Shanghai Looks Similar to US, But…

Every time I am in San Jose, I meet with people who are genuinely interested in China. China is becoming hot topic here, and I was asked many questions. On one hand, I was amazed by how much people know about China (like some people visited very small cities in China, or some speaks really good Chinese), and also by how little people know about the history (especially the recent century) of China. Yesterday, over our dining table, we chatted about the change in China. 30 years ago, China was in such a chaos, that the culture revolution, and great leap forward ruined the dream, life, and sense of trust for the whole generation of people. When people see the prosperity of Shanghai, people didn’t see it, and didn’t realize how long it takes for the country to cure the pain of the last 30-40 years.

Currently, the economy reform changed the appearance of some cities, but the political reform never happened. Using the western logic combined with the fact people see may lead to wrong conclusion. For example, some people praised the city planning of Shanghai that it seems the planners reserved big area of central Greenland, and spaces for the elevated highway. The logic is, the government works the same way as western world, and the fact is, there are big public facilities in the downtown of the city. The result is, city planning is good. The fact part is correct, but the logic part is not. The government issued an order that all residents in the designated area MUST leave before the deadline. That resulted almost 1 million people moved out of downtown just for the Yunnan Elevated Highway, and Chengdu Elevated Highway. So it was not because of city planning, it was enforcement of government’s order, and sacrificing the interests of those property owners.

Many people I talked with didn’t understand why those residents cannot sue the government. Well. This just does not happen.

There are many things like this. The social architecture, how the government works, the history, and culture…. all these are different, and the image people see from outside is misleading. It takes time to learn both the fact (easier) and the logic/context around it. Hope all my visitors to Shanghai can take your time and learn both what it appeared, and why it appeared this way.

Let me re-post my story of “Six Blind Men and China” from previous entry, since the entry was quickly buried in the archive of entries.

It was six men in different part of the world, to learning much inclined,

who went to see China (Though all of them were blind),

that each by observation, might satisfy his mind.

The first approached China, and, reading several piece of news

on Internet, at once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but China, is nothing but an evil country!”

The second visiting Shanghai the last year, cried:

“Ho! what an exciting experience. I like the food!

To me tis mighty clear, this wonder of China, is very like a paradise!”

The third approached the country, and, visiting the rural area,

“I see, “, quoth he, “China is the poorest country in the world!”

The fourth reached out his eager hand and set a branch of his international business:

“Why you still waste time here,” quoth he;

“Tis clear enough China is the powerhouse of the world economy!”

The fifth, who chanced to be have a bad life on this land, Said; “E’en the blindest man can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can, This marvel of China, is very like hell!”

The sixth kept a blog for 5 years, and also lived there,

“I see,” quothe he, “China is very like a good place for me!”

And so these men, disputed loud and long,

each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,

tread on in utter ignorance, of what each other mean,

and prate about China, not one of them has seen!

Written by Jian Shuo Wang, based on the work of John Godfrey Saxe (1816 – 1887)

P.S. Today, I saw Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE for the first time.

38 thoughts on “Shanghai Looks Similar to US, But…

  1. Is a case of putting greater value on the benefits for the majority of the people, over the benefits for the individual?

    Not good planning – agreed – but could anyone have planned well given the speed and size of change in China?

    The people were compensated for moving?

    Elephants :-)

  2. Jian Shuo

    doesn’t the government there have to buy property owners the fair market value of their property which is taken by the government for a public purpose such as the construction of a highway?

    if the government offers what the property owner believes is too little of an amount of money, can the property owner go to court to seek a larger sum of money? that’s how it works in the US.

  3. Sherk7, a typical case for government to get land from villagers in rural area is 100 RMB/sq meter, and they can sell it to real easte developers at 6000 RMB/sq meter. That is the reason in many places like my home town Luoyang, the government is forcing farmers to leave their land to do the one-time deal to sell their lands, and the land sold in the last few years is maybe much higher than many centuaries, since it is easy money for government officials.

    In downtown Shanghai, if the property owner don’t agree on the price (typically they don’t agree), and they have no right. They will be forced to leave. It is very simple. People who stayed in their house will be cut of electricity, water, and treated with noise and police. I chatted with a house owner near the Shanghai Railway Station. He saw me carried a big camera and thought I was a journalist, and told me his sad story. He is not rare in Shanghai in the last 10 years. That is sad.

