Washington Post



Come See the Shanghai Bubble

By David Ignatius
Sunday, June 30, 2002

SHANGHAI -- Welcome to the world's last boom town. Look out the window of your hotel and you may wonder whether you're still dreaming, as you survey a skyline of space needles and domes that might have been sketched for the old television show, "The Jetsons."

The world's other bubbles may have deflated, what with Europe and America sagging again, Japan still flat on its back and an anti-dollar contagion spreading. But here in China, these worries seem far, far away. In the Chinese wonderland, folks seem almost proud to be living in a police state. The unofficial national motto seems to be: "Don't rock the boat."

It's still glorious to be rich here, to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping's call to avarice a generation ago, and money is coursing through every alleyway in the city. If the old Shanghai was a creature of Western decadence, the excesses of the new city are very much homegrown. And all the better for it -- assuming you have a tolerance for late-night discos, dizzyingly tall buildings and people ready to bulldoze whole neighborhoods in the race to make money.

The Shanghai bubble will eventually burst, as all bubbles do. But this one seems to have some momentum left. The destruction of the old China is still releasing energy -- kids in from the country who want to make and spend money, overseas Chinese racing back from Taiwan and Hong Kong to buy a piece of the new dream, Americans coming to join the gold rush.

The banking sector is a mess -- the Economist estimated two weeks ago that 30 percent to 50 percent of Chinese loans may be insolvent. And it's impossible to know, looking at the city's wacky 22nd-century landscape, what's real and what isn't -- which of those immense flying-saucer office towers actually have people doing productive work in them.

But I had the feeling after visiting this past week that the new China can't stand still. It's like a man riding a bicycle -- it has to keep moving forward or it will fall over. And it seems likely to me that the only way China can keep the bubble growing is to continue down the path of reform -- to make its economy more open, more transparent, better regulated, less corrupt. They are condemned to follow a virtuous path, to hold on to their glorious new wealth.

It's impossible to know when this economic momentum will begin to change the nation's nominally communist political system. But most Chinese seem genuinely bored by the debate about democracy and human rights that we in the West take so seriously. It's hard to be angry when your stomach is full. The Chinese don't seem to appreciate that democracy would make their country more stable, rather than less so, but perhaps that fact, too, will begin to penetrate the haze that covers this city, literally and figuratively.

I suspect Chinese are almost as disoriented by the pace of change as visitors. When I first came here in the mid-1980s, all you saw on downtown streets was the whir of bicycles, a few buses and the immense limousines of top party cadres. Now, private cars are everywhere, built locally by companies like Volkswagen and General Motors. And most people own their apartments, too; according to one western diplomat, 60 percent of the families in Shanghai are homeowners.

Back in the mid-'80s, I recall talking with the mayor of Shanghai about his scheme for a vast industrial area across the Whangpu River in Pudong. The idea seemed preposterous back then -- the area was mostly swampy fields and warehouses and you couldn't help wondering whether he had been smoking something.

Now Pudong is jammed with enormous, garish office towers, and it will soon house the world's tallest building, the 95-story Shanghai World Financial Center. And who knows? If the rest of the world's financial markets keep sinking, it just might deserve that grandiose title.

Have a drink on the 88th floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Pudong with Scarlett Li. She's a 31-year-old Chinese woman who has just been put in charge of an MTV look-alike called channel "V," which is part of Rupert Murdoch's "Star" television operation here. "You better believe we're going to rock on," she says.

Or sit on the terrace of the city's hippest restaurant, called "M on the Bund," and watch the neon lights decorating the grand old riverside boulevard that was built during colonial days. At my table are three young Chinese Internet tycoons -- and guess what? The Internet fever doesn't seem to have eased here yet. The CEO of China's biggest portal, sina.com, tells me his carefully screened news content will work because it's "safe."

Or take a stroll through the new upscale shopping area called Xintiandi. Three years ago, it was just a collection of rickety workers' dwellings, surrounding a mansion built long ago by a man who manufactured calligraphy brushes. The 45 families living in the mansion were moved out, paid as much as $10,000 each, which they used to buy fancy new apartments. The old stone walls of the workers' flats were magnificently restored, and now, it's Shanghai's hottest luxury retail center.

Sure, the Shanghai bubble will burst eventually. But for now, this has to be the hottest city on the planet. Come see this last festival of irrational exuberance before it goes the way of Tokyo and Wall Street.