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October 28, 2018

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Shanghai modernization: personal memories of the dawn of a new era

CHINA’S policies of reform and opening up to the outside world, initiated 40 years ago, and the dramatic transformation that resulted are often written on a large tableau.

But for Shanghai resident Ruan Wenjun, the evolution of a laggard country into the world’s second-largest economy is more personal.

Ruan, now in his late 30s, has an old photo of his home, depicting the hard-living conditions that were changed by the historical crossroads in China’s history.

The photo was taken around 1990 by Zhou Ming, a faculty member at Shanghai Normal University and photography buff. It shows Zhang Yuan, or Zhang’s Garden, a residential community in Shanghai’s downtown area, less than 100 meters from Nanjing Road West.

In the photo, the teenage Ruan is leaning from a loft window, casting a curious eye to the camera. His father and cousin are with him upstairs. On the ground floor, an uncle sits on a bed, with Ruan’s grandfather and grandmother in the front.

Viewing the photo today, Ruan said he can’t help but be amazed by how six people once crammed into a 30-square-meter room and by how that situation so profoundly changed over the years.

“I am surprised by this picture, though I don’t remember anything related to how it was taken,” Ruan said.

Indeed, he was told by a friend that the photo was part of an exhibition commemorating the start of the opening-up policy and he rushed to the site to have a look.

He said Zhou is a complete stranger to him and must have taken a random shot of a typical family as he passed by Ruan’s home 30 years ago.

“I am so lucky to have this photo,” said Yuan. “It reminds me of the good, old days.”

Some of the “old days” weren’t necessarily so good. Back in 1990s, not long after the International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council was established, Shanghai was known for many firsts: China’s top city in industrial output, industrial profit, exports, per capita gross domestic product, energy utilization and talent aggregation.

But at the same time, Shanghai had the smallest per-capita living space, the highest number of vehicle accidents despite fewer roads and one of the nation’s most polluted skies and waterways.

Wang Xinkui, former president of the Shanghai WTO Affairs Consultation Center, who has just retired, recalled the time when Shanghai broke loose from the shackles holding back its development and became a pioneer for construction of a new, modern city.

In the late 1970s, the top priority for Shanghai was renovation of urban infrastructure, Wang said. There were projects to build roads fit for cars instead of bicycles and install modern sewage waste treatment plants.

“They were preparations, albeit very painful, for the dawn of a new era,” Wang said.

In the 1980s, Shanghai became a leader in pursuing industrial restructuring. The city began moving from industry to a services-led economy, with many people, like textile workers, retraining for new careers, Wang said.

The 80s paved the way for substantial progress in reform and further opening up in the 1990s. The spearhead of that development was the Pudong New Area, which turned paddy fields into skyscrapers.

During that decade, Shanghai proposed a clear blueprint of “change every year and dramatic change every two years.” The city was ambitious to become a world center of finance, trade and shipping.

After China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, Shanghai became a magnet for multinational companies, many locating regional headquarters in the city, Wang said.

“Shanghai has been very determined in reform and opening up, a spirit ironed deep into the city’s fabric,” he said. “That spirit is also reflected in its people, who are smart, optimistic and resilient.”

Indeed, people like Ruan have had their lives transformed. Ruan today works in a property management company. He lives in an apartment with his wife — perhaps not all that spacious but a far cry from his childhood home. Ruan said his goal is to own a larger home with money earned from honest, hard work.

Shanghai is city creating opportunities for people from around the world. It is poised to achieve even greater heights as China embarks on a new round of reform and opening up.


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