  4. Hello Mr. Wang, people of KQED radio gives me your contact. Well, i am a photographer who lives in madrid, Spain and i work for several magazines here. I would like to find want to meet local chinese people in Shangai in the business area, ( sucesfull, big, and specially YOUNG people).

    I am planing to go in february to Shangai.

    I have some ideas to do for the magazines where i work, one of this ideas is make an article about business young people (men and women) who are making very nice stuffs there. You are perfect for my article if you donĀ“t mind to appear. can you help me with this?

    Thanks for your time

    Luis Cobelo

  5. Political problem is a big problem

    But the political problem is also an reflection of people’s mind.

    I see the thought that government can dictate the economy and dictate everything from newspaper, TV and many other places.

    But can not see the respection to natural laws.

  6. Hi Jianshuo, so nice to see you comming to the States again. Whatever, the life in Shanghai is enjoyable and exciting! I miss it… Take care and hope to meet you here :)

  7. Jian Shuo

    doesn’t the government there have to buy property owners the fair market value of their property which is taken by the government for a public purpose such as the construction of a highway?

    if the government offers what the property owner believes is too little of an amount of money, can the property owner go to court to seek a larger sum of money? that’s how it works in the US.

    Posted by: Shrek7 on December 7, 2006 09:53 PM


    Hi Shrek7:

    I’m from shanghai as well and has bought my own apartments just nearby century park where jian shuo has mentioned in his earlier post.

    Actually, I don’t agree with Jian Shuo’s opinion regarding downtown reconstruction.

    I’m the expert for this topic.

    Generally speaking, there are 2 kinds of reconstruction:

    1. One is called public-purpose reconstruction which just like you mentioned earlier – Elevated highway, green land etc…

    2. The other one is called commercial-purpose which we can learn from its name: for commercial purpose, to build large Mall etc..

    For each of them, government have to pay far more fair market price to let people move out. Often commercial reconstruction have to pay more money so that people move out. You must know Pudong area? There is a river called Huangpu which split shanghai as East of the river(Pudong area) and west of the river(PuXi area). Puxi area is traditional downtown while PuDong area just like a new city.

    Now I just take one of the downtown reconstruction in Pudong area as example. Recently, the government need move lots of poeple out of a special location of Pudong. This special location called LuJiaZui Financial Area where just like Manhattan downtown. I mean, where there are lot lots of high buildings, lots of world-class bank headquater etc…

    The fair market price for those old apartments in this special location is only about 130$ per square feet. (Why so cheap is because these apartments is very old. Most of them almost 40-50 years old). How much you know government finally give them? At least 300$ per square feet!! More than doubled…!

    Actually, there is a common-feeling in Shanghai: City reconstruction is the fatest way to let you become rich! In every bbs which regarding real estate, you can often see such kind of post: Did the place where I’m living will reconstruct soon?…..

    Acutally, Jian Shuo’s opinion regarding city reconstruction is for old days. Frankly speaking, I’m the benefiter from city reconstruction. I got 250,000$ and a new apartment from One of my 600 Squre Feet old apartment in PuXi downtown!!!

  8. Jian Shuo said:

    Currently, the economy reform changed the appearance of some cities, but the political reform never happened.


    My comment:

    The economy reform not only changed the appreance of ALL the cities, but also MOST of the rurual areas. Actually, China’s economy reform start from rural area and then spread to Urban area. However, only a few of the rurual areas become rich but most of them remain not-rich even still very poor. So, recent years, the government issued lots of the policies to stimulate rurual area’s economy. For example, release all of the Agricultural tax!That is to say, the peasent no need to pay any tax to the government anymore! It is a huge change! Indeed released their burdon.

    My another comment is for political reform:

    Actually, political reform has performed gradually. Comparing current Chinese communiest party’s constitution with that of 20 years ago, you can tell so so so big difference! Now, the communist party claimed it stands for the power which push the society ahead; stands for progress class etc…. So, now even priviate-enterprise owner can join the communist party. You know, in old days, those private-enterprise owner was called Capitalist and was regarded enimies of communist party…..

