In the stifling heat of summer in the Paris of the East, I was seeing history played out in front of me. The cosmopolitan feel of Shanghai is not only evident in its architecture and designer shops, but in its people who set themselves apart from the rest of China.
There is not a single sign of the Red Revolution here in this city, save for the armbands of the policemen and subway station guards. Shanghai is far from Beijing and far from the political and cultural suffocation that the people suffer from. The World Expo a few blocks away from my apartment may have played in a major part in shifting the paradigm of the Communist Party; as it moves to exert a more friendly and approachable facade of Communism to the millions of foreigners and locals who will past through the Expo gates.
This new image of a friendly China is being cultivated since the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and the nation is riding on a high to further elevate itself as the world’s premier superpower over the United States in the next two decades. But in this corner of Shanghai, life goes on for the people who have lived here for decades, where the latest BMW sedans of the nouveau riche mix with rickshaws and ancient bicycles of a generation that has remained untouched by the increasing prosperity of the new China.
Shanghai has become a black hole, where the gravitational pull and whispers of higher income and better living standards – has drawn million of villagers and small towners to the glitzy lights of Pudong and towering high rises which pierce not the clouds and sun, but into the smog and pollution.
Like the uncertain grey skies and lingering pollution that they have delved into, the fate of many who traded their former lives and simpler times for an uncertain future in urban slums remains like the poisonous substance that floats above their head – a grey labyrinth.
This was not what Mao dreamt of or ‘fought’ for, the days of collectivism has died – not when the wall came down in Berlin, not when the Soviet Union collapsed and with a Ronald Reagan smiling from afar, not when the Khmer Rouge fled back into the jungles with a trail of corpses behind them, and definitely not when the Cold War ended. Collectivism died when common sense was recognized or prevailed.
In this bustling megalopolis, only a staunch hardline Communist member who lived through the hey-days of Mao and book burnings would still preach from the ‘little red book’. The aforementioned common sense is now preached from the latest lifestyle magazines and fashion journals and western style newspapers, that has torn out the heart of the Red Revolution and replaced it with – a beating heart; one that is not cold and rigid, but one that is warm, sustainable and raising the living standards of those who embrace it.
Shanghai has always strived to be different to China, shaped by the colonial histories of England, Germany, France and other western powers not that long ago – the city is a gigantic visual diary of how change in Communism to a predominant capitalist governance can benefit its own people. I was lucky enough to see all of this before my eyes, and I hope you can too.