Travel: China and its rising superpower

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The dazzling lights and cacophony confuse the senses. Clawing my way through a sweating mass of humanity, I am at once assaulted with the sour stench of unwashed bodies, oddly mixed with the distinctive scent of Chanel’s No. 5 perfume.

The battle is won; I have found my destination. Walking through the market riddled with cheap imitations, my foreign features mark me as a target.

The first one approaches. “You like cheap?” he asks, as he shakes a watch in my face. “Rolex, Prada, what you want?” I wave him away as my companion unwraps the iPod he bought from the fake market. The box is empty.

Shanghai, China, a city of skyscrapers extending as far as the eye can see. A city of smog, of wonder, of crowds. The city has a population more than three times larger than that of New York City, and you can feel it.

Scientifically crafted and meticulously managed, Shanghai appears at first glance to be a typical Western mega-city complete with flashing advertisements, enormous structures and the faint but lingering odor of petroleum. The birthplace of the Communist Party of China, a red flag billows triumphantly over the city.

Walking down a street near People’s Park in the center of the downtown area, a red and yellow floral monument to the hammer and sickle is oddly contrasted by a distant Nike advertisement. Underneath the canopy of steel and glass, I sit down for a conversation over a cup of traditional tea from Hangzhou.

“I wanted to be an artist once,” said a citizen of the People’s Republic. “I didn’t score high enough on my aptitude test, and there are too many artists, so I was told that now I must study international business.” My eyes bulge with surprise, but such stories are common when the needs of the many are the paramount concern. Following a recommendation, I slip on my boots and set out to explore and learn more about the modernizing mega-city.

Visitors taking a casual stroll through the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum will encounter a suspiciously propagandizing section of portraits titled “Leaders Care,” which displays photographs of China’s Communist officials posing happily with Chinese laborers at major building projects. The catchy slogan of “Better City, Better Life” is engraved over a golden model of downtown Shanghai.

Towering over the graceful curves of the museum are the titanic, wondrous skyscrapers overlooking the Huangpu River. Nearby, the evident prosperity and diversity of the shuffling crowds are a testament to the late Deng Xiaoping, the former chairman of the Communist Party who is credited with moving China toward a controlled market economy. Though the positive effects of rapid modernization are easily observed in an area often showcased to foreigners, a few winding curves and a taxi ride later, the story is much different.

Huddled children grasp the arms of malnourished parents, sprawled wearily in the gutter. An impoverished woman, ravenously scarfing down the contents of a plastic cup, devours what appears to be an oil-covered fish soaked in filthy water from a polluted source nearby. Tucked away behind the glitz and glamour of the Westernized downtown area, Shanghai’s slums are invisible to the wealthy foreigners slurping mai tais on a sky bar 87 floors above the ground.

Much of the carefully crafted imagery of Chinese glory and beneficent development are as blatantly counterfeit as the Prada bags that can be purchased at a fake market, but there is no denying that China is making some very impressive strides forward. Drained from the journey into the slums, I head back by taxi toward the downtown area after a necessary detour.

Desiring a comforting ritual that survives even while more than 6,400 miles away from home, I reach into my wallet for a few bills of the People’s Currency and find Mao Zedong’s stony face staring ominously back at me; five minutes later, I am enjoying a steaming hot cup of joe from the local Starbucks Coffee. The familiar flavor was wonderfully authentic. After draining the glass, I light a cigarette and walk away.

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  • William Pont

    Apart from a few “in terms” like Mai tai, Prada bags and sky bar, this was an enlightening if brief introduction to the megalopolis of the Chinese communist hive mind. The title worries me significantly less than it used to in the past since a nation that shackles its creative intellect dictating in which direction it should specialize cannot expect to achieve stardom and hope to outdo one that exerts no such limits on its populace. Even though the United States and Europe are not doing too well financially at present, that state of affairs is at best of temporary duration and creative genius is not suppressed. In any case, all that glitz and glimmer of the megalithic cities (many of them completely vacant) in the narrow sliver of bogus coastal cosmopolitan extravagance means zilch if the customer base suddenly dries up as it has the last year or two. The bulk of Chinese peasants earn too little to afford any the products that are produced in this “controlled Market economy.” The recessions in both the Americas and in Europe will put short thrift to the overheated growth in the Chinese economy which has been at a staggering 9% per annum for quite a number of years. Just as Obama’s Santa Clausian money printing binge currently wrecking America is “unsustainable”, so is the exorbitant growth rate of the Chinese economy. They will soon, if not already, have to deal with a torrent of bankruptcies, financial collapses and other economic mayhem the likes of which they have not yet seen in their country. Chinese 1929 is around the corner and they should tend to that problem first before dabbling in superpower semantics. Superpower status was earned by the US and given to the Russians until it collapsed. Are we going to make that same dumb mistake again?

  • John

    Thank you for the view from your eyes of the glitzy city of Shanghai. My neighbor Wally, who lived with his family there on the 87th, enjoyed sipping Mai tai’s and a smoke at the sky bar during his breaks from his programmers world. He eventually moved to Southern Cal so that his young son could get the needed treatment for autism. Wally, is a funny jovial guy, who is of Filipino decent. He is very eccentric about things like washing his car, and could not wait for a chance to work his magic on my poor old Civic. But he gets very puzzled when trying to make things grow, such as his front lawn. Planting a vegetable garden is too much work for him. He confesses to me that the high rise condo life made things so much easier for him. Wally also spent time in the high rises of Dubai. I really like my neighbor; he is an interesting Fun chap, and I think he really likes living in the USA.

  • Myles

    Very descriptive article and good perspectives on the underside of totalitarianism. Maybe H.G. Wells was on to something when he wrote about a future of Morlocks.

  • Meaghan

    Thank you Peter, this was great. First hand accounts are more telling than any main stream nonsense I could find online or TV.


  • Alai

    Great article Peter! I think you are the same Peter Cornett that wrote last semester. Where is your column? I was hoping to read your politics articles this semester.

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