Jetson Communism

05 May 2004|Steve Diller

Just came back from an incredible week in Shanghai. The reconstruction of the city is arguably the most important urban design initiative since the rebuilding of Paris in the 1800s. Undeniably glamorous, the new Shanghai is consciously, centrally-designed, to project an image of the ultimate in internationalism. Architecture is about as out-there as one can find anywhere. Greenbelts make the city both attractive and the most environmentally progressive in China.

In a way, the Chinese Communists have found a formula that has allowed them to become the ultimate modernists, something always promised by Marxism but rarely seen in previous Communist regimes. And yet.

There’s a feeling to the city that suggests an artificiality, a kind of massive Potemkin Village effect. For those too young to remember that phenomenon, the Soviets built a fake model village for the benefit of visitors that gave the impression of the utopian society the government kept proclaiming was right around the corner. Shanghai may be the latest monument to that tradition.

I conducted some ethnographies while in the city, visiting residents in highrises less than five years old. The facades of the buildings were, as was typical of the whole city, very up to date and stylish. However, from the moment I walked into a building, the Third World rushed up to greet me. The elevators barely creaked their way up to the apartments. The hallways were filthy, falling apart, and every architectural detail already looked shabby and superficial.

I heard from many locals that that international flair of the city was superimposed on a developing-country mindset. While justifiably proud of the city, the Shanghainese seem also to enjoy being in on the joke. China remains China, whatever that may be. The irony is that, after spending a week there, the real China remains as much a mystery as when I arrived. Beware of Jetson Communists trying to impress you.

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