Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Dispatch from Shanghai

After several months of chaotic and intense planning, the Mayor of San Francisco, accompanied by Senator Feinstein, brought his trade delegation to China last week. I had the privilege (and occasional exasperation) of being able to propose and then help plan some of their stops here in Shanghai. The past two days have seen those efforts come to fruition: Successful visits with local companies and universities (all wrapped in a constant and occasionally suffocating blanket of official protocol, bureaucratic ego-stroking, and speeches), a long list of follow-up items, and some real chances for people to learn from each other.

Following in the wake of the recent visits by Arnold and, separately, by the President, it is interesting to contrast the three delegations, as seen through the eyes of the locals with whom I have spoken. Arnold's was a series of huge public rallies, deluged with press, making a lot of splash but leaving people here unsure what it all meant. The orchestrated events, meant to persuade China to "Buy California", looked to folks here like a Hollywood promotion, with about as much credibility.

The President, sadly, left the folks here quietly shaking their heads. His preaching to President Hu about religious freedom struck them as offensive and absurd. Fortunately for us, most people here completely detach their views of Bush from their views of Americans. But one local businessman told me (off the record) "If Americans wonder why we are not ready for democracy, they only have to look at their own elections to understand what we are afraid of."

The Mayor's delegation is completely different. All the speeches, politicking, protocol etc., notwithstanding, etc., there is no question about it. First, there are no press along for this ride. The entire entourage fits on one-and-a half large buses, which would not have accomodated half of Arnold's advance team. Security is tight but unobtrusive. We are not shutting down whole sections of the city as we pass through, which goes a long way toward maintaining good will. The Mayor himself is relaxed and personable. All of the events were arranged based on local knowledge and contacts, and the entire atmosphere is one of inquiry. We are not here to sell (well, maybe a little) or to preach; we are here to learn, and that is indeed refreshing and encouraging.

The Mayor's overarching purpose was to energize the sister-city relationship between Shanghai and San Francisco, which dates back 25 years. With San Francisco the symbolic capital of Bay Area, which, in turn, is the epicenter of the New Economy, and with Shanghai on course to be the Bay Area's only credible challenger for that position, the sister-city relationship has taken on new meaning. For a few of the mayor's colleagues, as well as some of us working with the delegation as volunteers, there was a parallel purpose: to shock, if need be, the Mayor and his entourage, many of them with little or no prior exposure to this part of the world, into realizing in their gut, the impact of what is happening here.

All of those purposes seem to be on track to being achieved. The Mayor and the delegation connected with our hosts here in China. They are working furiously to come up with ways to follow up on those contacts. But he also gave a talk last night in which it was clear he understands that we are no longer in a paternalistic relationship with a bunch of peasants; it is now our turn to learn if we are not to be left behind. I am sure he did not anticipate giving that kind of talk when he stepped on the plane a few days ago. He understands that we need to be proactive and creative, both in the public sector and the private, if we are to ride this huge wave that is taking shape across the ocean, rather than being drowned.

Now, the caveats: China's growth has been financed by massive foreign investment and a huge trade surplus; the domestic economy is still a low-consumption, low-wage economy, which is great for the aforementioned trade but not great for making the whole thing sustainable. The wealth gap is huge and growing. Moving a billion people from a medieval subsistence economy into the modern world is not a small task. The one-child policy has yielded 45-million excess adult males, most of whom are (according to the women) spoiled and petulant. Despite their overwhelmingly great numerical odds, young women are increasingly refusing to choose at all, which exacerbates problem for the men, leading to the potential for great social disruption. Water is in short supply and the water shortage could become a crisis. Prosperity is coming at huge environmental costs. Shanghai, for all its overwhelming glitter and power, is a showcase that does not represent the state of the rest of the country. And so on....

All that said, the progress and the potential here are mind-boggling indeed, and it is gratifyfing to know that some of our political leaders are beginning to get it.


Blogger Other Lisa said...

Carlos, great post, and one which nicely sums up the complexity and contradiction of today's China and the relationship to California. I do think we in California are more than usually fortunate in our relationship with China, that we actually have things to trade with them, unlike much of the US.

I'm probably going to visit Shanghai next spring, the first time I've been there since 93. Really looking forward to it...

November 30, 2005 9:31 PM  
Blogger Carlos Zapato said...

You will hardly recognize it! When the trip is closer, let me know in case I have any recommendations for you.

November 30, 2005 10:31 PM  

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