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Shanghai Surprise

Shanghai, from which I have just returned after a first visit to China, has a specially built modern museum to house exhibits on the planning for the future Shanghai, and it includes an enormous model of Shanghai today. It is of a scale and detail that matches the huge model of New York City built for the 1964 World's Fair and now housed in the Queens Museum—which is itself located in a fragment of the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. But the contrasts are striking and reveal much that distinguishes China's largest city from our own largest city. The New York model, which has been updated and does well enough to limn the city of today, is marked by the icons of New York's past: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler, the Woolworth. The Shanghai model appears to consist, astonishingly, almost entirely of buildings that have been erected in the last ten or 20 years. There is a new Shanghai of skyscrapers and tall residential complexes in Pudong across the Huangpu, the river that once bordered Shanghai on the east, and an endless array of skyscrapers and high residential towers seems to have wiped out most of old Shanghai west of the Huangpu. Shanghai's Bund, the symbol of old Shanghai, is scarcely to be distinguished on the model, humbled as it is by the much larger buildings that now surround it.

Shanghai is truly a new city, built at a speed that would be impossible in the United States. "The old country," The Economist once dubbed the United States, referring to its crumbling and ancient infrastructure; the "old city," I named New York, for the same reason. The new Pudong Airport, many miles from the built-up area of Shanghai, is connected by the eight-minute maglev train to the center. The John F. Kennedy Airport has the AirTrain, which gets you only as far as Jamaica, far from the city center. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once advocated the idea of a maglev train in New York City, which still has no direct public transportation to its airports. Nothing came of it. One wonders, years after he got the money to transform the grand United States Post Office into a new Pennsylvania Station to replace the one destroyed in a monstrous act of vandalism in the 1960s, whether anything will ever come of that. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is struggling to raise the money needed for a new Hudson tunnel, which it hopes to have by 2016. In contrast, in Shanghai, new bridges and new tunnels over and under the Huangpu connect the Pudong area to the older Shanghai, and they were built in just a few years.

Shanghai gleams. The main streets are lined with upscale shop fronts and with astonishing moving advertising displays, using what seems to be the most advanced technology. They dwarf in size and sophistication anything to be seen in U.S. cities. Blue-uniformed men and women are at work early in the morning picking up every scrap from the main streets, and uniformed traffic assistants monitor major crossings, one on each of the four corners, keeping the disciplined citizens from stepping off the curb into the street before the lights change and monitoring public order. One of the female traffic assistants, in an authoritative but friendly manner, showed my wife how she should hold her handbag, in front, not on the side, and how I should walk side-by-side with her (so as to foil possible purse-snatchers, I assumed—not that one expects any in Shanghai). When we took a picture of her, in delight she took our arms, walked us down the street—we did not yet know for what purpose--and took us into a lane between the fronts of the upscale stores, which opened, to our surprise, onto a row of modest apartment buildings, in one of which she lived. She showed us her small two-room apartment and wanted to offer us tea! In the absence of a common language, one wonders about many things, such as: Do all traffic assistants in upscale areas live so close to their corner, can they simply take time off to offer someone tea, and have we interpreted the whole incident properly?

One asks oneself, too, how Shanghai connects with the rest of China, which, despite its accelerating growth rates for 20 years, we know is still a poor country. But Shanghai certainly does not look like a major city in a poor country, nor does Beijing or Hangzhou (the only other cities we visited), nor does the monumental system of freeways we saw driving from Shanghai to Hangzhou suggest a poor country.

One knows that China is a communist country, ruled by one party, that dissidents are put in jail; but none of this is evident visually. In Beijing, being driven in from the airport and being driven around the city to attend sessions of the Beijing Forum (a big international conference run by the city), I tried in vain to see evidence of the Communist influence. Red flags? We saw some. But they seem to mark banks and other commercial establishments. Red stars? We saw one or two on buildings. Pictures of government leaders, heroes? None. Slogans? When we asked for translations, it seemed they had no political content at all. They were bellowing the opening of a new mall, or something of the sort.

Where are the government buildings, I asked, where are the monuments? In Washington, with its grand public buildings and monuments, one cannot be unaware one is in the capital of a great world power. In Beijing, there is only evident the Forbidden City, which once served as the seat of government. The emperors and their attendants lived in those uncomfortable-looking grand pavilions, but there are no government offices there now—only masses of tourists, mostly Chinese. (The one portrait of Mao we saw was mounted on one of its huge walls.) Beijing is marked by its skyscraper hotels, banks, and office buildings, its multi-lane freeways and roads. But the government is not in visual evidence, whether through buildings or monuments or police or military facilities. When we asked the students who accompanied us where the major government buildings were, they were vague. When we asked about the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square student revolt, they were vague too, either ignorant or unaware of this past or unwilling to talk about it. We could not figure out which.

Instead of a political, historical capital, then, one sees—in the stores, the hotels, the concentrations of restaurants, the colored moving displays, the masses of cranes adding ever more of all this—a great consumer capital, matching and surpassing the great cities of the wealthy West. This is the way one version of communism has ended up, for the time being. How it connects with the other aspects of communism with which we are well acquainted is a mystery.

Nathan Glazer's most recent book is From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Impact on the American City. He is professor of sociology emeritus at Harvard University. This article appeared in the January 30, 2008 issue of the magazine.