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The city of Shanghai reveals a decisive moment in China's story of transformation
Shanghai airport in the summer of 2021 was a truly post-apocalyptic scene. Few foreigners were being allowed into China, as I noted when someone came to collect me from the plane, dressed head-to-foot in protective gear. She pointed at my name on the passenger list, a single line of Roman letters in a page of Chinese pictograms.
Everything was shuttered and deserted, apart from the hazmat-suited figures who guarded a maze of makeshift corridors and check-points, and the occasional group of beleaguered travellers herded into steel-fenced holding areas. There were forms to fill in, codes to scan, PCR tests to be administered. There were countless trestle tables strewn with biros and sheets of paper.
Some hours later I was hustled off a minibus into the side-entrance of the hotel, where a dilapidated foyer had been converted into a processing area for quarantine arrivals. After I entered the building, a man went out to spray the pavement with disinfectant. Every step in the process was marked by a combination of ramshackle improvisation and obsessive procedure.
And now I was going to spend two weeks isolated in a hotel room, my only human contact with the health workers who came daily to record my temperature, or occasionally to swab my nose and throat as I crouched awkwardly in the doorway.
These were my first experiences of the Chinese Zero Covid state. In many ways they resonated with our popular image of China in west, dominated by social credit scores, pervasive surveillance and unquestioning conformity. But this is not how I came to see the country in the two months I spent there. To be sure, the repressive aspects of the Chinese regime are very real, and in many ways getting worse. But the way we think about this situation tends to reflect our own anxieties. The Chinese model gives shape to our fears about the dystopian potential of technology, while also providing a reassuring contrast to our own societies.
Another way of looking at China, perhaps more on its own terms, is that the country is at a decisive moment in the story of transformation which has unfolded over the past four decades. The efforts of Xi Jinping to assert the authority of the Communist Party, through his aggressive Covid policies and in countless other ways, has been a major factor in bringing China to this juncture, but it is not the only one. Others include the looming crises in the economy, China’s unresolved relationship with the west and with its own history, and more broadly, the aspirations and sentiments of the Chinese people.
Inspired by my own experiences of Shanghai and Beijing, my aim today and in next week’s essay is to consider some of these points of tension in contemporary China, especially as seen in the areas that are the focus of this newsletter: consumer culture and technology, buildings and spaces, propaganda and advertising.
The great metropolis of Shanghai has long been at the centre of China’s fraught relationship with modernity, capitalism and the west. At the start of the 20th century, the city was a hub for the foreign business interests – European, American and Japanese – which had all but seized control of late-Qing China. Millions of Chinese therefore came to Shanghai for its economic opportunities, as well as its department stores and cinemas, modern fashion and music. But many were outraged at the city’s grotesque inequality and hedonism. In the areas known as the International Settlement and the French Concession, Shanghai’s foreign population governed itself and oversaw a system of near-apartheid, barring Chinese from many public spaces.
These parts of the city where the Qing government had surrendered its legal authority also became a magnet for dissidents. And so it was in this enclave of western capitalism that the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921, holding its first congress in a former missionary school in the French concession. Among those present was Mao Zedong, who would lead the Communists to power in 1949.
At its birth, the CCP was essentially a nationalist party, focused on the plight of the Chinese peasants. It was virulently anti-foreigner, drawing on popular anger at China’s exploitation by outsiders, as it does to this day: Xi Jinping often refers to the “century of national humiliation” before 1949. Mao also viewed cities as decadent and parasitic. When they came to power, the Communists seriously debated razing Shanghai to the ground and sending its millions of inhabitants for rectification in the countryside.
Last year, I found Shanghai festooned with decorations marking the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding. For a westerner, it is bizarre to encounter the Party’s brash symbols, proudly displaying the hammer and sickle, in the midst of what is again a great centre of global capitalism. Red flags and monuments sit alongside Starbucks and Costa Coffee, the iconic glowing towers of the financial district looming in the background. On the spotless metro, advertising for dairy products accompanies propaganda videos about China’s rise to greatness.
This striking juxtaposition reflects the Party’s success in maintaining power as China underwent one of the most radical transformations in world history. At the time of Mao’s death in 1976, China was a poor, rural and traumatised society, its peasants in some places working the land with medieval implements. Then, famously, came the period of “reform and opening” started by Deng Xiaoping in the late-1970s. In the intervening years, the Chinese economy has grown by a factor of seventy, and its share of global output has quintupled. Today China is the world leader in everything from high-speed rail and car sales to ecommerce and cross-border data traffic.
But while this growth has been astronomical, it does not rest on firm foundations, as the very fabric of China’s cities shows. A major engine of Chinese growth has been a decades-long boom in construction and real estate. The evidence is abundant in Shanghai, and often spectacular, as in the elaborate highway junctions that are the jewels of the city’s architecture. Everywhere successive waves of development can be seen pressing against each other in a great urban mosaic. Enormous satellite towns have been attached to the city in a matter of years. During my fortnight of quarantine, I watched from my hotel window as a pair of diggers steadily demolished an entire neighbourhood of two-floor houses, no doubt to be replaced by something more vertical.
