The Staggering Rebirth of Shanghai

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You don't need satellite images to see just how much China's largest city has changed.

pudongskyline.jpgShanghai's Pudong Financial District (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Yesterday, Olga Khazan directed our attention to a fascinating satellite image, produced by scientists at ETH Zurich, showing the startling difference in Shanghai's light intensity in the past 20 years. Whereas in 1992 the map revealed just a few specks of light amid a black landscape, the 2009 image showed a vast sea of energy spreading from Shanghai all through the surrounding Yangtze River Delta, a region of tremendous economic productivity in China.

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As great as these images are, a far more terrestrial perspective on Shanghai yields an equally astounding vision. Consider the photograph at the top of this post, of the city's Pudong Financial District: Pudong's skyline, with the glittering Oriental Pearl Tower standing apart like a Space Needle on steroids, has already emerged as one of the world's most distinctive.

In 1990, none of it existed.

Yes, that's right- less than 25 years ago, the very skyline that enveloped James Bond in Skyfall was simply a glint in Deng Xiaoping's eye. In 1978, the Chinese leader chose southerly Guangdong Province as his laboratory for economic reform, and while newly-christened Special Economic Zones like Shenzhen raced ahead, Shanghai languished in something of a malaise. Only when new Chinese president Jiang Zemin -- himself a former Shanghai party boss -- assumed office did the city's economic fortunes begin to turn. His results, as displayed in the image below (via Catherine Rampell), speak for themselves.

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Despite the glitz, Pudong isn't all that exciting of a place to hang out. Most of Shanghai's culture, history, and nightlife happens on the other side of the Huangpu River, and many of Shanghai's residents -- both local and foreign -- regard Pudong as a soulless ghost town. But the very fact that it exists is a perfect symbol of the vast scale of China's development.

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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