can approach the process with some humility, massive doses of patience (delays are inevitable and you must expect to make several trips to China to solidify your business relationship before even cementing the deal), and as much knowledge as possible about China, the Chinese, and their culture (learning some of the language will also be greatly appreciated) will stand a greater chance of success. 

Saving Face

In social or business settings, the Chinese often take great pains to preserve "face," which involves maintaining one's self-respect while deferring important decisions to those of higher rank within a group. "Losing face" means to suffer embarrassment before others. To be criticized roughly by a visitor, for example, or to be asked to do something that is impossible, puts a Chinese person in a difficult position. "Saving face" is achieved by compromising, or sometimes by ignoring a problem altogether. You will seldom be told a direct "no" in response to a difficult or impossible request; instead you may get some more ambivalent answers such as "Maybe" or "I'm not sure" or "We'll see," which is usually tantamount to "No." Many Chinese will go to extremes to avoid settling a dispute or handling a complaint, because any loss of face in "kowtowing" to another could reflect badly upon their family and China, as well as upon themselves.

What visitors need to do when making requests or issuing complaints in Shanghai, then, is to control their tempers, avoid assigning personal blame, seek compromise when possible, and practice patience. A polite approach has a better chance of success than a more aggressive, brutally frank, or simply angry outburst. In a nation renowned for the size and inertia of its bureaucracy, some things are slow to be done, and some things are never done at all. It often helps to ask a person to relay your complaint or demand to a superior, remembering that a response may not be immediate.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.