Shanghai Becomes a Symbol of Change

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton's itinerary hadn't been published in any Chinese newspaper. But five days before his arrival, consultant Philip Qiu knew exactly what the American leader plans to do here.

Qiu saw the news on a Chinese-language Web site, and he wasn't the only one: The page registered almost 800,000 hits in two days.

"This is the way in Shanghai," he says. "There is still an impulse to control what people know and do, but there are more and more ways around it. I think our leaders know that we have to open to the outside world if we want a place on the world stage. They are just afraid of getting there before they're ready."

And so, between the lines and on the margins, this metropolis of 15 million people is awkwardly forging the way. The theme of Clinton's visit to Shanghai, which begins today, is to showcase the city of China's future--its entrepreneurs and free-market reforms, its skyscrapers and new homeowners--while glossing over the darker truths of China's present. It is a stop designed to show Americans that the Chinese have swapped their Mao suits for the Nike swoosh, and that they are becoming more like us.

But Shanghai is also a city in mid-leap, caught between time-honored tradition and transition to a more open and international society. This is a place where, while freewheeling experiments occur on China's economic and social frontier, officials may close one eye, endorsing those that succeed and stamping out the more unruly attempts. At the same time, it is the most closely observed place in China, because as goes Shanghai, so may go China.

During his three days here, Clinton will visit Pudong, the city's new business district and a perfect example of Shanghai's uncertain lunging between the free market and the government's hand.

*

From atop the space-age Pearl Oriental TV tower, a quarter of a mile high, Shanghai looks like the city of China's future. The Manhattanesque skyline of the new financial center includes Asia's largest stock exchange, the headquarters of myriad multinational corporations and a slot reserved for the world's tallest building.

In a burst of if-we-build-it-they-will-come idealism in 1991, Shanghai's leaders earmarked $15 billion to create an instant metropolis from the remote farm plots of Pudong. And someday, this may become a global financial hub.

But so far, it's a gleaming ghost town.

With more than half the buildings still empty, the government forbade foreign banks from dealing in local currency unless they moved their headquarters there. Even so, landlords are still so desperate for tenants that when one U.S. banker went hunting for a three-year lease for his company's office, the landlord offered him a "rent holiday." How long? Three years, was the reply--just let us use your name to attract other tenants.

Another stop on Clinton's schedule is the Shanghai Museum, a $100-million repository of China's art treasures, exquisitely displayed. Museum director Ma Chengyuan had to fight to preserve the site, on the edge of the expansive People's Square, from eager developers.

Across the square, builders are putting the finishing touches on the $150-million Shanghai Grand Theater, an elegant glass-walled opera house designed, ironically, for Western arias, not Peking Opera.

Despite such ambitions to be a world-class cultural center, even the arts are not immune to the seesaw struggle here between old and new, innovation and ideology.

Days before the president's scheduled arrival, Shanghai's cultural czars blocked the very type of exchange that both Chinese and U.S. officials had lauded as an example of improved relations. One of Shanghai's traditional opera troupes had been invited to perform the classic Chinese love story "The Peony Pavilion" at New York's Lincoln Center beginning July 7.

The production had been in preparation for two years, and six tons of ornate sets had been crated and readied for shipment at Shanghai's airport. But at the last minute, the Shanghai Bureau of Culture's expert on traditional opera, Ma Bomin, deemed the troupe's interpretation "feudal," "pornographic" and "ignorant."

After days of negotiations, Ma declared that the sets could go on to New York. But she ordered that the troupe be sent outside Shanghai to rehearse revisions until the culture bureau deemed the new version acceptable. As a result, the planned New York presentation was canceled.

"This is not about art anymore," said the opera's director, Chen Shi-Zheng, a resident of the U.S. since 1987 and now an American citizen. "Suddenly, it's about ideology. That hasn't happened since the Cultural Revolution."

Indeed, it is in the cultural arena that Shanghai's identity crisis is most vividly expressed. Despite periodic clampdowns, the culture bureau can't quite squelch the experimentation erupting in the city's nightclubs, galleries and back lanes.

*

While harking back to Shanghai's heyday--when there was a thin line between art, entertainment and vice--the search here for an updated aesthetic often has bizarre results.

Consider the stage show at the ritzy Golden Age nightclub: It offers scenes from "Swan Lake," Russian showgirls in plumed headdresses doing Las Vegas high kicks and, finally, karaoke with hostesses in wedding gowns. At Malone's, an American sports bar, a pierced-tongued transvestite torch singer croons Gershwin tunes two nights a week.

Shanghai's artists too are establishing their own style, moving away from pop variations on Mao iconography to a less political, more personal kind of art.

"In the past, when there was more government control, it was almost easier to paint--artists had something to push against," said Shanghai artist Pu Jie, who followed a series of works commemorating the return of Hong Kong to China with an exhibition of wildly detailed, Day-Glo-colored Shanghai street scenes. "Now, there is more and more freedom, and we have to find our inspiration inside."

Many in Shanghai insist that the city's true talent is the art of commerce. After the late "paramount leader" Deng Xiaoping launched China's economic reforms two decades ago, the city was intentionally held back by Beijing leaders wary of its commercial instincts.

But after finally winning special economic concessions, Shanghai has received every break from a regime now dominated by Shanghai government alumni who are eager to attract international investment and trade.

Shanghai is the home of China's first stock exchange, which boasts the biggest hall in the world, with 1,626 seats, despite a relatively small capitalization. This bourse isn't exactly free, and, three years ago, the futures market was closed and all trades unwound after a bout of obvious price manipulation.

*

But stocks now have captured the imagination of pensioners, professional brokers and secretaries alike, who have few other options for investment. The index of 400-plus companies tends to float up and up, in defiance of economic indicators.

"If you list new shares, you can undoubtedly earn money," said a stock exchange employee who helps check companies for new listings. "We just decide which people will be lucky."

Shanghai also is the home of potential solutions to the country's biggest problems as China tries to shift from a state-run economy to something more open. It is here that new banks and credit unions are making loans based on commercial factors rather than connections, breaking the custom that has burdened state-run banks with bad debt ratios that are among the highest in Asia.

It is Shanghai where private insurance companies are emerging to fill the needs of workers cut loose from the cradle-to-grave welfare benefits once supplied by the state.

By retraining workers with specific skills for designated factories, the city's main employment center has been able to place 90% of its workers in new jobs, claims deputy director Lin Hui Guo.

And for the millions of migrant workers who left their benefits behind when they fled their home provinces to seek better jobs in Shanghai, the city has created programs to provide them with health care and education.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°