Five things to say about Shanghai

communist_star_and_buildings_reaching_sh copyThis is a Communist star now tucked between monuments to capital.

It was taken from a speeding taxi and I was pleased that I lined it up.  The chances of persuading the driver to go back around for another photo, well, these were not strong.   The Chinese will suffer many things.  Idiots are not one of them.

Five things struck me yesterday.

First, an ad for Nike that stands at least 35 stories high.  I didn’t recognize the basketball player featured, but he is fearsome, and, um, really tall.  The future of marketing has already created an outpost, a staging area, here.  (Yes, I know that this is probably the work of Weiden Kennedy.  But they created this ad in Shanghai.)

Second, innovative architecture of which these examples are not by any means the most remarkable.  The future of architecture has created an outpost here too.  Some of the stuff here made me goggle with admiration.  (I guess if I were better informed, I would have understood that Shanghai has become a show case, but I am not sure this is widely known.  This is one of the ways the future can sneak up on you.)

Third, Shanghai is a capital of capital.  It’s China’s capital of capital.  It can’t be very long before it is the capital of capital, eclipsing even New York and London.

Fourth, I am wondering when China will so establish itself as a culture center that we will quite like the idea of buying brands that include or consist of Chinese characters.   (I am there already.)  When will Chineseness becomes a mark of sophistication, power, connection, or all three?  Certainly in my lifetime, unless I am struck and killed by a Shanghai motorist.   When does Shanghai become the new  Rome?  When do I return as a bumpkin from the provinces?

Five, none of this comes to pass unless China masters openness.  And this week, there were troubling developments on this front.  The state declared that it would make itself sole source for information about China, that it would be Reuters with a monopoly on news, that foreign journalists would no longer be able to collect data.

Observers, Western and Chinese, rubbed their eyes with astonishment and declared that, among other things, the capital markets would up and leave.  Cooler heads prevailed, and Premier Wen Jiabao insisted yesterday that China’s open policy would remain unchanged.  Still, this little misadventure in communications tells us that there some do not fully grasp the nature of the enterprise and the secret of dynamism.

Talk about a critical path.  If dynamism is allowed to flourish, one future, a Chinese future, awaits the species.   Another, nonChinese future emerges if that long standing Chinese feeling for control asserts itself.  It is one of those “power comes to those who let go” paradoxes.  My guess is that the instinct for control is largely in remission.  You don’t get this far down the road unless you are deeply committed to letting things rip.

5 thoughts on “Five things to say about Shanghai

  1. Peter

    Grant —

    On point 2 (innovative architecture): The commercial architecture of Tokyo and Seoul and Hong Kong is very innovative (relative to that in the West), and has been so for maybe 30 years. Even provincial Japanese cities have modern office buildings which would shock most Britons. Although I’ve not seen Shanghai recently, I suspect its modern architecture continues this tradition of East Asian innovation, rather than striking out on its own.

    On point 4 (Chinese brands attracting westerners): About 4 years ago, I saw my first cinema advert in Britain entirely in a foreign language — a Japanese advert for playstations, in which the Japanese actors spoke Japanese, for which there was neither English-language sub-titling nor dubbing. For the playstation target audience, I believe Japanese brands are already attractors. So, I don’t think it’s a large stretch to imagine Chinese brands and Chinese language characters attracting westerners similarly.

  2. Lance Knobel

    Interesting observations, as always. But I’m not sure about your point 3, on capital. Britain long ago ceased to be a keystone economy, but if anything London’s dominance as the hub of international capital has increased in the last 20 years. Britain’s economic significance will continue to decline, and China’s will increase, but that’s not what creates the concentration of expertise that international capital markets demand.

    In the mid-90s there was a lot of speculation that Finanzplatz Deutschland (Frankfurt) would assume London’s mantle, particularly with the arrival of the euro. It didn’t happen. No one who can choose wants to live in Frankfurt.

    The global financial institutions can be based anywhere thanks to modern communications. London seems to be a place they like to be.

  3. Fredrik

    Hi Grant,

    In case you didn’t know, the picture above shows the Portman Ritz Carlton hotel in Shanghai (building to the left) which I am ironically inside of on the 36th floor when I’m writing this message. The older building closer to the camera is a museum built by the Russians.

    I am here in China working on the same project you came to here for and am actually waiting to get the topline findings from your interviews from the company that hired you (no names mentioned). I’m really looking forward to it.

    Judging by your previous posts, Shanghai seems to have made quite an impression on you. It’s a vibrant and dynamic place indeed.



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