But the dazzling scale and pace of this building spree conceals numerous strains. The new urban worlds which have been constructed in Shanghai are far from equal. The cheaper apartment blocks lining the city’s highways are little more than vertical concrete shafts. In the wealthier areas, by contrast, mansions crowd together in residential compounds, encircled by walls, security guards and the deafening hubbub of cicadas amidst the fruit trees. Shiny 4x4s roam the wide streets, alongside mopeds bearing smartly dressed professionals home from work.
Such discrepancies obviously create resentment, and not just because of the wealth inequality they illustrate. Real estate has become entangled in the numerous vectors of competition and aspiration within China’s market society. Property ownership is now a central tenet of middle-class life, but it has also become a source of profit. Investors have bid up the cost of housing, making it increasingly unaffordable for first-time buyers, even as much of it lies vacant: there are enough empty properties in China to house the entire British population.
This has become a major concern for the regime, with Xi adopting the mantra “houses are for living in, not speculating.” But more worrying still, China’s construction boom has been funded by huge amounts of corporate debt, making the government increasingly nervous about a financial crisis. Since 2020 it has tried to stabilise the situation by forcing developers to rein-in their borrowing. But this move, combined with the economic turmoil caused by the ongoing lockdowns, has now turned the property sector into a slow-motion car crash. Developers are defaulting on loans, even as buyers are boycotting mortgage payments on houses that have not yet been built.
The Party’s efforts to tame the system may yet bring about the very crisis it feared. And that, in turn, may have the more profound effect of denting Chinese people’s confidence in a future of continuous and limitless growth.
Spatially and architecturally, Shanghai feels very different to a city like London, but where consumerism is concerned there is much more in common. The retail area around Nanjing Road, in the heart of the former International Settlement, feels very much like central London; the enormous Huawei shop here is a straightforward imitation of the Apple store. The extent to which materialism has become the new religion is suggested by Shanghai’s remaining traditional architecture, which now serves mainly commercial purposes. The Xing structures surrounding the glorious Yu Gardens, for instance, host a boutique shopping area called the “Temple-mart.”
Of course these days globalisation is not just embodied by Starbucks and McDonalds, but also by the high hipsterism of Shoreditch and Williamsburg. This is what you encounter in Shanghai’s old French Concession, where the people are painfully trendy and virtually every premises is a café, coffee shop or artisan bakery.
But the real commercial essence of Shanghai is luxury. One of the most intriguing places I encountered there was the Global Harbor, the city’s biggest shopping mall. This space is a bewildering fantasia of neoclassical architecture, teeming with ancient Greek and Renaissance Italian motifs, and capped with an enormous glass dome. The advertising here was perhaps even more sexualized than you would expect in Europe today, with half-dressed young women adorning every shop front, though many of the models in these images were western rather than Chinese, especially when it came to the more racy lingerie adverts.
Less familiar was the formal, almost military quality of some service sector jobs, with retail workers standing erect outside their stores in the mornings, and delivery drivers lining up for inspection by commercial drill-sergeants. Meanwhile, credit and debit cards have largely been replaced by mobile payment software, using the two big “super apps,” WeChat and AliPay. Between them, these apps cover the remit of WhatsApp, Facebook and Amazon, as well as health codes, ticket purchases, utility bills, short-term borrowing, and other functions still unseen in the west.
But despite these peculiarities, Shanghai gives a deep sense of the acclimatization of the Chinese middle and upper classes to a globalised culture of consumerism, with its distinctive settings, its ritual displays of status, and its ambient aesthetics of desire. However this too is now becoming a source of tension in China.
One issue is again inequality. The CCP has long been sensitive to the bad optics of China’s wealthy flaunting their privileges, and there was a crackdown on conspicuous consumption a decade ago. Something similar is happening now with Xi’s “common prosperity” drive. Big corporations are being encouraged to make philanthropic donations and private tuition for wealthy children has effectively been outlawed. This probably stems in part from Xi’s desire to keep the rich in their place, but it surely also reflects a genuine fear of visible inequality as a source of political instability. At any rate, given that China is the single largest market for luxury retail products, the effects of “common prosperity” will likely be reflected everywhere in more subtle handbag and clothing designs.
But there is another conflict simmering in Chinese consumerism. The growing presence of popular nationalism is starting to influence attitudes towards foreign brands, especially those seen as disrespectful towards China. Companies like Addidas and Nike saw their sales drop after they made statements about the Chinese regime’s persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and there have been social media uprisings against western luxury brands following comments or ad campaigns deemed offensive. Meanwhile, it is becoming a point of pride, as well as peer pressure, to buy products from Chinese companies.
Property and consumer culture are just two among many areas of Chinese society that are becoming increasingly febrile. But even in these limited examples, we can get a sense of the wide array of factors that may shape China’s future. Xi’s regime is less steering the country in its chosen direction than struggling to master Chinese capitalism, with its many risks, aspirations and resentments. Nor will China’s leaders necessarily take comfort in the reawakening of the nationalist sentiments that gave rise to the Party a century ago. A fervent popular nationalism, led not by the Party but by public opinion, may be yet another dangerous tiger to ride.
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