Any discussion of Shanghai as China's largest city and its economic, financial, and commercial hub usually starts with a whole lot of numbers. Official figures for 2009 put Shanghai's total population at 19 million, of which 14 million were registered permanent residents, and the rest were migrant workers. At the same time, temporary foreign residents numbered more than 100,000 (not counting the more than 300,000 Taiwanese living in Shanghai while conducting business), compared with 4,000 in 2000. The United Nations estimates that Shanghai's population will stand at 23 million by the year 2015.
Of course, numbers, especially those put out by the Chinese government, seldom tell the full or realistic story, but in the case of Shanghai, even when the unverifiable, usually inflated numbers are taken with mountains of salt, they still point to the obviously formidable if unbalanced role Shanghai plays in China's economy. While the city has less than 2% of China's population, Shanghai accounts for around 5% of China's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 11% of its financial services, 12% of China's total industrial output, 20% of its manufacturing output, and 25% of the country's trade. Textiles, steel, manufacturing, shipbuilding, and increasingly the retail sector dominate the city's economy, which reports double-digit growth year after year. At the same time, Shanghai accounts for around 25% of China's foreign investment, with firms from Volkswagen and Buick to Mary Kay, Amway, Hallmark, and Coca-Cola having invested billions in plants and personnel here. In 2007, more than 500 multinational companies were reported to have their regional corporate headquarters in Shanghai. Not since colonial days (1846-1949), when the city was dominated by Western companies, has the port produced such an array of international investments.
Today's business, both domestic and foreign, has made Shanghai quite wealthy by Chinese standards, with rising salaries creating an increasingly affluent middle class. The latter comprises mostly white-collar managers, many of whom earn upwards of ¥100,000 a year. China is expected to become the largest luxury market in the world in a few years, led no less by Shanghai. As China's longtime center of shopping, Shanghai also has plenty of upscale places to dispose of the increased income. Residents are not only forward-looking and business-oriented, but fashionable. Shanghai is a city of boutiques, malls, and up-to-date department stores. Year by year, it is catching up with Hong Kong as one of Asia's paradises for shoppers. Everything is writ large here. Shanghai is not only home to China's first and largest stock exchange, but it also boasts the world's second-largest department store, China's busiest (and the world's second-busiest) container port, China's tallest building, and the tallest hotel in the world -- not to mention more than 13 million mobile phone users. With prosperity, even sales of the venerable bicycle, formerly the chief means of transport in the city, have declined (from one million sales in Shanghai in 1990 to less than half that today). Meanwhile, the streets are crowded with more than 600,000 vehicles (including 45,000 taxis) and 280,000 motorcycles.
Scratch the surface, however, and a slightly more complex picture emerges. The knock on Shanghai has always been that it is a city of appearances, a perception carried over from the early days when what seemed like a European city was in fact built on the backs of millions of Chinese, when its heyday prosperity and wealth masked a much crueler and more dire poverty for millions of Chinese. Today's detractors, often led by Shanghai's greatest competitor to the south, Hong Kong, like to claim that for all of Shanghai's glamorous exterior, there is no substance behind the flash. Indeed, a closer look beyond appearances shows that many of Shanghai's new, handsome buildings remain empty, that your bathroom in the latest brand-new five-star hotel is already showing cracks, and that many more people are, in fact, window-shopping than plunking down cold cash.
The rosy numbers also mask the fact that while Shanghai has more than its share of overnight millionaires, ordinary Shanghainese must still be counted as residents of a developing rather than a developed nation. Even taking into account the highly inflated government figures, the city's average annual disposable income for the first three quarters of 2009 was ¥21,871, one of the highest in the country, but still not high enough to keep up with Shanghai's massively over-inflated housing prices -- the average housing price for new homes in early 2010 was hovering around ¥18,000 to ¥20,000 per square meter, far higher than the nation's average. (In the last few years, housing prices have skyrocketed as a result of the large population influx, wealthy Chinese from around the country purchasing these units as investment properties, speculation, and interestingly enough, the pressure for young men to own a home before they can get married.)
