Sunday, May 18, 2014

In Praise of Shanghai

I’ve just spent four days in Shanghai, my first visit ever to mainland China, and I like the place. There is street food everywhere, people are friendly, the architects who built the skyscrapers were crazy enough to put a model of half a planet on top of one and of a space station on another.

The evening before I left I went for a walk in the park near my hotel. There was music playing, I suspect from a boom box, and couples, many of them middle aged, dancing to it, not very well. In the same park the next morning there were people doing tai chi exercises, others doing slow motion dance moves, in groups, to music. The feel of the place is almost the precise opposite of a communist stereotype—it feels as though everyone is energetically doing what he wants and half the population are small scale entrepreneurs. The typical "department store" is a large building occupied by (I'm guessing) a couple of hundred tiny stores, with what they sell sorted to some degree by floors of the building.

One interesting question is whether China, at this point, is more or less capitalist than the U.S. So far as Shanghai is concerned, my guess is less in theory but more in practice. I was told that there are regulations on who can cut hair or sell food out of a cart on the street but they are not enforced very energetically and can be dealt with if necessary by a modest bribe to the policeman who is supposed to enforce them.

I am only posting this today, after arriving in Hong Kong, because in Shanghai (and later Xiamen) I was blocked from either reading or writing to my blog (or Facebook, or G+, which left more time free for exploring China), presumably by the Great Firewall. Here too, the restriction is more in theory than in practice. I gathered that most of the Chinese I spoke with had unrestricted access to the internet via a VPN that manages to evade the firewall.

Which provides a subject for my next post.


Tibor said...
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Tibor said...

When I was still studying in Prague, I lived with a Chinese roommate for a while. She basically told me similar things. I found those hard to believe at the time and she was also a daughter of a former Chinese ambassador in the Czech republic, which made me suspect that she only sees the good things about China, as her family has connections in the Communist party and therefore no problems with the state. That may as well be true.

I think you are right in your (albeit brief) observations of the small scale entrepreneurship, since it is also something I heard from people who spend several months in China working there (in Shenzen though, not Shanghai). But the story might as well be very different for anything bigger than a grocery shop. I remember one statistic that I read cited on CATO a while back. It said that while most university educated young people in the US mostly do not trust the government, the same people in China do. The author of the article which cited this suggested that it was because big business in China depends a lot on political connections (which is partly true in the US as well I guess, but probably much less so) and therefore all those successful young people there are successful at least partially because of their loyalty to the Party. If that is an accurate depiction of how big(ger) business works in China, then it is in this sense definitely less capitalist than the US (although the term used for such a system is actually crony "capitalism"...but it might as well be called crony socialism). Unfortunately, I cannot find the CATO article now. It is also possible that the statistic was only about young people with above average income or something like that which concentrates on the "successful".