During the last decade, the former leaders of Shanghai such
as Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji dominated the scene in Peking, where they represented
the open-door policy and the “market economy with Chinese characteristics”
before handing over to the “fourth generation” at the Sixteenth Party
Congress in November 2002. The same period saw the complete transformation of
Shanghai. But has the city really recovered its long lost dynamism? Marie-Claire
Bergère’s book is timely in this respect and offers answers to this
question, by placing it in its historical perspective.
Her history of Shanghai covers a period of over 150 years
from its emergence as an open port in 1842 to its development into a partly foreign
and partly Chinese metropolis, followed by the period of restrictions imposed
under Mao and its present return to expansionism. Her description and analysis
of this trajectory in its political, economic, social and cultural ramifications,
is supported by a considerable body of archival material, firsthand accounts and
other studies, many of which are actually her own previous work. She has also
included a large number of contemporary Chinese and foreign eye-witness accounts.
Her book provides a comprehensive overview, and raises the fundamental question
of the role played by Shanghai in the formation of modern China up to the opening
years of the twenty-first century.
No contemporary history of Shanghai could avoid paying detailed
attention to the complex relations between the city and the foreign concessions.
At first the latter were intended to be nothing more than residential areas, but
at the time of the Taiping rebellion (1850-1860), they were transformed into de
facto colonies outside Chinese jurisdiction, on the initiative of the foreign
residents and their consuls. The largely Chinese population (98% of the total
in 1910) fell under the control and administration of autonomous authorities,
particularly the Shanghai Municipal Council which ran the international concession.
For its part, the French concession was organised under the protection of the
consul general, and it assumed the same prerogatives. Both concessions established
a modern setting, in both the physical and the legal senses of the term, and encouraged
a free market economy. This meant that the centre of economic activity shifted
from the old Chinese city to the international concession, especially the areas
around the Bund. As the concessions provided a window onto Western culture, they
influenced the Chinese outlook and inspired individual and collective innovations.
These included the establishment of public and private enterprises, the opening
of new schools, the appearance of a press to serve a large public readership,
the creation of a Chamber of Commerce and a Chinese City Council (modelled on
the Shanghai Municipal Council), the provision of modern technical equipment and
public amenities and services in the Chinese quarters etc. To modernise the country
and face the challenge from the West quickly became the dream of the residents
At first the economy was centred on the opium trade, but by
the beginning of the twentieth century it turned towards overseas trade in general,
as well as finance, property speculation and finally industry. In the author’s
opinion, Shanghainese capitalism was the consequence of a symbiosis between foreigners
and the Chinese, and was not, as current Chinese versions of history would have
us believe, “economic aggression organised by foreign governments”.
In fact, overseas and Chinese capital operated jointly; the Chinese professional
associations and the foreign hongs shared both domestic and overseas commercial
channels. The Chinese entrepreneurial spirit and their capacity to assimilate
was grafted onto the technology and managerial methods brought in by these Westerners.
A new generation of Chinese businessmen, trained at home or abroad, was well placed
to play a leading role in the industrial miracle of the 1920s. This rapid take-off
of Shanghainese capitalism was founded on private initiative, and lasted until
1937 despite the bureaucratic obstacles and depredations of the Nationalist regime.
It just about managed to survive under the Japanese occupation, before sinking
under the Communist nationalisation programme. It has recently re-emerged, but
is struggling to rediscover its former stimulating environment.
The population of Shanghai consisted mainly of immigrant communities
from the hinterland. They organised themselves into mutual support societies according
to their place of origin, and into professional associations, within which there
grew up hierarchical structures based on individual financial and material status.
The author argues that this social fragmentation, along with the city’s
greater level of development in comparison with the rest of the country, were
the factors which prevented the appearance of a real bourgeois revolution. The
author emphasises however, that the existence of these purely sectional solidarities
never prevented the different groups from becoming involved in militant nationalism
and playing a leading role in the anti-imperialist movements. Whenever the nation
was threatened, Shanghai became the focal point for spontaneous mobilisations,
in which merchants, workers, intellectuals and ordinary people (xiao shimin)
all participated. In the period of Nationalist rule, the trade unions continued
to organise strikes and to struggle for workers’ rights, despite Kuomintang
control and infiltration through the secret societies. The bourgeoisie, who desired
the protection of a strong unified state, followed a line of compromise and negotiation
with the Nanking regime, without abandoning their aspirations to freedom and democracy.
At the same time, Shanghai was developing a pluralist, pragmatic,
commercial and cosmopolitan culture, open to the participation of the masses:
the haipai. The architects built neo-classical or Art-deco buildings alongside
industrial tenements; offices, hotels and recreational centres cohabited with
the lilong, the dwellings of the ordinary people of a city surrounded by
squatter areas. Its cultural productions glorified physical appearances, the images
of the modern woman, recreation and consumerism. Shanghai gave birth to the Chinese
cinema, and its literature drew inspiration from the widest possible range of
western trends. Whatever their detractors may say, the haipai founded a
In the Maoist periodwhich has still not been studied
muchShanghai dried up in a number of ways. It became the milch cow of the
planned economy, and a pawn in political and ideological struggle. It is only
in the last decade that Peking, impelled by the need for reforms, has decided
to make it a showcase for the Chinese economy, allowing municipal initiatives
in the field of town planning, expansion and receipt of foreign investments. At
present, the city has undergone a radical facelift and its inhabitants are letting
themselves go in pursuit of individual happiness and the seductions of a consumer
society. This relative liberalisation, which seems to ignore the increasing social
polarisation, continues to favour the hold of the single party system and bureaucratic
monopoly. History will judge whether China’s accession to the WTO and the
subsequent development of the country will alter the situation to favour the arrival
of new actors on the scene, allowing the metropolis to re-engage with its former
fruitful modernising tradition.
This is a thoroughly well-documented work, written in a pleasing
style by an eminent and passionately interested specialist in Shanghai studies.
It will find a welcome place on the bookshelves of the researcher and the broader
Translated from the French original by Jonathan Hall