    Actually, in my personal opinon, we can call current chinese communist party as Chinese Social Democratic Party。

  9. China is a palce to make money, but isn’t a place for living. China has the dirtiest air and people can not breath.

  10. Shrek7, The land right in China has reverted back to the government since 1958, all the properties in China today are sitting on either borrowed or leased land, so by law, the government has right to re-claim any land at any time and the residents are only subject to re-settlement fee at the discretion of the authority.

    I have my properties in Xujiahui, after reading all the documents, I find the only right I have is the “dwelling right” and it can revoke on demand despite the land lease term.

  11. Great post!

    Shanghai doesn’t look similar to the US at all, except for New York. Shanghai, with its excellent public transport, is far more efficient than the average American city, which suffers from horrible urban sprawl. Austin is bigger than Shanghai urban area (not 上海市 with farms), with only 1/15 the population, for example. The sprawl is ugly and makes the city appear deserted. Cars are the only transport, and the traffic is awful. A crowded metro is equally uncomfortable, but at least is fast.

  12. Political problem is a big problem

    But the political problem is also an reflection of people’s mind.

    I see the thought that government can dictate the economy and dictate everything from newspaper, TV and many other places.

    But can not see the respection to natural laws.

  13. What Mr. Wang mentioned in his article is not really the truth. At least I have a friend whose old house had to be dismantled becuase of municipal reconstruction got 1.5million RMB for each family (so her grandma who used to live with her also got 1 million RMB) and her house was not even in downtown Shanghai.

    Besides, the economic change has tremendously improved most of Chinese life quality. If Mr. Wang denies this, it’s really unfair to Chinese government. The political/social/law reform is based on economic development. As long as Chinese government focuses on economic development and education, eventually the reform will touch the political system.

    Mr. Wang himself took the great benefit from Chinese reform. If he lived in China 20 years ago, it would be impossible for him to live in Shanghai and go abroad or even work for a big foreign company. So I think Mr. Wang really spreaded a wrong information to the world in a very negative way about China. Remember 20 years ago, it was illegal to discuss about this kind of topic privately…We have to admit compared to the past, China is taking a leap on every aspect. As a beneficiary of China, Mr.Wang need to be more responsible for the information he is spreading.

  14. Jianshuo, I have several questions for you:

    1. Compared to 30 or 20 years ago, do you think that political reform is happening gradually? When you compare the logic and fact, you are actually comparing today’s chinese government approach to today’s western government policy. You really need to think about 50 or 100 years ago, how did American build their railway througout the country. How many Chinese worker lost their lives (not to mention their human rights) during that tough project under tough natural condition? and also you need to consider about China’s huge population base, does western government approach really work in a city with such a high population density…?

    2. According to your own experience, you really think that the huge changes happened in China are just the appearance that sacrifice people’s interest? Then how to explain your own experience and many other young employees of foreign companies? They did get benefit from the changes and obviously it is not just the “appearance”…Do you agree that the changes happened in urban area will finally spread to rural village as long as China focuses on economy development?

    3. Do you think its a good idea and a right time to copy western democratic political system and bring it to China at current stage? Are you sure that Chinese people including the farmers of rural area are ready for the democracy? Considering the education and exposure that chinese people get about the western democracy, are you sure that democracy will be properly interpreted and applied in people’s daily life?

    4. As a member on the beneficiary chain, what would you do to help your own country?

    5. If you think the political reform has never happened, what do you think the government should do at current stage?

  15. Maybe the conclusion from some US friends is more objective than yours…They said that it was hard for a government to control for so many changes in such a short time. More and more western experts are invited to investigate Chinese rural problems and discuss new rural construction. Those changes absolutely are not just about the appearances. As a Chinese, you really should realize that.

  16. I do really think has spreaded a wrong-information about China to foriegn people

    regarding this city-reconstruction and political reform topic.

  17. Jean de La Fontaine (July 8, 1621 – April 13, 1695)

    Wolf and The Dog

    A prowling wolf, whose shaggy skin

    (So strict the watch of dogs had been)

    Hid little but his bones,

    Once met a mastiff dog astray.

    A prouder, fatter, sleeker Tray,

    No human mortal owns.

