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Zhu Xueqin:

Shanghai Stymied by the Big Red Cat


Shanghai Stymied by the Big Red Cat


Zhu Xueqin, one of China's leading contemporary historians and a liberal intellectual, is not convinced that the Shanghai Expo will launch a new era of openness in the city.



Shanghai Stymied by the Big Red Cat

By Sherry Lee, Shu-ren Koo
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 443 )

A Shanghai native, Zhu Xueqin does not like to describe himself as an "academic," especially not one isolated in an ivory tower engrossed in the theoretical. He prefers to be seen as somebody engaged in issues. He has his own unique interpretation of contemporary Chinese history that sometimes bucks the mainstream.

In Zhu's simple office at Shanghai University, China's leading liberal scholar says that based on the city's tumultuous economic expansion and its extreme market-oriented development, he does not expect any breakthroughs in political pluralism or democracy anytime soon. Here is how he assesses Shanghai's future.

After the "Reds" established their political power in Beijing in 1949, they were extremely wary of Shanghai. They felt that this was the one city in the whole of China where a capitalist restoration was most likely to take place, because the city's strong bourgeois atmosphere still held considerable sway over society there. So the authorities maintained a stricter control of ideology in Shanghai than anywhere else. That remains true to this day.

Shanghai doesn't have any good newspapers, magazines, television stations or publishers, in stark contrast to the city's previous role as the birthplace of China's publishing industry and its first newspaper.

Since 1949, Shanghai has only had an economic role and has been unable to export culture.

Some scholars believe that as urban development becomes more cosmopolitan and cities become globalized, greater demand for change and greater openness will naturally arise. But this theory has already been challenged in academic circles.

Before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, many Western scholars had similar views, believing that after hosting the Summer Games, Beijing would break loose from its old systematic restraints and undergo a political facelift. They cited similar trends in South Korea and other countries, where fundamental progress was made after they hosted the world's leading sporting event. But I think this was a miscalculation and simply wishful thinking.

If no fundamental change is taking place in a system where political authority is centralized, then it is impossible for a city to change the dynamic between the local and central government simply by hosting a major event.

There will be some short-term change, just as Beijing became more open to foreign reporters during the Olympic Games, which was a pleasant surprise. But not long after, it all went back to the way it was before. They can do things more nicely in Shanghai, because it is fundamentally more internationalized. But as for how long they'll be able to keep it up, I'm not optimistic.

Only Seeing the Mice

Western scholars also argue that when per capita GDP hits a certain level, change will automatically occur. But they're only looking at the mice, and not the cat.

Of course, when per capita GDP is US$300, then all of the country's mice are small and thin. But once it hits US$3,000, the mice start to fatten up. To Westerners, that's when the show will begin, triggering other events. But that theory is founded on similar experiences observed in other countries.

They have ignored the fact, however, that China is a country that not only has mice but also a big fat cat. As per capita GDP grew from US$300 to US$3,000, this fat cat grew much more quickly than the mice. Western scholars and capitalists only see the mice, but in fact the market economy has fed our huge red cat. When faced with this massive red cat, all political and social models lose their validity.

That is the China model – a mix of red authority and a gray market economy that yields crony capitalism.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Zhu Xueqin

Born: 1952

Position: Professor, Shanghai University, Department of History

Education: M.A. in history from Shaanxi Normal University, Ph.D. in history from Fudan University

Experience: Volunteered to perform manual labor in a rural area at the start of the Cultural Revolution and then worked in a factory; received his doctorate in history from Fudan University in 1992; has been a visiting research scholar at Taiwan's Academia Sinica and Harvard University in the United States.