A world without glamorous Shanghai is the poorer for it

The Shanghainese have proved throughout their history that even the most solid prisons are ones they don’t care to tarry in long. Let’s hope they can escape very soon.
shanghai
Traditional chinese tile roofs contrast the modern skyline of Shanghai. Credit: Richard Ellis / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Shanghai with deserted streets, its 25 million inhabitants ordered to stay indoors, with empty shops, parks and roads is a novel, and unsettling, phenomenon. But this is what the seemingly interminable lockdown imposed in March and designed to achieve the central government’s dream of Zero Covid has achieved. One of the most dynamic, glamorous, vibrant cities in the world has been placed in deep freeze. 

That this is even possible in the first place is a startling departure from the city’s long history of openness. Shanghai, which began life as a small fishing settlement in the pre-modern period, became, because of its favourable geographical location when trade with the outside world expanded, the great interface where, in the words of one businessman I interviewed in the city a few years back, the West came to meet the East. To this day, the wonderful Bund series of buildings beside the Huangpu River testify to the age immediately after the Opium Wars in the middle of the nineteenth century when British, French, Germans, and then Americans and others came to settle. They had finally won by force what they had been seeking by guile and diplomacy for two centuries before this — a permanent basis for their business operations, within the international concessions. 

The outline of these influences is still possible to trace in the city to this day. Ironically, it was within those buildings that the First Congress of the Communist Party was held in 1921. In the Xintiandi district, redeveloped over the last two decades as a heritage centre with shops, restaurants and bars (all currently closed till the lockdown is lifted) the site of this portentous meeting is preserved as a museum. It was, indeed, where Xi Jinping, current master of the country, and his Politburo colleagues went in 2017 after a major party meeting to renew their oath of allegiance to the political movement they still follow. These days, though, far from representing a tiny marginal part of society, the Communists are 95 million strong in terms of membership, and have what looks like an unshakeable monopoly over political power in the country. 

That the foreign-inspired Communist movement first formally convened over a century ago in Shanghai is not especially surprising. In the Republican era from 1911, after the fall of the Qing period, the city was the key entry point into China for ideas, fashions, and different movements. The place had an honourable role in being host to a Jewish diaspora from the early 1930s fleeing persecution in Europe. The Sassoon family were one of the best known of this group, building business and important buildings that still stand to this day. Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and cultural figures like Noel Coward passed through. So too did a generation of expats, marking the 1930s as an age of giddy stylishness and excess, still just about decipherable in the wonderful foyer and ballroom of the Peace Hotel. 

Shanghai’s magnificence isn’t just about glitz — though there is plenty of that — but it has also emerged in the ways in which it served as a battle front in the Second World War. Its population suffered terribly. That the city, along with the whole country, endured the searing and cruel onslaught of the Imperial Japanese Army and ultimately survived says something for the city’s spirit. Further transformations followed. With the establishment of the People’s Republic under Communist rule in 1949, the capitalists from abroad were evicted, and the city placed under the ever-watchful eye of cadres and party bureaucrats. What had once been the most outward looking, mercantile and commercial of all China’s areas became, in the Cultural Revolution from 1966, home to its most radical left-wing leadership. In the Dongfang guesthouse, Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, and her allies plotted the further politicisation of society. The universities and institutions in the city were convulsed by mass struggle sessions. .

But that period, too, passed, leading to a further transformation — the announcement by the central government in 1991 that the whole of the Pudong area on the south side of the Huangpu River, covered by farms and warehouses, was to be redeveloped into a special economic zone. The government has always been suspicious of Shanghai’s real commitment to socialism because of its capitalist and international past. But under Deng Xiaoping, making money and getting rich had become acceptable again. Over the following decade, one of the world’s greatest modernist skylines grew — with buildings like the Grand Hyatt, the world’s tallest hotel, and then the Shanghai Tower, currently the world’s second tallest skyscraper. It stands amidst equally impressive structures, and in the normal times before the pandemic, to stand on the Bund and look across at this landscape lit up at night is one of the most powerful illustrations that China’s modern rise is real, not something illusory or dreamed up. 

In normal times, Shanghai is one of the most pleasant and interesting urban areas to wander around in the country. It doesn’t have the regimented, wholly reconstructed feeling of Beijing. And unlike Guangzhou it has preserved its history better. We can only hope that as soon as possible, this tremendous place is allowed to return to the almost daily festival of business and social activity that characterised it until recently. A world where Shanghai is under lock and key is a world which is poorer and less humane. And the Shanghainese have proved throughout their history that even the most solid prisons are ones they don’t care to tarry in long. Let’s hope they can escape very soon. 

Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King​'s College London, and Associate Fellow of the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of over 20 books on modern China, the most recent of which is China: A History​ (Polity Press, Cambridge).

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