    Sir Wolf in famish’d plight,

    Would fain have made a ration

    Upon his fat relation;

    But then he first must fight;

    And well the dog seem’d able

    To save from wolfish table

    His carcass snug and tight.

    So, then, in civil conversation

    The wolf express’d his admiration

    Of Tray’s fine case. Said Tray, politely,

    ‘Yourself, good sir, may be as sightly;

    Quit but the woods, advised by me.

    For all your fellows here, I see,

    Are shabby wretches, lean and gaunt,

    Belike to die of haggard want.

    With such a pack, of course it follows,

    One fights for every bit he swallows.

    Come, then, with me, and share

    On equal terms our princely fare.’

    ‘But what with you

    Has one to do?’

    Inquires the wolf. ‘Light work indeed,’

    Replies the dog; ‘you only need

    To bark a little now and then,

    To chase off duns and beggar men,

    To fawn on friends that come or go forth,

    Your master please, and so forth;

    For which you have to eat

    All sorts of well-cook’d meat–

    Cold pullets, pigeons, savoury messes–

    Besides unnumber’d fond caresses.’

    The wolf, by force of appetite,

    Accepts the terms outright,

    Tears glistening in his eyes.

    But faring on, he spies

    A gall’d spot on the mastiff’s neck.

    ‘What’s that?’ he cries. ‘O, nothing but a speck.’

    ‘A speck?’ ‘Ay, ay; ’tis not enough to pain me;

    Perhaps the collar’s mark by which they chain me.’

    ‘Chain! chain you! What! run you not, then,

    Just where you please, and when?’

    ‘Not always, sir; but what of that?’

    ‘Enough for me, to spoil your fat!

    It ought to be a precious price

    Which could to servile chains entice;

    For me, I’ll shun them while I’ve wit.’

    So ran Sir Wolf, and runneth yet.

  18. Geez, I think people should give Jian Shuo a break on this one! From what I understand, all he is saying is that just because Shanghai might superficially look similar to other cities such as New York (which I don’t think it does at all besides the height of its buildings, but anyways), doesn’t mean the same processes are at work.

    “And the image people see from outside is misleading”.

    Basically, the political-economic forces that have driven the recent urban redevelopment of Shanghai are drastically different than those that produced New York, let’s say. Just because Chinese cities have skyscrapers and elevated highways should not lead people to assume they are becoming ‘western’, or following any sort of western logic. New York is a monument to American-style capitalism and private money, while Shanghai is much more the result of a deliberate push by the Chinese STATE in the 1990s to project wealth, success and the “New China”, as much to its own people as to foreigners. Pudong is harldy a free-wheeling capitalist financial centre- it was a master-planned, central gov’t-driven project designed to impress. Do you think it’s an accident that Lujiazui’s ‘landmark’ skyline seems designed solely to be looked at from across the river?

    I’m definitely with Jianshuo on this one. Great observations.

  19. Patrick, the problem is that China is so so different from US…When we compare Shanghai with New York, we have to also compare the history and the culture…It was easier to paint a good picture on a blank paper and that was America. While China, for five thousand years, the industrial revolution and capitalism seems never happened on this land..If government didn’t push the progress…I can hardly imagine how today’s Shanghai and China look like. From this point, it’s unfair to put all the blames on government…

  20. The special area of China, HK and one big island (Tai**n), are not controlled by China mainland… In these place the economy is much more developed, there is less inequality, people are much more open minded, and much more civilized. In other part of Asia the Chinese people also manage to become very rich.

    So, China growth is due to Chinese people… and I think would have happen whatever the leadership.

  21. Patrick22,

    I’m not sure I understand your response to my comment. The whole point of what I wrote was to support Jian Shuo in his observations that the dynamics driving Chinese cities really are very different from the US, for example, and it has everything to do with drastic historical, cultural, political and economic differences.

    I’m not ‘blaming’ any gov’t at all. Describing what you think is happening is not the same as placing a moral judgement on an activity. But for better or worse, it’s hard to disagree with the notion that the Chinese state at all levels has been/is still behind so much of the urban redevelopment in Chinese cities, no matter how ‘western/capitalist’ they might end up looking.

