The World Expo
What Are Shanghai's Ambitions?
Held in a developing country for the first time ever, the 2010 World's Fair is trumpeting the birth of a new Shanghai that will change China and the world.
What Are Shanghai's Ambitions?By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 443 )
As Shanghai-based Baitong Contracting Limited chairman Tan Guihua leads nearly 100 workers in rushing to complete the Taiwan Pavilion on the 2010 Shanghai World Expo grounds in the city's Pudong district, he has a big smile on his face, even though the exhibition's opening is less than 50 days away.
Building the sky lantern-shaped hall, designed by Taipei 101 architect C.Y. Lee, has been a challenge, especially cutting and fitting together the individual components of its transparent skin, a frameless glass curtain wall. Hundreds of irregularly shaped pieces of glass must be joined together seamlessly, and workers also have to contend with a steel frame weighing hundreds of tons and technically difficult pile driving.
All of these innovations are new to Shanghai's construction industry, and the Shanghai Institute of Architectural Design & Research took the opportunity to test the new techniques.
Da Cin Construction Co. chairman J. J. Wang, who won the tender to build the Taiwan Pavilion before subcontracting it to Baitong Contracting, describes the World Expo as having a "snowball effect."
"When all countries have moved into the World Expo with their futuristic urban building designs, it will spark change in the mainland's architectural thinking," Wang says.
The Biggest World Expo Ever
The Shanghai World Expo is the first to be held in a developing country and the biggest ever, with 242 countries and international organizations participating.
Unlike recent expos that concentrated on promoting foreign trade, the Shanghai Expo has garnered the attention of the highest levels of the political hierarchy. Led by the Chinese Communist Party's Political Bureau, the Shanghai Expo will be jointly run by the party and the city.
The Shanghai Expo's strategy in managing the exhibition halls contrasts markedly with the approach used at the previous World's Fair in Aichi, Japan. Japan opted to build the pavilions and then rent them out to each country, but China decided to invite each country to build its own showpiece, to attract a kaleidoscope of technologies and designs from around the world.
Most of the countries – from the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and even China itself – opened international tenders for their pavilions, resulting in a constant flow of architectural teams streaming in and out of China over the past year, engaged in a global architectural contest.
Taiwanese vendors, including restaurant chain Chamate and the coffee chain 85°C Bakery Café, bid for a piece of the six-month exposition's food and beverage business and won the right to operate 20 percent of the on-site concession stands.
The changes to Shanghai have not only come on the two banks of the Huangpu River occupied by the show grounds. Their shine has extended to the entire city.
International Elite Stopping in Shanghai
Because of Shanghai's strategic location at the mouth of the Yangtze River, one of every five containers linking China with the rest of the world is loaded or unloaded in Shanghai. Of all the foreign investment in China, one out of every eight yuan is pumped into the city.
Today's Shanghai ranks as one of the most economically active metropolitan areas in the world, and gravitating toward it seems to be the choice of global companies and professionals alike.
In the past year, 280,000 flights have landed at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport, bringing more than 30 million professionals and tourists from Europe, the United States, Africa and the Middle East. A visitor passes through immigration once every 45 seconds, and after they enter immigration, travelers can rate their level of satisfaction with the service. Of the travelers flying from Taiwan to China, 30 percent are destined for Shanghai, which has become the city with the biggest Taiwanese population in the world outside of Taiwan itself.
Using Shanghai to Move the World
Shanghai's overpowering magnetism has ignited a frenzy of urban design, urban planning, new technology applications, cultural activities and consumerism on a grand scale.
Average per capita income of city residents has surpassed US$10,000, and the cost and quality of living are now both in step with that of international cities.
In one corner of the city, crowds pack a McDonald's for a 21-yuan breakfast even though a store in a nearby alley is selling sizzling sesame seed pancakes and deep-fried dough sticks for a mere 2 yuan. In the new Shanghai Nanjing outlet of the upscale Taiwan-based restaurant Din Tai Fung, opened to usher in the World Expo, empty seats are impossible to find. Tables of five enjoy dumplings filled with truffles, and their bill for the feast comes to one to three times the monthly wages of an average laborer.
