Like Lagos is to Nigeria, Shanghai is Mainland China’s largest economic centre. But now, its leaders want more, by projecting Shanghai to rule the world. Solomon Elusoji writes

There is little debate about which city is the most glamorous in Mainland China. Despite the country’s stupefying growth over the last four decades, a trend which has led to the overnight rise of cities like Shenzhen and Zhuhai, Shanghai’s position as Mainland China’s most desirable city is largely incontestable. From the ubiquitous skyscrapers that dot its skyline to the powerful, relentless beauty of its waterways, the city shines, resplendent, full of stunning light. Not even Beijing, the country’s seat of power, can hold a candle to its ultra-magnificence.

There is actually a one-sided debate among Chinese people about which city, between Beijing and Shanghai, is more remarkable. Beijing, like most capital cities, has a bland, rigid character, a very deep contrast to Shanghai, which is dynamic and free-spirited.

According to Amy, a Chinese from Hengshui Province, if it was a matter of being cosmopolitan, Shanghai played in a different league, even though she had lived and studied in Beijing for several years and is more comfortable there. “Shanghai is much more fashionable,” she said.

But it is not just fashionable, or just mere glitter meant to flatter; the city is also solid, firmly grounded in real prosperity. In 2017, its per capita GDP was $18,450; home to a total of 625 multinational companies and 426 foreign funded Research and Development (R& D) centres, the city is also an important shipping centre, operating some of the busiest ports in the world.

There are theories, of course, to why Shanghai has flourished. There are those who attribute its success to its unique location on the estuary of the Yangtze River, facing the Pacific Ocean. There are also theories that point to its relatively early contact with foreign merchants. A much rounded and less circumstantial response will have to be the impact of government policies, especially the Communist Party of China’s decision to open up the country in 1978. The entire country benefited from that choice, Shanghai included. According to data from city authorities, in 1978, the city’s fiscal revenue was 16.922 billion RMB; in 2017, it had increased by 3,825 per cent at 664.226 billion RMB.

Meanwhile, these numbers have had real world effects. In Shanghai, life expectancy is now 83, as good as Switzerland.

This July, the Deputy Director-General of the Shanghai Municipal Foreign Affairs Office (SHFAO), Mr Fu Jihong, addressed journalists from the China Africa Press Centre, and spoke about the Shanghai dream, one which imagines a city that is the most desirable, not just in China, but in the world. While this is an extremely difficult feat to achieve, it is not impossible. “We have to be enterprising and committed,” Mr Jihong said, “we have to be persistent.”

Seeds of Greatness

What makes a city great? Ask anyone – politicians, urban planners, economists, average joes – and they are likely to come up with commonsense criteria such as the quality and efficiency of its public amenities, education system, healthcare, housing system, transportation and infrastructure. But because cities are usually highly populated areas, providing public goods and services can be an herculean task for city administrators. But that has not stopped Shanghai, a city harbouring over 24 million people, from excelling at this, based on the reports of Shanghai residents interviewed for this story. One interviewee that stood out was Linda Wang.

Wang was born in Dalian, a modern port city in China’s Liaoning Province. If the map of China is a chicken, Dalian is right at the jaw. It was occupied by the Russians in 1898 and has streets lined with Russian-styled architecture.

A precocious student, Wang had flair for languages and she met great professional interpreters who encouraged her to work in the field. After High School in Dalian, she left for Sydney, Australia for University education. When she returned home and was looking to improve her skills, she moved to Shanghai and enrolled at the Shanghai International Studies University for Interpreting and Translation.

“Growing up, skyscrapers and modern facilities were not alien to me,” Wang said one recent evening in the lobby of a plush hotel in Central Shanghai. But Shanghai was something different.

“The cool thing about working as an interpreter is that you get to see lots of different things and interact with government officials,” she said. “Dalian is a very modern city too, but one thing about Shanghai is that it is very efficient. The government officials mean what they say and I think they are passionate about what they do. When you speak with them, you can feel that they are genuinely proud of what they do. I don’t see that everywhere. Everyone loves where they come from, but Shanghai people are especially proud of Shanghai. Once, I was talking to a bus driver and asking him about the traffic peak time and how it wasn’t so bad, since we were not stuck, his response was that, ‘yes, that’s because we have very good management’.

In Wang’s telling, Shanghai is a city that you have a love-hate relationship with. You hate it because it is very fast and realistic, which comes with a lot of pressure, but you love it because the transportation is very convenient, the security excellent (you can walk at 2am without any fear) and there is a staggering amount of public amenities to take advantage of. “A lot of people I know want to stay here, buy a house, get married and have children,” she said. “I am happy here. If you stay here for too long, there is no way you can go to another city. Once, I visited Shenzhen and Guangzhou – these are very developed cities – but I stayed there and was missing Shanghai.”