    Shanghai’s resurgence was no accident- read a bit about the city’s recent history in the 1990s – but rather a very deliberate state project, with a massive amount of state funding to back it up. And of course, more recently the growth of Chinese cities has been strongly driven by the collusion of real estate developers/gov’t officials and their out-of-control real estate growth machine. The central gov’t has recently realized the threat this sort of reckless development poses in the long-term, but I think it’s a bit too late: they let loose the urban development ‘mania’ in the 1990s, and now every local government wants to turn its city into a Shanghai. Have you seen what is going on in Zhengzhou lately? Harbin? Huge new master-planned cities rising solely by fiat of government officials who need to puff up their records and line their pockets, rather than meeting any sort of market demand or taking care of their citizens. It’s urban development barreling out of control, and it’s the sort of thing that keeps central gov’t officials awake at night.

    I think urban development in many Chinese cities, particularly second tier ones, is driven less by genuine ‘westernization’, ‘globalization’ or ‘marketization’ or whatever you want to call it, and more so by officials deciding “well, I want my city to look rich and modern and developed”. It’s also convenient that selling off all the land to real estate developers drunk on speculation makes THEM rich.

    In the end, image is just as important in China as substance, if not more. So having a city that LOOKS rich and prosperous is just as good as having a city that actually is rich and prosperous. And it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t work: you have a lot of foreigners who show up, see some shiny buildings and big highways and decide that Shanghai is “New York” or that every other Chinese city is becoming New York and China will take over the world tomorrow. The Chinese gov’t’s imageering is so clever because it knows exactly what to show people who don’t have the time to dig under the superficiality. And it sure works: the “China Rises” hype has become its own industry in American/European media. How many times has the Lujiazui skyline appeared on a magazine cover/news story about the “New China” or “China Rising”? Countless. It’s like the Chinese gov’t relies on the modern intellectual laziness of the West to sell itself.

    But really the processes driving the rise of these cities could not have been more different. And besides, I personally don’t think Shanghai looks like New York at all…it’s definitely still a Chinese city, and all the better for it! :-)

  22. You can call everything as just appreance and image. But actually things happen in China and Shanghai are not just about the appearances…It’s very profound and deeply impated a lot of people’s life in a good way. Mr. wang and many many chinese who live in Shanghai are very good examples. 30 or 20 years ago, (Mr. wang’s parents generation) People live the same life styles, wore the same style even same color clothes (only grey, black and dark blue could be found on the street). Any negative comments about government could be put in jail…People were not allowed to go abroad, young students were deprived the opportunities of getting education. Look at today’s Shanghai and China. things have changed greatly. More and more people are going abroad either for study or traveling. There are many rich Chinese in Shanghai now. Can you really say that the changes are superfacial and all about image? A lot of Chinese have witnessed the changes.

    the changes have to be gradually, when you dig deeper, there are still many social problems due to long feudaralist history, wars and cultural revolution. As a developing country, China’s development speed definitely is fast. Again, it’s not just about image.

  23. As a Chinese, I want to tell you Patrick, we have never thought that Shanghai looks like New York and we have never wanted to be called “New York” of China…Shanghai is just Shanghai. We don’t want foreigners to think that it’s just a rich and prosperous city, but we are all working very hard to improve our own life quality just like people in US, in Europe. The change happened in Shanghai is a sign of cilvilization which should be encouraged. Please don’t judge everything in China with western value because this country is too much different from US or Europe.


    City re-construction INDEED was just the “image”. Actually it was the government’s strategy to attract investment and it was based on research. With more foreign investment from various leading compaines, shanghai got more job opportunities for people. with more job opportunities, government got more money to improve education and health care, social security system (although currently it’s still weak). And the city re-construction improved some residents life quality. For example, 20 years ago, it was normal for a local 3-generation-family to live in a 20-square-meter apartment in old downtown. With city reconstruction, most of families got 3 apartments depending on the total family members who used to live there. Although they moved to suburb, with efficient publuc transportation system, their life quality eventually got improved (they at least got privacy as a human being…).

  25. “Please don’t judge everything in China with western value because this country is too much different from US or Europe”.

    Nancy, I could not agree with you more: again, I was arguing how DIFFERENT Chinese cities are from their western counterparts despite some superficial similarities, given historical, cultural and economic considerations. The forces that have produced the Chinese cities we see today ARE very different from the forces that produced many western cities. So I am agreeing with you, and I don’t understand why I keep getting told that China is different from the US/Europe. I’m in no way arguing otherwise.

