*Construction City: Shanghai and the Race to be ‘World Class’

The Race for World Class:  Shanghai, 2009.  Photo:  Vinay Lal

The Race for World Class: Shanghai, 2009. Photo: Vinay Lal

Construction Cranes and Highrises, Shanghai.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

Construction Cranes and Highrises, Shanghai. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.

Shanghai and Beijing, it has been said, together account for 75 per cent of the world’s construction cranes. Shanghai alone, I have read somewhere, has something like 50 per cent of the world’s cranes. Perhaps the figures are exaggerated, even grossly so – but if they were, and Shanghai accounted for even a quarter of the world’s cranes, it would still be a remarkable factoid. Some will say that in the frenzy of getting Shanghai ready for Expo 2010, the Chinese authorities have swung into relentless action and many of the cranes will disappear after the Expo is over. First there were the Beijing Olympics, now there is anticipation of the Shanghai Expo. What will feed the adrenalin rush after this? What new achievement of the modern Chinese state remains to be promised to the Chinese people and to the world outside?

Beijing and Shanghai began to refurbish themselves long before their successful bids. China has been enthused with the idea of being ‘world class’ since at least the mid-1980s, and Shanghai is an attempt to showcase a ‘world class’ city without any equal. ‘World class’ is one of those terms has entered into the lexicon without our even being aware of it, and the race to be world class is now in full swing. I have seen all of India wrapped up in the same race. Indian cities are now awash with world class malls, even as the basic infrastructure that makes a city everywhere lies in complete shambles. The government has announced plans to launch world class universities, even as primary education lies in ruins and village schools have been allowed to go to seed. Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai can now proudly claim dozens of world class hospitals – by my own count this last summer, Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi, had at least twenty hospitals, at least a handful of them world class – which have transformed India into a mecca of medical tourism, even if the vast majority of India’s own population is without access to basic medical care. In this scheme of things, countries such as India and China do not find it amiss that they are attentive to the rest of the world much before they allowing themselves to worry about the well being of their own people.

The modern world has given birth to many mantras, among them progress, growth, and development. World class is the newest entry in this grammar of despotism. In the name of development, common people could be sent to their graves: if a country had to make progress, and be admitted into the community of civilized nations, it was deemed necessary that some people be called to make the ultimate sacrifice. In its attempt to become world class, Shanghai has razed much of its past: to be sure, parts of the old city remain and, most likely, will not to be obliterated. No modern city can do without some relics of the past: not only do they draw in the tourists and allow the city to make claims to its heritage, they are a pressing reminder to the citizens of everything that has been left behind and the blessings of modern living. In Shanghai, even the word ‘excess’ seems to too tame to convey the enormity of what has been wrought since China adopted a course of economic reforms.

More than anything else, Shanghai can perhaps be termed construction city. The city is, it seems, home to more skyscrapers than any other place in the world, and good parts of the city might well be mistaken for a metropolis in the modern West. One of the city’s tourist brochures proudly declares that the main drag that runs through the French Concession, the Middle Huaihai Road, is comparable to New York’s Fifth Avenue, London’s Kensington High Street, and Paris’s Champs-Elysees. And yet the feeling of drastic incompletion persists, and not merely because the cranes are to be found everywhere. Is anything at all meant to endure? Is modern Shanghai built on the very idea of obsolescence, and if so, will it furnish the notion of world class with a new set of meanings?


6 thoughts on “*Construction City: Shanghai and the Race to be ‘World Class’

  1. Perhaps this desire to be world class is, to put it bluntly, is a desire not to be part of the furniture of colonization anymore–a phrase coined by N.V.M. Gonzalez, a national writer of the Philippines. Instead, to leapfrog into modernity, into what passes for progress–skyscrapers, medical facilities which draw foreign clients, etc.–is a brave act of forgetting, and of creating a future not linked to the past at all. It’s a trade-off, to be sure, but countries like China and India never want to be the whipping boys of imperialism again. As skyscrapers thrust themselves into the dirty skies, they are like the proverbial dragons or phoenixes breaking asunder the heavens themselves. These dreams and expenditures of capital, architecture, and human muscle along with cranes might seem short-sighted, ill-thought out schemes to some foreign observers. Nonetheless, I think for China this newly constructed cityscape symbolizes a future created by their own hands–and they are even willing to pay the price, ecologically, environmentally, since the entire earth may soon be covered by Chinese solar panels, refracting hot rays into the humid sky.
    Yes, the Chinese may be sweating it on thin steel girders, but by that time the rest of us would already be soaked to the skin.