When asked what she thought about Shanghai being able to achieve its 2035 objective of being a world-class city, she did not hesitate to respond. “Judging from what they’ve done in the past, yes. I have heard a government official say that Shanghai does not have an example to follow. During the past two decades, Shanghai was looking at large cities in the world looking at what they could learn, but gradually they started to feel like they need to be innovative.”

Preparing for a Tech-driven Future

Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park is in Shanghai’s northern district of Pudong. Described by some as China’s Silicon Valley, the park is a reflection of China’s ambition to transform Shanghai into a high-tech development zone capable of global leadership.

Last year, the park announced expansion plans to rebrand itself as a ‘Science City’. Already home to more than 600 hundred companies and employing over 350,000 people, the park will be expanded to some 94 square kilometres with new infrastructure, such as new housing units, scheduled to be constructed.

On what sort of innovative work had been done at the park since it was founded in 1992, Deputy Director-General of the Zhangjiang Administration Bureau, Jun Wu, touted ground-breaking research in several fields, especially in biomedicine. This July, a Chinese research group with roots in the park announced progress in developing a drug, GV-971, which can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease after a 21-year study.

Zhangjiang’s success is rooted in its ability to help companies scale faster. Microport, a company that describes its goal as “improving human life through the practical application of innovative science”, set up shop as a small outfit in Zhangjiang in 1998. Today, 20 years later, the company, has grown to become a premier medical solution provider covering 10 major medical disciplines including interventional cardiology, orthopedics, cardiac rhythm management, electrophysiology, interventional radiology, diabetes and endocrine management, surgical management, and others. It has over 260 products currently approved for use in over 5,000 hospitals worldwide and its products are used on patients every 12 seconds.

“We probably would not have grown so fast if we had set up shop somewhere else,” a spokeswoman for the company, Bonnie Xia said. “We received a lot of support from the trade leagues and the Zhangjiang Investment Company which helped us to attract talent and investors.”

But Wu believes the park’s administrators need to do more if Shanghai is to become a world-class, hi-tech city. He admitted that attracting talent remains a thorny problem, while there is need for the park to record more technological breakthroughs, ‘we also aim to improve cooperation between China and other foreign states’, he said. He is, however, optimistic of a bright future. There is a documented plan to transform Shanghai into a high-tech development city by 2035, but Wu believes that by 2020, when most of the new planned infrastructure projects in Zhangjiang would have been completed, the dream would be palpable. “Come after the year 2020,” he said, “you will experience a huge transformation.”

A City of Heart and Art

In October 2017, China’s most powerful man, Xi Jinping, paid a visit to Shanghai; police blocked parts of the city’s roads and highways, especially around the Xintiandi area. While in Shanghai, Xi, along with six other Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest political leaders, paid a visit to the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a spartan, grey brick building on Xingye Road that is filled with history. “The Communist Party was born here,” Xi, who is the CPC’s General Secretary, said that day, “these are the roots of the party.”

Shanghai’s relevance to China supersedes its economic contributions. It also embodies significant cultural and historical significance that illuminates the story and character of modern China. Apart from hosting the site of the First National Congress of the CPC, it is also home to the site of the Second National Congress located on Chengdu Road and former residences of venerable, past Chinese leaders, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.

Some of the city’s other cultural historic sites include the well preserved Yuyuan Garden which was constructed in 1559, the Longhua Temple in Xuhui District, a Buddhist temple that was built in 247 AD, the Confucius Temple that was built in 1219, the Square Pagoda in Songjiang District that was built in 949, and many more.

Shanghai’s cultural history is an integral part of what makes the city attractive to those who flock in; city authorities know this and have moved to ramp up tourism infrastructure, constructing mind-blowing facilities such as the Oriental Pearl Broadcasting and Television Tower, a 468-meter tall edifice. At 263 meter high, tourists can get a bird’s eye-view of the city and at 267 meters high sits a rotating restaurant. At the ground floor of the structure is a historical museum featuring the city’s history, including life-like representations of old Shanghai streets. The museum’s realism is so heavy that, upon visiting, it was hard to stay rooted in the 21st century.

In 2017, the added value of the city’s tourism sector reached 188.824 billion RMB. With a brand of economic planning that focuses on improving infrastructure, that number can only go in one direction: upward.

Designed for Posterity

It took spending six days in Shanghai to work on this report, talking to city officials, experiencing its subway system, visiting museums and technology parks and even travelling to Chongming Island, a beautiful getaway resort just one hour drive from Central Shanghai. The feeling was that this was a city on the cusp of miraculous things. While the world is still warming up to the revival of China’s magnificence, Shanghai is carefully laying the blocks of what a futuristic city should be.

“I believe Shanghai will become an international Metropolitan centre,” Counsellor at the Information Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Liu Yutong, said in Chongming. “This is completely irreversible.” He just might be right.