    Alex and patrick22:

    I will not disagree with you that China has gone through many profound changes, and perhaps I’ve been guilty of over-generalizing in my previous post given that the country is its own world with a billion plus people and a huge diversity of conditions, life stories, aspirations, successes and failures. Look up the definition of ‘complex’ in the dictionary and you will probably find “modern China”. :-)

    But at the same time it would be dishonest not to acknowledge the major role that the state has played, and to a certain extent still plays, in the nature of China’s urban redevelopment. There are countless stories to be told about every Chinese city, town and even neighbourhood. Shanghai itself exhibits an immense diversity of development stories depending on what particular neighbourhood or even building you are looking at. All I’m saying is that state-driven mega-projects (Pudong being the huge example in Shanghai) are just as equally a part of China’s urban development story as the aspirations of the common person on the street. I’m not necessarily saying the results are good or bad for people, that’s not really my argument here (although the amount of resources squandered on some local gov’t ‘image’ projects is quite frightening). I’m saying,for better or worse, the Chinese state at all levels (yes, this includes local officials) is heavily involved in China’s urban development, and that political considerations drive the growth of Chinese cities as much as any aspirations for a better life. Like it or not, the Chinese state still completely runs the show and calls the shots.

    And yes, it is the majesty of these state mega-projects that is used to project China’s ‘rise’, more so than smaller but more real successes, like a family being able to send a member to university for the first time or having enough food on their table. If you read my previous post again you will see that it is as much about the West’s general intellectual laziness in trying to understand China (just getting off a plane, taking a picture of Lujiazui, dreaming of a billion consumers and leaving) as a comment on Chinese society or Chinese people.

  26. JS, Intentionally or not, your blog had always appeared a bit apolitical. It might well be that, after all these years of stay in Shanghai, the City has had some effort on you. But I’m glad that you are touching some of the “sensitive” issues in your recent posts. Keep it up.

  27. What is the average hourly rate of those who post/read on this topic thread? I only read severl lines of the first posting, and think: why people spend their time here, if you were not doing this during your working hour. This thread is getting very expensive.

  28. Jian Shuo, I am surprised that you are so honest in your assessment of the Shanghai government. I am sure that not too long ago that this sort of opinion would be censored and quashed. I believe that in itself is progress.

    Care to comment how far relative “freedom of speech” has come in China in the past 10 years or so?

  29. I am happy that you tackle such sensitive information, but basically the PRC should be renamed as RPC – Rich People’s China.

    Suing the government is like telling George W Bush to pull out of Iraq.

    A lot of government officials are also forming their own corporations and absorbing all of the profits from the real estate transactions. Needless to say, corruption is at its highest in a very long time.

  30. Poster who takes after the poet Jean de La Fontaine,

    “Wolf and The Dog

    A prowling wolf, whose shaggy skin

    (So strict the watch of dogs had been)

    Hid little but his bones,

    Once met a mastiff dog astray.

    A prouder, fatter, sleeker Tray,

    No human mortal owns.

    … ”

    I very much enjoy this poem personally. But I’m questioning your intent for posting it on this thread.

    If perhaps it is meant to ensinuate that many here are like the dog, that accepts the leash in return for food, then I must express my dismay at the half truth of it. My interpretation though, is that the leash has only extended recently from your lands and culture and marks a bright yellow double arch that obsenely lights up my residential neighborhood. If you do seek a land free of dog leashes, perhaps you should look into Cuba; or maybe they just have leashes from a different master.

  31. Shanghai is great, China is Great, and the people are the Greatest…….The Goverment is another story…….But China has made very rapid growth in Housing, Roads, and the economy in general…….

    The change in Gov’t thinking has also changed greatly, and still has more to go…

    Remember Chinese culture is over 5000 years old…The Chinese people are wonderful people…



  32. I take a couse called business and society this year. A case study about Cisco planed to build a campus in San Jose has been reviewed yesterday. However, the southen communities of San Jose dislike the project. My teacher and I did not find out the finnal results of this dispute by searching from Google. Do you know if the Cisco built a campus in San Jose? I would appreciate it if you could send a email when you know the answer.

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