'What's the Point of Shanghai?'

Paul French is an English writer who has lived for years in Shanghai; his latest book, with Matthew Crabbe, is about the political, social, and business implications of the new youth-obesity wave in China.

He is a joyful contrarian, and his recent "Access Asia" newsletter makes an argument that will startle many Americans gripped by "China is best at everything!" fever. He is speaking about Shanghai specifically rather than China as a whole, but he says that his hometown, probably the largest city in the world, may have peaked:

>>At a certain point in China's development, Shanghai clearly had a point. Getting markets up and running, providing a location that soft sack foreigners liked to pitch up in over the harsher capital to the north. Shanghai was once good at engendering a little entrepreneurship; it was a creative place. But those days are long gone now - the market exists, the investment has occurred and Shanghai has become a non-entrepreneurial location as the population become rat race white collars.

Looking for entrepreneurship? Forget Shanghai, it now bristles out in the provinces. Admittedly the city is a major port, but then so are Rotterdam and Tilbury! It's a logistics hub - but then so is Crewe! ... It is unlikely it will ever become a creative city in any meaningful sense, or a motor of new business and entrepreneurship again anytime soon.<<

(Shanghai skyscape during our first sandstorm there, in 2007:)


There's a lot more in this vein from French, most of it knowingly overstated for provocative effect but all worth considering -- both for its specific bearing on Shanghai and as part of the broader exercise of taking China seriously without going ga-ga over its limitlessness. In a followup email, he also explained why the very notion of Shanghai peaking was hard for foreigners and locals alike to digest:

>>It's fascinating to me that so many in the government (for obvious reasons) and among the foreign business community cling to this notion of Shanghai as a red hot centre of entrepreneurialism when it is so clearly no longer that (if it ever really was)....
I do think that in this very 'me centred' era it is genuinely hard for many people who have 'moved' to Shanghai and committed a lot in doing that to accept that they may not actually be at the centre of the world. On the other hand the government guys are still reeling from their inability to understand the western media's cycles - they thought that all those Time/Newsweek/Conde Nast Traveller features on Shanghai would go on and on forever!! They didn't realise that selling mags meaning telling everyone that someone else is hot this year and by definition that has to be somewhere you're not!<<

I love Shanghai, will always find it fascinating and romantic -- part of the rap against it, from the rest of China's perspective, is precisely that foreigners feel this way -- and will go back as often as I can. But I recommend reading French's view -- ideally at, say, the Boxing Cat brewery.


For the record: I see after writing this that Access Asia also has a plug for my latest China book. I mention this so no one else has to point it out; I didn't realize it when writing this item.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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