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Postcard from the Expo: Shanghai: world city?

Editor's note:

The 2010 World Expo has turned Shanghai into an international carnival. Xinhua News Agency is inviting participants and visitors to share their "postcards" from China during the Expo. Contribution can be impressions of the Expo or of Shanghai or other parts of China, as well as stories, written reflections, travelogues, comments or any other observations relating to the 2010 Expo.

SHANGHAI, July 3 (Xinhua) -- The following is a contribution from Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an international investment banker and corporate strategist, and author of the book "How China's Leaders Think: The Inside Story of Reform and What This Means for the Future".

Dr. Kuhn's special television series on Expo and the Future of Shanghai, entitled "Expo's Meaning, Shanghai's Mission," is being broadcast on CCTV News internationally and in China. The contribution first appeared in Chief Executive magazine.

Postcard from the Expo: Shanghai: world city?

Shanghai's ambition? World city! Can Shanghai break into the big leagues of New York and London? China's leaders have given Shanghai a mission: Be a world city! What does this mean for China? For other countries? Is there a looming "China threat"? Or an emerging "China model"?

For more than a millennium, China's economy was the largest on earth, and China's science was centuries ahead of Europe's. But then came 150 years of foreign oppression and domestic strife, with all manner of devastation and misery. Now, as China ascends back up to great power, Shanghai, China's largest and most advanced city, seeks to become a world city.

I'm in Shanghai for Expo 2010 Shanghai, watching all nations ratify China's emergence and assessing Shanghai's increasing prominence. Expo is a remarkable gathering of all the world's nations to make the cities of the world more sustainable and more livable.

Here's my hunch: To see Shanghai today is to visualize China tomorrow.

Shanghai's epic story is a unique amalgam of East and West, a historic combination of cultures and traditions -- just like Expo. Ironically, it was through distasteful historical circumstances that Shanghai came to engage and embrace the West.

Beginning with the Opium Wars in the 1830s, foreign armies, particularly the British, attacked a self-isolated, self-weakened China, bringing the once-proud Chinese empire to its knees. The invaders forced degrading "Concessions," sections of cities sliced off and ceded to foreigners. Shanghai was carved into French, British, and American Concessions (the latter two combined into the International Concession). The Chinese became second-class citizens in their own country. It was humiliation.

However, the foreigners built schools, hospitals, electrical plants, and waterworks. There were sewage facilities and paved roads, concrete and iron bridges, trams, busses, and automobiles. Shanghai became the most modern city in China.

In the 1920's and 30's, Shanghai was the "Pearl of the Orient" or the "Paris of the Orient." Ballroom dancing in elegant hotels epitomized the era. The famous Bund, with its European-style architecture along with Huangpu River, was the center of city life for foreigners and upper-class Chinese. All the while, the poorest classes, living in shantytowns on the margins of the city, barely able to feed their children, became the mass base for the Communist revolution in the 1940's.

But with modernity came decadence and debauchery. Shanghai became a center for smuggling opium. Mafia-like gangs controlled the rackets:prostitution and gambling as well as opium. Any who crossed them suffered extreme violence.

In 1937, as part of Japan's vicious determination to conquer China, the Japanese army invaded and captured Shanghai. Although not suffering the brutal, systematic rapings and killings that people in other cities did (notably in Nanjing, not far away), Shanghai people endured terribly bitter times. After Japan was defeated, the Communists won the debilitating civil war, taking the mainland in 1949. The Chinese people "stood up" in the world and were filled with hope. But then, less than a decade later, ideological extremism visited misery on millions, first with mass political campaigns (denunciations), then mass famine ("Great Leap Forward"), and finally, China's decade-long descent into chaotic madness ("The Cultural Revolution" 1966-1976).

Today, Shanghai's GDP is eight times that of 20 years ago. Across the Huangpu River from old Shanghai, Pudong is a developmental miracle. Catalyzed by reform, which was initiated in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping (two years after the death of Mao Zedong), Pudong has become a world center of finance and trade, a massive economic bridge linking China with all nations. Pudong is China's new kind of revolution, where some of the most modern skyscrapers in the world, headquarters of major financial institutions, look down as if menacingly on the historic Bund, dwarfing the older, smaller buildings.

As one leader tells me, "When constructing Pudong, we learned from the world's developed cities, but rather than mere copying, we adopted their strong points and improved their weak points. Pudong looks like Manhattan, but it is superior in layout--less congested and sunshine reaches city streets."

Just like Expo's thematic goal of "Better City, Better Life" is breathtaking and grand, Shanghai's goal is equally expansive and visionary: China's largest metropolis will become a leading center in four vital areas of international importance: finance, trade, shipping, and general economics.

One morning I visit one of Shanghai's massive container ports.

Containers, containers -- they fill the horizons, they saturate my sight. Containers, containers -- the blood cells of the arteries of global trade, transporting the products that feed the economic body of humanity -- the raw power of Shanghai's growing might. Shanghai is already the world's second largest port (after Singapore) -- by some measures the largest -- and it is growing still. It's overwhelming and, to some, perhaps a little frightening.

China knows that logistical efficiency, in trade and shipping, generates commercial strength. I follow Shanghai's ambition. Key is finance, and I know the fellow in charge.

Shanghai Vice Mayor Tu Guangshao runs finance. His task is to make Shanghai a world leader. He says that for Shanghai to become an international center of finance, trade, shipping and general economics requires coordination, each element reinforcing the others. He states that the global financial crisis gives Shanghai a chance to "step up" because the world's financial system needs to be restructured. He stresses, however, that Shanghai will have to "listen to the market." Innovative developments in the market, he says, are key for Shanghai's future as a financial center.

Shanghai Party Secretary Yu Zhengsheng tells me: "A modern service sector requires a rational legal environment, tax revenue environment, and supervision environment. This is not a problem that can be solved simply by attracting foreign investment. It requires systematic innovation. It is not an easy job... Expo should help people to reach a consensus on China's future development, on our way of thinking, and on how Shanghai should develop."

A wise Chinese friend, with an American PhD in science, tells me that while Shanghai has a fascinating history, its future holds far more significance than its past. He encourages me to focus on Shanghai' s science: "It's becoming world class," he says with pride.

A culture rooted in science is a prime goal of China's leaders. A new national policy supports world-class talent. Top Chinese scientists, educated and working abroad, are now returning to China -- a China which now has the resources to back them with first-class equipment and talented students.

China is targeting a dozen or more critical areas of science, where it intends to be among the world leaders. To investigate, I select stem cell research, the basic science underlying regenerative medicine, a foundation of 21st century healthcare.

At Shanghai's Institute for Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Executive Director Jing Naihe tells me that "our top stem cell labs are now 80-85 percent of the world's best." Five years ago, he says, "we were at 50-60 percent" and in "10 to 20 years we should be top level."

Design characterizes Shanghai, from urban planning to fine art. Indeed, Shanghai has become a center of contemporary art. How extraordinary for a city and a society that only a few decades ago shunned modernity and coerced homogeneity. Before reform, China was a drab, monolithic country. Everyone ate the same kinds of food and wore the same styles of clothes. "Art" was dictated by the state: It was coercive, superficial, mediocre, and boring.

Not so today! With reform, Shanghai exploded with vitality and creativity. Here one can see the most ambitious, the most audacious avant-garde art. In a Shanghai galley, situated in a converted steel factory, I marvel at the original and shocking visions -- from the elegant to the bizarre, the soothing to the sexual.

When future historians write the book of Shanghai's epic story, a middle chapter will be about Expo 2010. Expo's about the future. Shanghai's about the future. It's all you see. It's all you hear. Expo is expanding how people think. The world's creativity has come to Shanghai. No city is quite like Shanghai. Energetic. Adventuresome. Dynamic. Distinct. It is said that Shanghai-born basketball player Yao Ming symbolizes Shanghai's height; Shanghai's subway, Shanghai's depth; and Shanghai's Maglev train, Shanghai's speed.

Shanghai's new epic story is to become a world city -- a leader in business, finance, trade, science, technology, and perhaps even in culture. One can see all this at Expo. Before mid-century, China is forecast to surpass the U.S. as the world's largest economic power (though not in per capita income). As China reaches out beyond its borders and across the seas, reclaiming its role as a leading nation, Shanghai is forging the future, leading China today, and perhaps the world tomorrow.

Expo 2010 Shanghai is a historic event.

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