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November 15, 2019

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Pudong’s success, told correctly, should be spread far and wide

“Chinese Legend: From Special Economic Zone to Free Trade Zone” by Xie Guoping is another work about China’s reform and opening-up following Xie’s “Chinese Legend: A History of the Development of Pudong.” The new book traces China’s development from the setting up of Special Economic Zone at the initial stage of reforms, to the establishment of Free Trade Zone today.

Today, just 40 years after China’s reforms and opening-up, most people at home and abroad are more easily impressed by the clusters of high-rises and the hectic GDP growth, but might not be well acquainted with painstaking reflections and struggles involved in the process. Sometimes I would have a chat with people involved in the new round of development of Pudong, and was somewhat surprised that even people in their 40s and 50s could be quite ignorant of Pudong’s recent transformation.

And what a sea change has taken place in the past 40 years! Take Pudong as an example. Prior to its development, Pudong had remained more or less unchanged for hundreds of years, and while one photo would be quite enough to hint at how it looked like during that period, a huge database would be needed to delineate Pudong’s dramatic changes today, and it would take solid scholarship for one to, on the basis of this database, succinctly capture the hardships and satisfaction inextricably linked up with China’s reforms as defined by the evolution from the Special Economic Zone, New Area to Free Trade Zone.

A new perception

Two years ago, while giving a speech in Detroit in the United States, Jack Ma reminded American audience at the very beginning of his speech the need for a new understanding of China. Ma said that today it is inadequate to speak of China merely in terms of bicycles, tai chi, the Great Wall and pandas. He then played a one-minute video clip describing the dramatic metamorphosis of Lujiazui in Pudong. Later, when I talked about the development of Pudong to officials from Africa and the Middle East, I opened my speech with Ma’s Detroit speech video.

In 2003, I had a long and extensive exchange on the topic of China and Asia with Henry Kissinger and William Harrison, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase. In the middle of our discussions, they raised an unexpected question: How come the formidable stream of bicycles on the streets of Beijing suddenly vanished? How could so many residents afford to buy cars? What’s the rules governing car purchase credit? Apparently, they had perceived the progress of the Chinese society through the lens of cars. Then I felt compelled to share the tale about the dramatic changes and the underlying causes with domestic and overseas audiences.

In the 1930s, on the basis of his interviews in China’s northwest, American journalist Edgar Snow authored “Red Star over China,” which tells of Chinese revolution and Chinese communists, and predicts the future of China. Given the rapid changes taking place in China, we not only need to tell of the old tales and old classics, but also of the new tales and new classics of today, so as to help more Chinese and foreigners gain an accurate understanding of China. We must admit that although we do not lack good stories, we have not yet mastered the art to tell the stories properly.

Again take Pudong as an example. When the CPC Central Committee and the State Council announced the development and opening-up of Pudong in 1990, prevailing public opinion outside China was skeptical, perceiving this initiative as more a slogan than action. One of them, the expert on currency and Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, believed Pudong development might just give rise to another Potemkin village. Now Friedman is a world-class expert on currency and economics, but he got it wrong about China’s reforms and opening-up. Acclaimed Friedman biographer Dr Lanny Ebenstein observed that if Friedman lived to this day, he might reconsider his views.

In 1996, after an interview with me, The Boston Sunday Globe reports that Zhao, as deputy mayor of Shanghai and head of the Pudong New Area, has an ambitious plan that, if fulfilled in his lifetime, China would not only be a political power and military power, but also an economic one, and everyone should fear about it. The report was accompanied with an illustration entitled “Should we fear China?” featuring a pair of long chopsticks picking pieces of paper bearing the US flag.

I wrote to the paper, saying “Mr Editor, I cannot agree with you because China does not have this plan.” I went on to say that China never has the history of consuming any other country as a dish and, on the contrary, from mid-19th century to early 20th century, China had been carved up by major powers in the world. The paper published my letter, suggesting that the editor of the paper had responded to my narrative.

A Chinese visiting scholar who was then working at Harvard read the paper and then wrote to me: “I felt very gratified after reading your letter to the editor. It’s a pity that there are too few of them. I really hope more people at home will stand up and speak out.” Accompanying China’s reforms and opening-up for the past 40 years have been doubts, surprises, even anxieties on the part of some Western people, which then translated into the theoretical basis for deterring China. An effective new story could go a long way in dissipating such doubts.

And the China story must be told in a timely manner, for our failure to tell our own story well means others will do that for us. Today, some people might raise the question: What China is up to in providing funding and experiences so generously in pushing the Belt and Road Initiative?

A case for globalization

The rationale is simple: The Belt and Road Initiative is driven by economic globalization, which benefits all. Xie’s book, resorting to simple stories, rationalizes China’s support for economic globalization.

The World Bank Group’s “Toward Great Dhaka: A New Urban Development Paradigm Eastward” cites Pudong as a successful example to be emulated by big cities in South Asia, especially those with a high concentration of population. The report cites “Shanghai Pudong Miracle” authored by Zhao Qizheng and Shao Yudong, published by China Intercontinental Press (2008), and “The Case of Pudong and Its Development in China’s Reform and Opening up,” a keynote speech I delivered at “Towards Great Dhaka: International Conference on Development Options for Dhaka towards 2035,” suggesting the Pudong story I submitted had been well received by the World Bank.

The report concludes that the urban construction of Bangladesh’s biggest city, especially the urban planning of the East Dhaka, could mimic Pudong’s development strategy. The World Bank also attributed Pudong’s success to a series of follow-up plans in terms of zoning criteria, and a high degree of openness that characterized the development process, which could all be emulated by cities including Dhaka.

To sum up, Xie’s book affords the readers a glimpse into the development path of China’s reforms and opening-up, all the way from the Special Economic Zone, to New Area and to Free Trade Zone. The author’s experience as a journalist makes it possible for him to survey China’s social and economic changes from the frontiers of China’s reforms and opening-up, in a vividly readable manner.

As the English edition of “Chinese Legend: A History of the Development of Pudong” is being prepared, it is advised that this new book should also be made available in a translation so that it could reach a wider audience.

The author is former vice mayor of Shanghai (1991-1998) and former head of the State Council Information Office (1998-2005). Shanghai Daily condensed the article and translated it from Chinese to English.


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