Shanghai has expended plenty of effort painting over traces of the previous generation, and even if there still remain many cracks and contradictions internally, one still can imagine the city declaring: "Give me a fulcrum, and I can move the world."
The Shanghai Expo provides that fulcrum. In 2010, year one of the new Shanghai, the city is full of ambition to leverage the exposition into recapturing its glory of the 1930s.
The story Shanghai hopes to tell in 2010 is that China has reached a new milestone – a proclamation that China will soon have its first modern, civilized, cosmopolitan city.
Modernization in a Single Leap
In contrast with previous World's Fairs, which located their grounds on the peripheries of metropolitan areas, Shanghai decided to situate its showcase in the heart of the city as part of a planned renovation of the historical district, home to 20 million people.
The strategy coincided with that of the country as a whole.
To bridge the great divide between the city and the countryside, China has aggressively opened the doors of small- and mid-sized cities to more residents, allowing in additional farm workers at a rate of 1 percent a year. The policy is helping reduce the urban-rural and rich-poor divides, and giving the new arrivals a taste of the conveniences of urban living.
Transportation is an important element in a city's modernization and expansion. In the past year, Shanghai's subway system has expanded from two lines to eleven and now covers 420 kilometers, ranking it as one of the most extensive in the world. A Taiwanese businessman in China says of the transportation explosion, "There's a new road every day. GPS devices have to be updated once a month."
In an interview with CommonWealth Magazine, Shen Xiao Su, the vice chairman of the Shanghai Municipal Urban-Rural Development & Communications Commission and the person responsible for this massive undertaking, said that in the past the city's core was defined as 600 square kilometers. But Shanghai will soon launch its 12th five-year plan that will expand the city to 6,000 sq. km., extending it to the Xinpu and Jiading districts straddling the border with Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.
Aside from declaring that China will soon have its first modern city, the Shanghai Expo will have an even more important purpose: showing the world the achievements of China's "Reform and Opening-up" policy thirty years after it was first established.
In the middle of last year, China's State Council issued a document that revealed its ambitions for the city in the future. The so-called Circular No. 19 contained tax measures to develop Shanghai into an international financial and navigation center. It also stressed promoting advanced manufacturing and service enterprises.
Yangtze River Delta: Asia's Battlefield
Land in Shanghai once zoned for industrial use is gradually being converted into commercial property. Many enterprises in the manufacturing sector are being hollowed out and transformed into holding companies, replaced by makers of aircraft carriers, large aircraft manufacturers, and other advanced sectors aggressively promoted by the city. Mainstream industrial parks are now concentrated in Kunshan, Hangzhou and other cities in Shanghai's backyard.
Shanghai's unbridled ambition, combined with the relative rise of China's economy following the global financial crisis, has had an impact on international companies' strategies in the West Pacific.
This February, Morgan Stanley announced that it would establish its China headquarters in Pudong, and Porsche said it would locate its country headquarters in Pudong's Lujiazui financial district. In 2003, General Electric set up a global research & development center in Shanghai, its third in the world after facilities in New York and India, and it has also moved its lighting headquarters to Shanghai from Hong Kong and its Asia-Pacific plastics headquarters to Shanghai from Japan.
Shanghai's "headquarters economy" is already posing a threat to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore.
Taiwanese businesses in China, whether in the manufacturing or service sector, are also entering the fray in the Yangtze River Delta. The Hon Hai Group will soon establish its China headquarters in Shanghai, and the financial sector also appears to be gravitating toward the city. Chinatrust Commercial Bank and Taiwan Cooperative Bank plan to move their representative offices south from Beijing to Shanghai and Suzhou, respectively, while Chang Hwa Bank, Land Bank of Taiwan, First Commercial Bank and four others are all looking to move into Shanghai.
The next strategic move will be to use Shanghai as the command center to push competition between coastal cities in the Yangtze River Delta and the other cities of East Asia.
