From provincial port to the center of China's economic empire, Shanghai finds opportunities to evolve.
From a distance, Shanghai rises like an ever-expanding city of the future, its towering clusters of sleek, space-age skyscrapers dominating the skyline. Its population is more than twice that of New York City, occupying an area almost six times the size. This is the city that celebrated the opening of its 101-story World Financial Center - the planet's second-tallest building - with the groundbreaking of the $2.2 billion, 121-story Shanghai Tower, designed to surpass it.
Zoom in closer, however, and the real Shanghai comes into focus: the surge of financiers around the old British bank buildings of the Bund, the high-heeled clack of shoppers along Nanjing Road, the hum of cameras among the thousand-year-old stone sculptures of the Old Town and the incense-clouded Jade Buddha temple, the gasp of joy from a child flying a kite along the banks of the Huangpu River. Despite its centuries of history, despite its futuristic appearance, the Paris of the East is still present and immediate.
As the center of finance and trade for mainland China, Shanghai is the engine driving one of the world's most dynamic economies: Both Shanghai's and China's per-capita gross domestic product grew by 85 percent from 1992 to 2006. Shanghai's recent growth is all the more remarkable given its exclusion from government economic reforms until 1991 - a decade later than most of southern China. The explosion in growth that followed allowed the high-rise Pudong District to spring up almost overnight and has increased the size of Shanghai's middle class. The sale of automobile licenses, for example, grew from about 7,000 per year before 2000 to roughly 5,000 a month afterward, leaving the city's streets choked with new cars.
Don't expect to spend your time in Shanghai mired in traffic, however. The city has added eight subway lines in the last seven years and expects to launch four more by 2010. The Shanghai Metro, together with one of the world's most extensive bus systems, a vast fleet of taxis and the world's first commercial magnetic levitation train - which carries passengers the 18.6 miles from Pudong International Airport (PVG) to the Longyang Road subway station in seven minutes and 21 seconds at speeds of up to 268 mph - make getting around the city a breeze, provided you can find your destination within the nest of skyscrapers.
The transportation network will be put to the test with the arrival of Expo 2010. Shanghai is pulling out all the stops for the international exhibition, even moving the 130-year-old Jiangnan Shipyard to create room for the fair by the banks of the Huangpu River. While the global recession may cause attendance to fall far below the 70 million the Chinese government predicted in 2002, the event could still be a golden opportunity for China to showcase its industries.
There may be a whole lot of [international] companies deferring their decision to attend until the last minute, said Tate Miller, former assistant dean for academic programs at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Miller, who recently completed a one-year trade policy assignment in China and previously lectured at Beijing University, added: The Chinese, driven to get their brands out there, will probably look at this as a gift from the gods. There will be a massive effort domestically to show a strong face.
Shanghai has straddled two worlds since the first Western traders arrived at the mouth of the Yangtze during the Qing Dynasty. The city's 18 million residents include about 500,000 foreigners, making it one of China's most cosmopolitan cities. Yet Shanghai's well-educated, upper-middle-class residents maintain a lifestyle - and a language - that sets them apart from the rest of the nation: Even Mandarin speakers find Shanghainese incomprehensible. The city's flying-saucer skyscrapers and taxicabs with tiny television screens can make it seem, in the words of one tour guide, not the real China, but the future of China. At the same time, Shanghai's luxury hotels are just a few blocks from open-air markets where the region's famed fuzzy crabs scuttle in plastic pools and old men shout over games of mah-jongg.