Little wonder, then, that living space is slim (under 140 sq. ft. per person); that many ordinary Shanghainese (laobaixing), forcibly relocated to the outskirts of town because of megadevelopments and downtown building projects, cannot afford even the smallest of homes; and that many others (including more than two million pensioners) must scrimp by on less than the official minimum wage (Shanghai's monthly minimum wage, set at ¥1,120 in mid-2010, is the highest in the country). At the same time, beggars can still be seen congregating at tourist sites, temples, and avenues where visitors are likely to appear. The unemployed, most arriving illegally without residence permits in Shanghai, can be sighted sleeping under bridges, awaiting work. To exacerbate matters, inflation, especially of food prices, has been on the rise since 2008, leading to steep increases in the basic cost of living for many. The economic boom has brought other woes as well. Crime is on the rise, prostitution is back in the bars and on the streets (after its complete eradication in the 1950s), and pollution is a major problem.
But Shanghai is nothing if not ambitious. This is a city of big dreams. Ever allergic to inactivity and resting on its laurels, Shanghai barely had time for the dust to settle from the massive modernization and reconstruction of the 1990s (which New York Times writer Ian Buruma hailed as "perhaps the greatest urban transformation since Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris in the 19th century") before it won the bid in 2002 to host the 2010 World Expo, and embarked on a new phase of building that has once again transformed the city. Indeed, having just completed China's tallest building, the 492m-tall (1,614-ft.) Shanghai World Financial Center, in mid-2008, the city has started construction on a new 128-floor, 632m-tall (2,073-ft.) Shanghai Tower (nicknamed Shanghai Dragon). For the 2010 World Expo, the government is said to have spent between ¥300 billion and ¥400 billion in direct and indirect investment, not just in building the Expo grounds, but also upgrading and expanding the city's two airports and roads, giving its most famous street the Bund a massive face-lift, and adding another seven lines to its subway system in just the last 3 years (another 10 lines are planned for 2020). As a further mark of its ambition and dedication to infrastructure, Shanghai is building the world's largest container port, and is creating nine new towns surrounding Shanghai, each with a half-million residents.
Additionally, city planners promise that Shanghai will soon be not only China's financial and manufacturing capital, but its "green" capital as well. The responsibility for hosting the 2010 World Expo, which had as its theme "Better City, Better Life" has certainly helped fuel Shanghai's going green. Already, Shanghai has converted Nanjing Lu to a pedestrian mall, remodeled the Bund and its promenade, revitalized many avenues and villas in the old French Concession, and created 1,800 hectares (4,448 acres) of greenway with trees and lawns (an area equivalent to 4,000 football fields). The government has also done an impressive job rehabilitating the Suzhou River, which had been seriously polluted by 80 years of industrial use. Still ongoing is the Huangpu River Renovation Project, covering 20km (12 miles) of downtown riverfront on both shores, whereby the harbor will be transformed by green corridors, an elliptical canal, a maritime museum, marinas, riverside parks, and new housing estates.
The Chinese government has also banned the use of ultra-thin plastic bags while requiring shops to charge for thicker plastic carrier bags. In an interesting and ironic twist, hundreds of increasingly environmentally conscious Shanghainese came out in force in early 2008 to protest the extension of the magnetic levitation train line through their neighborhood for fear of radiation and other harmful health effects. These protests led the government to shelve or "reassess" the project (though the latest indications are that the project is back on). Finally, perhaps the most ambitious environmental project yet is the building of an eco-city -- the first self-sustaining carbon-neutral city in the world that does no appreciable damage to the environment -- that will be home to a half-million people on the wetlands of Dongtan on Chongming Island at the mouth of the Yangzi River. For all the original hoopla surrounding this project, however, it is currently stalled, with work not yet begun on a project originally scheduled to be partially completed by the time of the World Expo.
If you can ignore the inevitable teething pains of any booming city, the present and the future look rosy indeed. The successful hosting of the World Expo has also added to the Shanghainese's optimism. The question of if and when the bubble will burst (consider, in addition to the highly inflated housing prices, that you now generally pay more for a cup of coffee in Shanghai than back home, or that while many average Shanghainese may be richer now than they've ever been, rampant speculation and weak regulation of China's financial sectors mean that one's life savings risk being wiped out overnight) does not appear to have deterred Shanghai's boosters and all others who would seek a better life from arriving in droves to stake out their share of the spoils. With an unprecedented degree of freedom (at least since the pre-revolutionary days) to express themselves publicly, whether through their fashions or their purchases, just as long as it's not in the arena of politics, Shanghainese seem content, for the moment at least, to go along with their government's experiment of developing a country through economic but not political freedom. Love them or hate them, the Shanghainese -- frank, efficient, chauvinistic, and progressive -- are using their previous international exposure to create China's most outward-looking, modern, brash, and progressive metropolis.
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