China Part II: Building the Future

September 28, 2010


09/28/2010 - If you’d like to see the future looking at you, take an evening walk down the wide, riverside boulevard known as the Bund in Shanghai.    On your side of the Huangpu River you’ll walk by the past – the beautiful, remarkably well-preserved and still functioning set of skyscrapers that date from the late 19thand early 20thCentury, when the Bund emerged as the leading financial district in Asia.  When the Communists came to power in the 1930s, however, the Bund’s star waned, eclipsed by Hong Kong and Singapore.


Across the river,  in Pudong, a new financial district is emerging, under the leadership of the same, yet very different, Communist Party that has embraced many aspects of capitalism and is determined to have Shanghai reëmerge as the world’s leading financial center for the 21stCentury.   

As my eyes adjusted to the amazing array of neon lights, I was struck by both the height and the ambition of Shanghai, with a skyline featuring dozens of skyscrapers, any one of which might be the tourist attraction in most US cities. 

And Shanghai is far from done.  Just blocks from the World Financial Center, which was among the contenders to be the world’s tallest building when it was completed in 2007, plans are underway  for a new skyscraper that will compete with the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for the title of ‘world’s tallest.’ 


Visit the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum to get a complete picture of the scope of development underway for a city that, at one point, had nearly cornered the market for steel futures for the next decade.


Just a couple of bends down the Huangpu is another equally impressive example of the scale of China’s vision for the future: the Shanghai World Expo. 

I was fortunate to be able to go twice during my stay: once during the day, when I went with a conference delegation that included Chris Tilly and other workplace scholars from around the world.  Unfortunately, we’d picked a day that coincided with a Chinese national holiday, which meant that half a million people from around China joined us.  Picture a car park the size of Disneyland’s, totally full with not with cars, but with tour buses.  The line to enter the Chinese Pavilion was 8 hours long.

The China Pavilion

But I still had a great time watching Chinese families enjoy this spectacle and pursuing the latest craze – filling their World Expo passports with stamps from the more than 100 country pavilions across the sprawling park.  I escaped the crowds by heading to the far less populated City pavilions devoted to the Expo’s theme of sustainable cities.  There you get another glimpse of the future, with exhibits featuring zero-emission buildings and whole villages now underway in China and transport provided by fuel cell cars. If you have the chance to go to Shanghai before the Expo closes this Fall, I suggest going at night, as I did on an unplanned 2ndvisit with a German friend, Michael Nippa, and his graduate students.  The crowds are thin and the Expo is lit up in brilliant neon that pierces through the perpetual smog.  

The Expo at Night

Exhibition Center and Auditorium (not Giant UFO)

At Least One Sector Where US Exports Remain Strong

Taiwan’s Pavilion, just below and much smaller than China’s

Perhaps even more impressive than the Expo itself is the planning and infrastructure that went in to making it possible:  moving Shanghai’s port from the site of the Expo to a huge new offshore terminal capable of handling the world’s largest cargo ships, constructing the world’s most advanced Maglev train line to speed passengers in from the airport, and a dedicated, brand-new, 3-stop subway line.  All infrastructure investments will pay dividends long after most of the Expo has been dismantled.  The success of the Expo and the Beijing Olympics just two years earlier stands in stark contrast to the current Commonwealth Games debacle in Delhi that is a source of national embarrassment to India, and the crumbling US infrastructure in which hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus spending barely made a dent.Of course, like most elements of the Chinese economic miracle, there is also a dark side to this construction boom:  the growing pollution and traffic gridlock that shroud Shanghai in permanent smog, and the very real threat of a property speculation bubble that could rival the collapse of Japan’s in the early 1990s.

But the main conclusion I draw from my brief time in China is that, just as France carved out a niche in the latter half of the 20thCentury as the world leader in industries such as nuclear power, water, high-speed rail, and civil aviation, which required close cooperation and co-investment from the public and private sector,  China is likely to dominate the emerging new sectors that share these success factors in the 21stCentury.  My favorite example of this, announced during our stay, is the development of an ingenious bus-train capable of carrying 1200 to 1400 passengers right over city traffic.