Nothing so vividly symbolises modern China than a night out on the Bund – the sparkling Shanghai waterfront where the imperialist, British-built hotels, banks and Custom House look out at the soaring skyscrapers of Pudong across the Huangpu river.
At 10.59pm, the night sky still dances to a spectacular 360-degree neon light show across 100 buildings, celebrating the startling technical and financial power of the new China. In opulent rooftop bars the trendily dressed entrepreneurial glitterati – prime beneficiaries of socialism with Chinese characteristics – sip expensive cocktails.
On the dot of 11pm the lights go off, as if a single switch has been pulled. And the Metro – the world’s largest, naturally – closes. The authorities have decided that it is bedtime.
Anyone who questions the notion that the 21st Century will be the century of China (as the 20th was that of the USA) must first visit this powder-keg city of vibrant, rampant free enterprise.
Shanghai, China’s New York (with Beijing its Washington DC), is the youthful business capital of a 5,000-year-old culture, built to be the place where East meets West.
Metropolis: Ivo Dawnay travelled to Shanghai, China’s ‘youthful’ business capital. Above, the sun sets over the towering buildings in the city’s Pudong district
During what the Chinese now describe as ‘the years of humiliation’, opium-touting British merchants from Jardine Matheson developed Shanghai as an interface with the ailing Qing dynasty. There, after two opium wars in the mid-1800s, they consolidated Western power by creating the International Settlement and French Concession districts, where local Chinese were treated as second-class citizens.
Today, after being the world’s most severe Covid lockdown, the city is opening up again to tourism. Our Virgin Atlantic flight was filled to the gills and the airline is now operating a daily service at near capacity.
Our small group was knocked sideways by what we found. It began with the understated luxury of the Puli Hotel, a sophisticated, designer sanctuary away from the bustle on the streets, populated by executives and Chinese digital natives in unstructured linen suits. A hotel to rival, if not surpass, anything New York, Paris or Milan can offer.
Outside, the crowded avenues were spotless, the pavements and even some motorways decorated with borders of blooming flowers, lawn verges or stands of well-ordered bamboo woods. In four days, the most litter I saw was a single cigarette butt.
Everything seemed as prinked, clean and safe as a Volvo advert. Even in the low-rise French Concession district – boulevards shaded with the sycamores one might find in a French Provencal town, planted by the old colonialists – redevelopment was tasteful and respectful of the past. The old Art Deco French club is now a Japanese-owned hotel. And in Tianzifang, a labyrinth of 1930s brick workshops has been charmingly refurbished as specialist boutiques, selling everything from razor-sharp kitchen knives to silk scarves and high-end teas.
On our second day, we went to Zhujiajiao, once a 400-year-old ‘water-town’, built on a network of canals that feed off the tributaries to the Yangtze river.
This was the old China of our imaginations – a maze of willow-pattern streets, merchants’ palaces, magical temples and tranquil water gardens; full of Zen sculptures, bonzai trees and languid carp.
Ivo visited Zhujiajiao, once a 400-year-old ‘water-town’, built on a network of canals that feed off the tributaries to the Yangtze river. ‘This was the old China of our imaginations,’ he writes
Its narrow alleys were thronged by Chinese tourists, browsing shops selling exotic herbal remedies, unspeakable-looking meats and, sadly, still chirruping crickets, trapped in tiny bamboo cages.
We found the same in Shanghai’s Old Town, where 17th Century tea houses – with dragons on their roofs to ward off demons – hosted crowds of gawping onlookers.
History was also nearby in the spectacular Yu Gardens, spoiled only by posing Instagrammers and that plinky-plonky music pumped out over speakers.
So what’s not to like?
Well, that’s where it becomes complicated. In a curious way, it is not the presence of things, it’s the absence of them that at first is a pleasure but then becomes a source of mild anxiety. For modern China perhaps mostly differs – on the surface, at least – from its pre-war past in its deep affluence and profound, almost unnatural, sense of order.
Ancient culture: A woman wearing the elegant Chinese national dress in Shanghai
The louche bar girl for which Shanghai was known in the 1930s is now a remote, untouchable Chanel model. There is more begging in London. More crime in Stockholm. Apart from the gloomy clusters of tower blocks on the airport road, there is none of the shabbiness of JFK’s Van Wyck Expressway. Moreover, the authoritarian gloom that shows itself in Moscow in the prowling dark-windowed Zils or, in New York, with the shouty ‘Walk/Don’t Walk!’ street signage, is largely absent.
There is no obvious officiousness. Good manners are everywhere. And, yet, something seems amiss. Why, for example, is it so hard to get on the internet, even in a top hotel? Why must you show facial ID to enter a museum? And why does every motorway have clusters of flashing lights that may be speed cameras but also may be something else?
And why, above all, do I feel a moral obligation not to give the names of my interviewees?
Breath-taking: Ivo says that in Shanghai’s Old Town, the 17th Century tea houses have dragons on their roofs to ward off demons. Above is the Old Town’s colourful Yuyuan Bazaar
Virgin Atlantic return flights to Pudong International Airport cost from £432 (virginatlantic.com). Puli Hotel and Spa offers deluxe king rooms from £231 per night, plus taxes (thepuli.com).
‘The fact is,’ said one man, ‘the government says they can find anyone in China in five minutes due to the facial recognition technology – no one doubts it is true.’
‘Just saying the letters VPN [the high-tech means of dodging internet eavesdropping] is said to trigger microphones,’ said another.
One woman told me she was a member of the Chinese Communist Party but suggested that it was something her parents wanted for her – equivalent to going to a fancy private school in the UK, a sensible career move. But another said the process of joining the CCP was quite arduous, involving away weekends in camps, tests and ideology lectures.
That’s not to say there is evidence of a groundswell of resistance to the government. Overwhelmingly, the impression is of pride in China’s rise to the top of the global pecking order. Conformity and obedience equal affluence, it seems. That’s the deal and the price is paid in political rights.
Our visit coincided with the G7 meeting in Japan, described in the government-run China Daily as wealthy nations failing ‘to conceal their… declining influence’. Meanwhile, President Xi was addressing a meeting of the ten Central Asian republics in Astana where Chinese influence is growing like topsy.
On government TV news, there was a lively discussion to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Belt And Road Initiative – China’s outreach to the developing world. Nothing on Russia, Ukraine or Taiwan.
How long before Shanghai becomes the world’s new Rome, to which all roads lead? Visit it and perhaps you will get a glimpse of the future. But you can be sure of one thing – they will see you coming.