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My Reflections on Shanghai

I have now spent a week in Shanghai roaming around and mingling with friends, relatives, and locals. Lately, I have asked myself what were the most revealing this past week.  Looking at Luzhiazui’s seemingly endless number of artfully designed skyscrapers and noticing a sea of stylishly dressed Chinese pouring through Shanghai’s modern subway system, I can honestly say modernity has arrived.

That’s a great thing, because it says that China is inspired, and places like Shanghai serve as great role models for the rest of the country.
Having dined at so many outstanding Chinese restaurants where both food and décor are top notch, I think China is poised for greatness in that area too. But, sure, food safety is a big concern at the moment. As I hear by friends and relatives talk, I am reminded of the 1930s America. Back then, the FDA was at its infancy too. Journalists and activists clamored for better food safety by publicly exposing all sorts of ills. If we look at China today, the awareness building and demand for action are very similar. China has the difficulty of getting through this with way more people, but has more modern technology at her disposal.

One of my cousins has started his own factory in Shanghai producing some sort of electronic component. Seeing his energy and drive, I am reminded how vibrant China is. He talked about a recent huddle with a group of factory workers in trying to figure out how to raise product quality and overall output. I told him that these are actually great problems to have.  Thinking back when we were little boys in rural Fujian Province, I am yet reminded how socially mobile Chinese society is. His sister is now looking into moving into Shanghai. Yes, despite China’s hukou system. I told my aunt 10 years ago, she probably didn’t imagine where her family would be today. She laughed and agreed. Then, I said, she won’t be able to imagine where her family will be at 10 years from now! She laughed again.

Minxin Pei, in his recent debate with Eric Li at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival said that China’s system is ‘extractive’ benefitting only the ruling elite. Well, my cousin and many of my friends in China are examples of where ordinary Chinese are benefitting. It is mind boggling how devoid of reality people like Pei in the West are plagued with.

I often asked, “what do you think are the biggest issues confronting China now?” Invariably, the following three come up: corruption, food safety and pollution, and territorial disputes.

There’s a lot of discussion about Japan’s recent move to try to ‘legitimize’ her claim to Diaoyu dao (Senkaku in Japanese). I haven’t fully caught up on the debates that are taking place on CCTV. Once I do, I hope to write a separate post on it.

Many Chinese believe the Japanese are taking a very hawkish stance over the dispute and are escalating tension with China.

In regards to corruption, reality in China is actually quite different from the Western view, or at least how the dominant, yet simplistic, view as expressed in the Western press.

From a practical stand point, there are norms bound by culture which enforces a type of level-playing field, in fact could be fair and just. For example, if one has a dispute with someone else and they themselves cannot resolve, one or both parties solicit the help of someone else. Presumably, someone of higher authority and influence are pulled in. Sure, some payment or gift may have been given for the help.

The dispute invariably settles, but how? Well, they are done with the sense of justice from the influential third parties involved.

Is this corruption? Not necessarily so. This form of dispute settlement is actually not that foreign to Westerners either. Especially in societies like America where, in recent decades, third-party “arbitration” has become an accepted practice. The difference in the American practice as compared to what China has done for thousands of years is simply that the former has formalize this process and standardized it through writing and procedures.

Not that long ago, Americans took out guns and shot each other in duels to settle differences. American society eventually established a culture for rule of law, where differences are settled in the courts. That took a long while too. Then due to exorbitant legal fees, American society further adopted third-party arbitration as another settlement mechanism.

As Martin Jacques explained, China is a civilization state. It has lasted 5,000 years. So, in my view, a civilization cannot last that long if there is no sense of justice and fairness ingrained in its culture somehow.

China will transition too into more formalized arbitration practices. China will too become a more rule of law society. Will these two aspects happen suddenly overnight? Absolutely not! I think those two aspects will in fact complement Chinese culture. It is the negotiation of these 3 ways of conflict resolution that will propel Chinese society forward.

On my way to the Shanghai Hongqiao airport, the taxi driver was listening to a legal activist show on the radio, hosted by a prominent legal professional. A rather unhappy consumer called in for advice in a dispute with a local car dealership. He believes a certain deposit with-held by the dealership was illegal as the purchase did not go through.

Over the air, he asked the host to call authorities on his behalf assuming himself on the right, but in response, the host admonished him for such a request. The host explained that as a media organization, their role should be to seek truth. Hearing one side is impossible to ascertain who is right and who is wrong.

I was taken by that comment and started to listen more intently.

So, the host proceeded to call the dealership. A manager there answered and explained his rationale for keeping the deposit.

Obviously, in this situation, either party could violate the deposit terms. The dealership may have problems with the car itself or have any other variety of issues such that the consumer could back out legally without losing his deposit. On the other hand, simply changing one’s mind on the consumer’s part is not sufficient in such a situation either.

Then he explained the applicable Chinese law in this kind of situation.

Anyways, I arrived at the airport before hearing how this dispute was resolved.

One thing that struck me was how interested the taxi driver was into listening to this program. He explained to me that he is very popular in Shanghai. I said to the driver that I respect the host, because he helps the public understand Chinese law by applying them to real world everyday situations. He nodded enthusiastically.

The driver then comments, “the host has a lot of guangxi. The dealership or the car buyer cannot mess with him!”

So, indeed, China moves forward with guangxi and everything else! It’s not an either-or dichotomy (rule of law or no rule of law).

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  1. July 21st, 2012 at 12:26 | #1

    I don’t like many of the skyscrapers as much as some people do. they are “stylish” and very modern but there is something about traditional Chinese architecture. I love the old Beijing hutongs. I understand that much of the modern buildings are practical necessities but hope that Chinese architects can find ways to replicate these old style living arrangements and other city features. They have distinctive advantages which facilitate social functions (such as community gatherings and so forth) and fosters social well-being. They also has a beauty and charm that modern buildings will never match. Chinese people, architects, civil engineers, artists must find a way to integrate the modern with the traditional.



  2. July 23rd, 2012 at 07:55 | #3

    You guys will also like the trend of traditional Chinese villas being built throughout China.

    I saw some brochures while in Shanghai few years ago. It’s really quite cool.

    melektaus – when you are in China, you will see subway stations (where they have shopping mall + restaurants) and apartment complexes looking like mega compounds with all sort of services – you will realize there’s more thought put in to serve – again out of necessity with so many people.

    Currently, I am in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. (Went to Songshan and the Shaolin Temple which I will blog in few days.) We are staying in a new district that’s master planned. It’s not fully finished yet, but it’s quite amazing:

    We are staying in one of the buildings on that ring. The view at night is awesome.

    Chinese society increasingly has money and the confidence to want to be inspired. Funny, I was talking to a waitress at dinner earlier. I guess we were talking about Henan being the cradle of Chinese civilization. At one point, I mentioned to her that Chinese people will look more beautiful than ever. That’s all a function of wealth. I think she bought into my explanation.

  3. Charles Liu
    July 24th, 2012 at 11:32 | #4

    Please take lots of picture of people in Zhengzhou new district, that’s supposed to be one of a “ghost town” according to US media.

  4. July 25th, 2012 at 09:26 | #5

    @Charles Liu
    Sorry, Charles, I am now in Guizhou. That new district is about half filled. The tower in the lake in the middle is still under construction! I don’t know where these reports come from, but I have been to a mega market underneath one of the malls there. The place is huge – much like a typical Costco warehouse store in the U.S.. TONS of shoppers were there.

    Remember, by the end of the century, we have another 500+ million people swelling into the cities. So what if a town is a ‘ghost’ town for 5 years? Within 5 years they always get completed filled.

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