Impressions of Shanghai

I was in Shanghai for an academic conference last week.  In my last CounterPunch piece I dealt with some of the systemic aspects of China’s political and economic system.  My observations in this follow-up article are somewhat more impressionistic.

China today has three legacies from the days before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms catapulted China into the late twentieth-century capitalist orbit.

While actually existing capitalism represented a significant break with China’s previous order, this should not blind us to continuities with the pre-Deng era.

Integral to China’s capitalist success have been three key factors deriving from that era, namely, a large and disciplined work force, a relatively smooth-running state administrative capacity, and a solid sense of collective effort.

Contrast China in these respects with India, which has just started on its own road towards economic modernization, but can’t yet match China’s accomplishments because an adequate work force only exists in the service sector while other sectors are held back by a shortage of skilled labour, its administrative capacity is labyrinthine and ramshackle, and creating a sense of collective effort is impeded by deeply-entrenched social and cultural divisions (caste being the most prominent).

China is a fascinating amalgam of the oblique and the head-on.

The oblique:  anything that can displease the government, especially dissent.  Tiananmen 1989 is still a taboo subject in public.  No one mentions in public such dissenters as Ai Wei Wei.   In private, if someone knows you can be trusted, such subjects are discussed freely.

The dissenters well-known in the west seem not to be trusted.  As a group of leftists put it to me–  “really, they want the same thing as the government (neoliberalism, “freedom”, “democracy”, and so on), except they want it now, whereas the government says we have to wait”.

The Shanghai experience is not complete without at least one hair-raising taxi journey (for those who still have hair, unlike yours truly). In our case this came on our last evening there, when we took a cab to our hotel after a riverboat cruise on the Huangpu river.

Our driver whipped his taxi around and in-between slower vehicles like a disdainful grand prix driver lapping cars that were slowing him down. While our driver did this, he watched a kung fu film on a cell phone mounted on his dashboard, all the time wearing ear buds to get the sound.

I sat in front next to the driver, my knuckles white as I gripped my seat.  From the back-seat my friends videoed the mounted cell phone in case we crashed and evidence was needed of our driver’s penchant for multitasking.

We arrived safely, but it was clear that our driver could have been a prize recruit for the Japanese kamikaze air division, had he been Japanese and of age during WW2.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.