Shanghai: Metropolitan Idol

Shanghai stands where the Yangzi River joins the Pacific Ocean, making it the gateway between China and the world. (Deb Agrin)
Shanghai stands where the Yangzi River joins the Pacific Ocean, making it the gateway between China and the world. (Deb Agrin)

Amid screaming fans and in front of millions of television viewers, Shang Wen Jie was voted China’s “Super Voice Girl” in September 2006. Over 5 million people voted for her by sending text messages on their cell phones. This spiky-haired girl’s rise from obscurity to China’s newest singing diva mirrors the story of her native city, Shanghai.

A late bloomer, for centuries Shanghai was an outpost on China’s eastern seaboard. In 1750, it was a fishing village home to 50,000 people. Today, 10 million live in this city that has risen to superstardom, and is even known as the “head of the dragon.” It is China’s most populous city, leads the country’s commerce, is at the forefront of art and fashion, and hosts the busiest port in the world.

Why did Shanghai rise to the top? Because it is perfectly located to take advantage of China’s ascent within the global community. Shanghai stands where the Yangzi River joins the Pacific Ocean, making it the gateway between China’s 1.3 billion people and the rest of the world.

Until recently, most of the river’s 3,700 miles were narrow and treacherous. The completion of the Three Gorges Dam in 2006 will deepen the river channel. The dam’s massive locks can lift and lower 10,000 ton barges, increasing the river’s accessibility and magnifying Shanghai’s importance.

So, what kinds of people make up Shanghai’s population? Many are migrant laborers from China’s rural areas. The three to four million people that are Shanghai’s “floating population” have a harsh and uncertain life and are often treated with disdain. China’s Communist government was founded on the support of peasants, but as officials embraced capitalism in the 1990s, the socialist safety net disintegrated. Even though China as a whole is growing richer and more powerful, the government is wary of civil unrest among those left behind.

In addition to migrant laborers, Shanghai attracts well-educated and employed Chinese people from all over the country. International firms and foreign investors are also surging into Shanghai.

Such global interest is not new. Shanghai got its first break in the mid-nineteenth century after Britain forced China’s Qing dynasty to allow foreign trade. Americans, French, Japanese, and Germans soon followed and over the next century, Shanghai became China’s most dynamic and diverse city.

Today, the influx of foreign cash is feeding a construction craze. In the downtown Pudong area, Shanghai’s modern architecture towers above historical and gracious European buildings.

City planners, meanwhile, are struggling to manage Shanghai’s growth. Crowds of pedestrians and bicyclists were joined by legions of cars in the 1990s. The city opened the Shanghai metro in 1995, and is currently building the world’s fastest magnetic levitation (maglev) train.

Shanghai ’s economy still depends on heavy industry, which is fueled by coal. Like other Chinese cities and cities worldwide, Shanghai’s air and water is polluted. As citizens grow more alarmed, the government is boosting environmental efforts. Urban planners are designing new parks and other quality-of-life projects, saying that Shanghai will be China’s “green” capital.

Since the 1980s, Shanghai has enforced strict one-child policies. While city parents tend to welcome boys and girls equally, there are special concerns for having millions of “only children.” China’s population is aging just as state social support is weakening. Will children be able to care for elderly parents without the help of the government or siblings?

For 5,000 years, the great Chinese cities like Chang’an and Beijing, located in the country’s interior, were China’s star cities. In modern China, however, Shanghai’s position at the mouth of the Yangzi puts it at the gateway of an international superpower. While the capital city of Beijing prepares for the 2008 Olympics, Shanghai is hosting Expo 2010: Better City—Better Life. This world’s fair is expected to be visited by more people than any other in history. Shanghai will be center-stage for innovative economic, scientific, technological and cultural ideas. This role will most likely win Shanghai the title of " Super City” in China, if not the world.

Author: Heather Clydesdale