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Return to Shanghai

CHINA | Saturday, 12 May 2007 | Views [3311]

Cultural Revolution - figurines at the Shanghai antiques market.

Cultural Revolution - figurines at the Shanghai antiques market.

A quarter of a lifetime ago I stood on the Bund. As I gazed out from the shabby youth hostel in a grand old building right on the waterfront there was nothing but grey mud flats, swarms of bicycles, a handful of 'friendship stores' where the service was legendary for its rudeness and vast numbers of people wore dour green jackets with few smiles. Those youthful days in May and June 1989 are now just pungent memories, both of a boy and a country long since lost.

Today those mud flats have spawned a city with half-kilometer high skyscrapers from where I write this. Today almost everyone, in Shanghai is well dressed and educated. How do you cloth and feed well over a billion people? How do you deal with 16 million people moving from the countryside to the cities every year? And then still manage to provide enjoyment, opportunity and hope for these people? All the while avoiding anarchy and a brake-down of social cohesion?

Yes, Shanghai is impressive and vibrant by any standard. But while the bars are hip (try FACE for example) all the brands are here and they are building like crazy, what I find most stunning is their vision for the future and the lengths they are prepared to go to achieve this.

It's breathtaking.

Today we were shown around the new CELAP Training Centre, a contemporary and innovative leadership academy whose task is to train the highest levels of leaders from government and the business community focusing on social, environmental and economic improvement. These guys are thinking thirty to fifty years out and are well aware of the environmental hurdles they face on top of the global ones. They acknowledged that while economic growth is currently a staggering 12.6%, the actual economic cost of achieving that in terms of environmental cleanup and impact is between 3 and 10%. I'll leave you to do the math.

The level of infrastructure planning already undertaken makes Australia look absurd and it really makes you wonder whether the sort of commitments and decisions required simply can't be delivered by a democracy, any democracy, with its short short vision. I left the facility humbled by their capacity to invest phenomenally in human intellectual capital which is, of course, their primary resource.

This does of course inevitably require that China accept more open discussion and debate, debate that would have been incomprehensible back then. Debates about the ability of the state to maintain social cohesion, debates about political and democratic change, debates about education as strong demographic shifts curtail the current economic growth rates. These weren't topics discussed in hushed whispers in a tea house, but on stage at a business conference with over 800 attendees.

The problems are so daunting that logic would suggest you bet against their success. Yet the optimism here is infectious and their current staggering achievements suggest otherwise.

We can all only hope so.

Tags: capitalism, memories, shanghai, youth

 

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