Politics, wealth and urban China Contrasts: Alternately rivals and co-dependents, Beijing and Shanghai are cities with distinct personalities shaped by dissimilar histories.

Sun Journal

May 04, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHANGHAI, China -- Political control and the thirst for wealth: Perhaps no two cities better illustrate these driving forces in late 20th-century China than Beijing and Shanghai -- the nation's Washington and New York.

Beijing, the imperial capital, holds the reins on this rapidly developing nation of 1.2 billion people. Shanghai, 800 miles to the south, is a fast-paced financial center where people often think of themselves as a step or two ahead of the rest of the country.

Beijingers are more likely to chat about the latest government shake-up or scandal. The more pragmatic Shanghainese can go on and on about the stock market.

"Beijing has its own artificial universe," says Norman Givant, an American who has lived in Shanghai for 13 years. "It's a little like life within the Beltway, in which people are more caught up in rhetoric than reality."

In Shanghai, he says, "They view themselves as the best and the brightest urban and urbane, savvier than their brothers around the country."

Over the decades, the cities' relationship has been marked by rivalry and symbiosis. In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai was known as the "Paris of the East," an international city of industrialists, dissident writers, gamblers, bankers, prostitutes, European refugees, rickshaw drivers and fabulous fortunes.

After the Communists took control in 1949, Beijing siphoned money away and turned out the lights on the rival power base. But unable to jump-start the economy after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to overhaul Shanghai and set off a building boom that has transformed this city of more than 14 million.

Shanghai seems determined to regain its past glory and establish itself as China's first cosmopolitan city. In the new Pudong development zone, a forest of glimmering office towers has risen to resemble Wall Street. (Oversupply, though, has led to vacancy rates near 50 percent, and the pace of construction has slowed.)

In 1996, local leaders set aside a piece of prime real estate to build the nation's first world-class art museum. An opera house is to open this year in a bid to challenge Beijing's cultural dominance.

"It's as if there is an understanding among people that we will be the biggest, most sophisticated city in China," says Graham Earnshaw, a journalist turned entrepreneur who lived in Beijing for seven years and moved to Shanghai in 1995. "Shanghai pays as little attention as it can to Beijing."

Defined by vastly disparate histories, the two cities have entirely different looks. Beijing, established more than 3,000 years ago, is a city of more than 12 million traversed by broad boulevards and countless bicycles. At the center stand the imposing vermilion walls of the Forbidden City, home to 24 emperors, and the concrete sprawl of Tiananmen Square, the nation's political heart.

Although Beijing is rapidly modernizing, it retains some of the ambiance of a Chinese provincial town. On the edge of the embassy district in the shadow of hulking glass and steel high-rises, you still can buy watermelons from a mule-drawn, wooden cart.

Shanghai, established as a Treaty Port after the First Opium War in 1842, is an infant by Chinese standards. Foreigners defined the city, building settlements in which they lived under their own laws. Shanghai's most enduring symbol -- the Bund -- is not Chinese, but Western.

The Bund, an Anglo-Indian word for "quay," is a strip of European-style buildings -- including a dome, a clock tower and Greek columns -- running along the banks of the Huangpu River. Tourists and lovers stroll along the waterside promenade, as in London and Paris.

The cities' personalities also emerge in the way business is done. Beijingers are more casual and less detail-oriented, says Shanghai native and restaurateur Tony Zhang. Shanghainese are considered crafty, famous for haggling over every penny.

"After a few drinks, Beijing businessmen say everything is fine," says Zhang. "People in Beijing are very proud of themselves, because they think straight like the streets. The streets in Shanghai are much more treacherous and curvy."

In some ways, Shanghai does seem sharper than Beijing. The city has many well-appointed, Western-style restaurants such as Zhang's art-deco Park 97, which has polished wooden booths, mirrors and plate-glass windows that look out onto a grassy park with a Ferris wheel.

Nothing in Beijing quite matches Paris Spring, a modern, six-floor department store where young women in black tights and jackets browse through new fashions designed by Shanghai artist Chen Yifei while Sade's "No Ordinary Love" plays overhead.

Look closer at the city, though, and some of Shanghai's self-proclaimed sophistication rings hollow. The European architecture, which now is considered more a point of local pride than a symbol of foreign oppression, in some cases is not copied terribly well.

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