    • While I can understand fully the aspirations of countries such as India and (to a lesser extent) China
      to leave behind the wretched experience of imperialism, I am not at all certain that this constitutes
      a form of forgetfuness. The modern nation-state is too heavily invested in the idea of history,
      and this is just as true of India as it is of China. Some forms of mindful awareness are, in my view,
      quite necessary, indeed I should say desirable. There is also the consideration that what is
      being created here seems to be at some remove from what you call a ‘brave act of forgetting’.
      There seems to be too much of an unreflective mimicry, not a mimicry that could be considered ironical,
      daring, or questioning in any substantive sense. In China, especially, I get the sense that the need
      to demonstrate that China can do better than the West at its own game is one that most Chinese
      find difficult to repudiate. Nonetheless, I do share some of your sentiments about this matter.


  2. “Countries such as India and China do not find it amiss that they are attentive to the rest ofthe world much before they allowing themselves to worry about the well being of their own people. ”
    – Please stop talking about China and India as if these two countries belong in the same category or the same league. I have been working in Dalian, China for almost two years, and during my stay so far, I have traveled China up and down, east and west. Let me tell you, China is not at all like India. Please come visit before making such baseless comments.
    You talk as if China is afflicted with the same vanity driven national policies of India. Let me assure you, China is not. While we Indians want to boast of having some world-class universities while neglecting basic education, the Chinese have already achieved 92% literacy. Every Chinese child gets a free 11-year education. While we Indians like to boast of having some world-class malls, the Chinese have already implemented cities with superb roads, metros, drains, and other crucial infrastructure. Needless to say, Shanghai does not become flooded like Mumbai when a little bit of rain falls.
    China has already done the basics before aiming to shatter the standards of world class. The Chinese have already built a strong foundation before reaching for the sky. Just look at our commonwealth games fiasco and ask yourself, “would the Chinese in a million years so incompetently handle an event like we do?” Before China hosted the Olympics, it was already a sporting super power. It was second place at the Athens Olympics in terms of medals.
    I ask you, do you even know our literacy rate, hunger rate, and child malnutrition rate as compared with China? Our literacy rate is only around 50%. Our shameless politicians claim we have achieved 62% literacy rate, but they qualify literacy as having the ability to write one’s own name! Do you know that 47% of our children suffer from malnutrition as compared to less than 7% in China? Do you know that 55% of our people live in poverty as against only 12% in China?
    “Is anything at all meant to endure? Is modern Shanghai built on the very idea of obsolescence, and if so, will it furnish the notion of world class with a new set of meanings?”
    And you have the audacity to question if all the construction in Shanghai will last? Will the shoddy venues for CWG last through the games before collapsing? I pray for the safety of the athletes and spectators. Why should we care about the philosophical concepts such as world class when one in five of our fellow countrymen go hungry everyday? Getting into a debate over the evolutionary course of “world class” is a luxury only the rich Westerners can afford. We Indians should focus on the here and now: feed, cloth, and educate our poor. Stop deluding ourselves as if we belong to the rich people’s table, of which China is now a member. If you are not comfortable with visions of modernity an future you saw in Shanghai, then please do your part to make sure that India remains a third-world, hunger-infested, disease-ridden, unjust, and backward society.
    So please, stop talking about India and China. You are fooling our fellow Indians. You are embarrassing us in the eyes of the world.


    • The writer of this note assumes he knows things that I don’t, that he has some specialized knowledge, which is in fact part
      of the common domain, to which I don’t have access. Thus he rehearses the dismal data about India, all of which is true. And, if he has
      been reading my blog, he would also know that I am a relentless critic of India’s claims to world-class this and that. However, none
      of that can obscure the fact that China can in no respect be considered as a model country with respect to the treatment of its own
      people. We might debate whether most countries treat their own people justly, but the brutalization of the peasantry has been going
      on in China for a long time. The evisceration of the countryside, the suppression of Tibet, the idea that China can build bigger, better
      and faster than the West — all these are also signs of a massive failure of the imagination. The piece I wrote makes no attempt
      to show India in a good light; it is rather about the fact that our template, whether in India, China, or anywhere else in the world,
      for what is called ‘progress’ and ‘development’ comes, unthinkingly, from the West. If he has not understood this point, then we will simply be talking
      past each other. He asks if I have the audacity to ask if the construction in Shanghai will last, and that shows very clearly only
      that he has not understood an iota of what I am talking about. Of course, I did not mean that literally, and I don’t doubt that
      the stadia and other buildings in China built in connection with the Olympics are much better than what is being attempted in
      India with the fiasco of the Commonwealth Games. The question is whether China will implode and how we are to understand the frenzy of development.
      Our writer Mr Dev should therefore also look at some of the critics of China within China itself, people such as Ai Weiwei.


  3. My partner and I absolutely love your blog and find
    most of your post’s to be precisely what I’m looking for. can you offer guest writers to write content in your case?
    I wouldn’t mind creating a post or elaborating
    on many of the subjects you write with regards to here. Again, awesome blog!


    • I very much appreciate your interest in my blog but I’m afraid that I can’t have guest writers.
      This blog is not a community or public platform but you are most welcome to post comments and
      engage in a discussion with me and others.


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