According to the latest figures, Shanghai's GDP will reach 1.5 trillion yuan in 2010, exceeding Hong Kong's. Dr. Qiyu Tu, a professor with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences' Center for Urban and Regional Studies, estimates that if Shanghai is combined with Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, then it would be the biggest metropolitan area economically in the Asia-Pacific region, surpassing the greater Tokyo area.
The city is acting like a melted glacier, pushing up the competitive level of the Pacific Ocean's western bank.
Just as with many other sectors, the city's cultural and creative industries are thriving in this environment.
Entering the Red Town on West Huaihai Rd., one quickly realizes it is a new showcase for the city's cultural and creative industries.
The Red Town is the brainchild of Zheng PeiGuang, the chairman and CEO of Shanghai Redtown Culture Development Co. Zheng, a classmate and roommate of renowned explosives artist Cai Guo-qiang during his days at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, rented a century-old steel factory in the city and converted it into the Red Town's main showcase, the Shanghai Sculpture Space.
Of the 5,000 people working in the Red Town, 90 percent come from abroad. The arts facility, which generates 1 billion yuan in revenues a year, is home to a number of design and advertising companies, including ad agency Leo Burnett.
Zheng observes that Shanghai has long been a major base for big companies like Toshiba and Sony, but since the beginning of last year, young Japanese and middle-aged professionals, who had never appeared before, are now arriving in Shanghai in droves. Japan's stagnant economy has driven many of them to the city to look for opportunities. One of the Red Town's tenants, Shanghai Hakuhodo Advertising Co., caters primarily to Japanese clients.
Of the 150,000 foreign nationals (not including Taiwanese) said to be living in Shanghai, the 30,000 to 40,000 Japanese form the largest national contingent. But the 300,000-strong Taiwanese army may well be the foreign force making the biggest contribution to the city.
Aside from its dazzling façade, Shanghai's great leap forward is also occurring at an internal dimension, as its people rapidly acquire international and modern knowledge systems, learning them, internalizing them, and surpassing them.
Crayon Yao, head of Taiwan-based multimedia company YAOX Edutainment Co., is serving as the creative director for both China and Taiwan's World Expo pavilions, and his experience with the Expo 2010 organizers has left a deep impression. Though many people may feel China's project execution is lacking, Yao believes otherwise.
"Mainland China has been very exacting when it comes to the drawings for the site construction, the layout and pipes and wiring. Even if the drawing is given to another contractor, the work can still get done. Taiwan, on the other hand, is not as strict and demanding," Yao says.
Many believe Shanghai is sure to regain its international status. "Shanghai is China's biggest wharf," says Chinese real estate mogul Dai Zhikang. "Everybody ends up here. Shanghai draws the most ambitious people in search of opportunities."
Light and shadows, however, usually move together.
Shanghai's Dark Side
For all the bright reviews, Shanghai still has its seamy side. Residents habitually spit on the streets and cut in line, shops have been forced to sell World Expo mascot figures, and households are under heavy pressure to make sacrifices for the exposition for the good of the country. Much of the glitz and sparkle is the result of the exploitation of power rather than the goodwill of local residents.
Edgy contemporary author Han Han, whose blog has amassed 300 million hits, lives on the outskirts of Shanghai and has felt the pressure.
The 27-year-old is dissatisfied that Shanghai has the country's most developed economy but the weakest media. He is even more dismayed that Shanghai has evolved into the playground of high rollers, leaving the city as a high-pressure hell with skyrocketing housing prices.
Nonetheless, Zheng of Shanghai Redtown believes that while the city's growth has relied in the past on land development and construction, it is now turning toward the service and consumption sectors. What's needed, Zheng says, is a breakthrough in the government's mindset and an effort to attract creative talent.
"In art shows organized in Shanghai over the past 13 years, transactions have been limited because of our foreign currency policy. A collector in New York wants to deal in U.S. dollars, but regulations say we have to use Chinese yuan," Zheng says.
If the government does not embrace a freer attitude and bring its currency policy and regulations in line with international conventions, Zheng warns, Shanghai's businesses will not be able to develop in a healthy and sustainable fashion.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier