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Shanghai: New...

Battle of Symbols

Shanghai: New Symbol City of the Global Economy

"If God lets Shanghai endure, he owes an apology to
Sodom and Gomorrah"

Shanghai Missionary

The economic summit in Shanghai suggested global economics rather than freedom as the new poster child symbol of the West. In the reborn city of Shanghai, the global economy perhaps found embodiment in a glittering new symbol.

It wasn’t really a new symbol, though. Rather it was one that had "been around the block" so to speak. The Treaty of Nanking ended the First Opium War between Britain and China in 1842 and granted trading concessions in Shanghai to the European powers. The international currents shaping the city over the next hundred years were a mixture of British merchants, Chinese warlords, Russian emigrés, Sephardic Jews and German spies. They exploited its extraterritorial status to make Shanghai a hotbed of greed, vice, and intrigue. In all of this, opium was crucial to the city’s extraordinary wealth and lawlessness.

Shanghai’s modern history is brilliantly captured in Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City 1842-1949 by first-generation Chinese American Stella Dong. Once a wildness of swamps, Asia’s "Sin City" evolved into a dazzling modern-day Babylon with the sickly sweet smell of opium, illicit sex, crime, corruption, poverty and glamorous wealth.

Now, with the October 2001 economic summit, there seemed to be a conspicuous effort to evolve it into the grand symbol city of the emerging global economy. The venue of the conference in colonial Asia’s most decadent city seemed an important part of a new realignment of symbols. As is often the case, this background context revealed as much as the content of actions in the foreground.

City officials and the Chinese government had worked hard to give Shanghai a grand face-lift for the international conference. Their efforts paid off. President Bush was amazed at the modern city he saw from the windows of his limousine on his ride from the airport to the Ritz-Carlton hotel saying he was "startled" by the "mind-boggling," "miraculous" and "incredible" city.

Shanghai looked like she was vying for the new symbol city of the global economy. At least it seemed the Chinese were trying to remake her into something new and different from the old city of the Opium Wars. New York City had been the symbol city for the global economy. But now she was damaged and licking her wounds. Perhaps it was time to challenge the status of New York City and even America itself as symbols for the new global economy?

The Chinese certainly seemed intent on this type of symbol making activity in Shanghai. Craig Smith writes in the October 21 edition of The New York Times that in the year leading up to the summit acres of sod were laid down and forests of trees planted. Street-front buildings were freshened up with new paint and unfinished buildings were cloaked behind bright new billboards or neat green netting. Smith notes that nothing was left to chance:

"Polluting factories around the city were ordered to shut while building-top video monitors watched for any offending plume so that its source could be shut down before smoke marred the blue October sky."

And the city government urged Shanghai residents to stay home which had the effect of emptying large swaths of the city for the benefit of the city’s important international visitors. Shanghai city planners may have taken lessons from the designers of Disneyland.

Like Disneyland visitors (or "guests"), it was difficult to peek behind the vast sets and "false fronts" of the sparkling new mega-city. Especially difficult for an important "guest" in the Shanghai "theme park" called George Bush. As Craig Smith noted in his article, "President Bush saw Shanghai … but Shanghai didn’t see much of him." He came and went from the Ritz-Carlton by way of an underground parking garage taking a freight elevator to the 45th floor suite. He was not even allowed a run in the morning air but instead had to use a treadmill installed in his room.

When the conference was over and the world leaders headed home more than one of them must have wondered if a new type of global capitol was emerging from the rubble of old Shanghai as well as the rubble of New York City’s twin towers.

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim