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Shanghai needs soft power, balance

If such a thing is possible, Shanghai today beckons even more powerfully than it did in the past, playing a critical role among the great cities of the world beyond anything that could have been imagined.

Shanghai’s future shines brilliantly, given its own dynamic economy and the larger Chinese economy of which it is a critical part. However, as China’s most prosperous city, Shanghai should not be afraid to strike out on its own or, more accurately, to define the terms of its development in its own way and according to its own history and understanding of its future.

Precisely because Shanghai is Shanghai, with its own history and expectations for the future, it should avoid mechanically emulating other cities, which invariably have both a very different urban experience and an equally different trajectory into the future.

That Shanghai is neither New York nor Paris is not only an historical fact but also a guide to future action. But this is not to say that Shanghai should not learn from the experiences of other cities.

Recently the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone was launched — the first of its kind in China. This round of reform will mainly focus on opening up the financial sector, on relaxing investment controls and on innovating in the trade supervision system. These initiatives are based on some of the most successful economic programs from around the world.

Unique ecosystem

Throughout the policy-drafting process, government officials explored ways in which to create a unique ecosystem that could comprehensively advance the development of the city. No doubt, the initiative will push Shanghai toward becoming an international metropolis and global financial center.

Last year, PwC and the Partnership for New York City published the 5th edition of “Cities of Opportunity,” once again examining the current social and economic performance of the world’s leading cities. The analysis is based on 10 overall indicators that cover 60 variables. The indicators include intellectual capital and innovation, transportation and infrastructure, health, safety and security, economic clout and city gateway.

Shanghai ranked fifth in the world in economic clout and fourth in the city gateway indicator, indicating the city has rapidly achieved its economic goals.

However, to become a city with attractive power, what is even more important than achieving business goals is the focus paid to “balance.”

Balance is critical in so many areas — among economic sectors, between old and young, between established residents and new ones seeking opportunities that only the city can provide, between the quality of economic growth and the need to create better lives for citizens, and between work and leisure.

With education being the linchpin of every developed society, a balanced educational system allows young people advancing to university to choose between technical and scientific training, on the one hand, and a more broadly based education that would also enhance the city’s “soft power” as a whole.

Joseph Nye, the former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said that, “simply put, in behavioral terms, soft power is attractive power. In terms of resources, soft-power resources are the assets that produce such attraction.” If there is any city in the world today capable of developing vast concentrations of soft-power resources, it is Shanghai.

I believe Shanghai must accelerate down two interrelated paths.

First, it must broaden the scope of higher education to encompass the full range of human and social knowledge.

Shanghai has already achieved impressive success in education. According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 80 percent of the city’s higher-education-age population was admitted into higher education in one form or another in 2009, compared with the national figure of 24 percent. In 2010, almost a third of the city’s university graduates were in engineering, and the projections are that Shanghai will have graduated half a million engineers and scientists between 2010 and 2015. The question is: Does it really need them all?

Meanwhile, the number of graduates in philosophy and history — the “soft powers” of education — were less than 1 percent, or in other words, statistically insignificant in both cases. In this age of the rising importance of soft power, developed economies, and cultures as a whole, are increasingly dependent on analysis, synthesis and the use of critical judgment to solve problems.

Shanghai today has 61 institutions of higher education, including two in the C9 League of the top nine universities in China. It manifestly possesses the educational and intellectual infrastructure to seriously expand and enhance higher education beyond scientific and technical fields.

Secondly, to attract and cultivate the professionals it will need in the next several decades, Shanghai must continue to focus on the quality of growth — preserving and enhancing the human experience and promoting urban sustainability. Urban sustainability is an environment in which many different kinds of people not only interact daily but also enjoy doing so.

Genuinely sustainable

Shanghai has taken a policy-making lead in China in trying to foster a genuinely sustainable urban environment, especially in terms of pollution control and its license plate-auction system. The city also has promoted improvements in preserving its architectural heritage and appealing to migrants from other parts of its own country. The focus is on people who are willing to live in the system, and the culture is to welcome talent, creativity and innovation.

Shanghai has done an enviable job of putting itself back on the global cultural map, with a number of high-profile cultural institutions such as the Shanghai International Film Festival, the Shanghai Biennale and the Shanghai Grand Theatre.

However, “high-profile” is not the sole resource for creating the best culture, either for the people living in a city or for those it wants to attract. The key issue is how to differentiate these cultural events from the existing well-known ones and how to establish their profiles permanently among local citizens and the global audience.

Culture does not need enormous institutional commitments or arrangements. What it does need is the dedication, imagination and innovation of individuals who have support from public authorities to realize their visions — the very definition of genuine soft power.

A city’s culture cannot float on the surface only. It should be diving deep into the root of its urban life. Balance requires that Shanghai now begin to reveal its heart to the world as well as its head, its sensibility and its wisdom.



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