1 Zola and Retail Marketing
2 Playing the Waiting Game
3 Beware the Ides of March
4 The county not on a map
5 Chinese Chess in Beijing
6 Build it and They'll Come
7 Riding the Water Dragon
8 The Best of Both Worlds
9 Storming the Great Wall
10 Welcome to the Wangba
11 The Catcher in the Rice
12 The Marriage Business
13 The Crouching Dragon
14 Counting the Numbers
15 A Century of Migration
16 Shooting for the Stars
17 Rise of Yorkshire Puds
18 Harry Potter in Beijing
19 Standing Out in China
20 Self-pandactualisation
21 Strolling on the Moon
22 Tea with the Brothers
23 Animated Guangzhou
24 Trouble on the Farms
25 Christmas in Haerbin
26 Dave pops into Tesco
27 A Breath of Fresh Air
28 The Boys from Brazil
29 Rolls-Royce on a roll
30 The Great Exhibition
31 Spreading the Word
32 On Top of the World
33 Moonlight Madness
34 Beijing's Wild West
35 Avatar vs Confucius
36 Brand Ambassadors
37 Inspiring Adventure
38 China's Sweet Spot
39 Spinning the Wheel
40 Winter Wonderland
41 The End of the Sky
42 Ticket to Ride High
43 Turning the Corner
44 Trouble in Toytown
45 Watch with Mother
46 Red-crowned Alert
47 In a Barbie World
48 Domestic Arrivals
49 Tale of Two Taxis
50 Land of Extremes
51 Of 'Mice' and Men
52 Tour of the South
53 Brooding Clouds?
54 The Nabang Test
55 Guanxi Building
56 Apple Blossoms
57 New Romantics
58 The Rose Seller
59 Rural Shanghai
60 Forbidden Fruit
61 Exotic Flavours
62 Picking up Pace
63 New Year, 2008
64 Shedding Tiers
65 Olympic Prince
66 London Calling
67 A Soulful Song
68 Paradise Lost?
69 Brandopolises
70 Red, red wine
71 Finding Nemo
72 Rogue Dealer
73 Juicy Carrots
74 Bad Air Days
75 Golden Week
76 Master Class
77 Noodle Wars
78 Yes We Can!
79 Mr Blue Sky
80 Keep Riding
81 Wise Words
82 Hair Today
83 Easy Rider
84 Aftershock
85 Bread vans
86 Pick a card
87 The 60th
88 Ox Tales
2001 to 2007

Brooding Clouds? 

Shanghai shoppers this evening

I arrived in Shanghai on Tuesday afternoon, having flown from Beijing where the temperature was an unwelcoming minus 10 degrees Celsius.  Shanghai was 15 degrees warmer and, in the bright sunshine, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Spring is just around the corner.  Wednesday was spectacularly clear; the blue sky was bluer than any of the numerous blue skies I have seen in this city over the years.  It was certainly the sharpest possible contrast with the weather I had to endure on my last visit here, in January 2008, when the heavens opened for the length of my stay.  But, more to the point, what of the mood of the city?  Bright, like the weather that greeted me this time round; or grey with perhaps brooding clouds on the horizon? 

  The city's vital statistics are indeed slowing down.  Reuters, for instance, reports that: “Shanghai set for lowest growth in 17 years”.   But this is a slow-down with Chinese characteristics.   Those who read past this doomsaying headline would have been surprised by its negativity, because the full story is that Han Zheng, the mayor of Shanghai, has said that the city’s GDP growth in 2009 is forecast to drop to… wait for it… “nine per cent”! 


  It’s also reported that the mayor said that “2008 was a difficult year for Shanghai’s economic development”.  All the figures aren’t in yet, but it’s thought that the 2008 end-of-year figure is likely to around 10%.  Outside of China, it’s hard to believe that any other city’s mayor would be bemoaning a double-digit growth.

  Judging by the proliferation of construction projects I’ve seen around town, it seems that the city’s chiefs have been digging deep into their municipal reserves to ensure that Shanghai’s fire continues to burn brightly.  It's as if a good few flocks of cranes – that had moved north to Beijing several years ago –  to help that city get its infrastructure into shape for the Olympics, have now returned to their "natural" home.

  In the past few days, I’ve spoken to a broad section of people – from brand managers to club owners; from students to a DJ; and from taxi drivers to a construction worker; and the mood, although somewhat cautious when the time frame of “the next 12 months” is mentioned, is still decidedly optimistic.  As one taxi driver, Mr Zhang, told me: 


  “China has survived the most terrible hardships in the past 100 years, what’s happening now is nothing.  We’ll easily get through it.” 


  Taxi drivers the world over seem have their fingers on their city’s or country’s pulse, so Mr Zhang’s views are certainly worth listening to. 

  Another “taxi test” is the supply-demand equation (available taxis vs waiting punters).  Judging by the dearth of cabs displaying “For Hire” signs in the evening in this city, it seems that Shanghai doesn’t have too much to worry about.  A few evenings ago I walked for two hours and didn’t see a single taxi with an illuminated sign – much to the chagrin of the numerous people waiting in the cold night air for tens of thousands of drivers to finish their extended evening slots with their families.   Taxi drivers, at least, are in no rush to work extra hours for a little bit more financial security.


But what about the mood in the rest of the country?  No doubt that people are being laid off in droves and that many, many more are fearing for their jobs.  No doubt also that consumer confidence indices are down; and that people are generally pessimistic about the next 12 months.  But when one asks people what they feel about “the future”, rather than about the short term, one tends to get a rather different response. 


One of the best places to find and to talk to Chinese people from outside of Shanghai is the Bund (the area that runs for about a mile, adjacent to the Huang Po river – directly opposite the skyscrapers of Pudong).  It was there I met three friends, each in their mid-twenties.  They were from different places, had pursued very different careers, but they spoke as one about the future. 


Now, although they were what consumer research companies would call “a good qualitative group”; as a group of three, their opinion obviously cannot possibly be held to be representative of “young people in China”.  I will have to have the same outcome in a few dozen more of these types of discussions, in many different places, before being in any position to claim that the hypothesis that I’m unfolding here has any statistical robustness.  But, nonetheless, my instinct tells me that I was hearing the voice of the young people of China:


“Of course times are really difficult,” said Mr Li, a pipe salesman from Xian, Sha’anxi province, “A few people have been laid off in my company, so of course I’m worried”.


His friend, Miss Wang, from Xiangfan in Hubei province, who is a salesperson for a wholesaler of mobile phones, nodded in agreement.  Miss Cao, from Nanyang in Henan, was expressionless.  She is a state kindergarten teacher, and the only one of the three who has complete job security in these times.


“Yes, the world is in a mess,” said Miss Wang. 


Miss Cao was quick to jump in on this: “Yes, so many problems… the global recession, the problems in Palestine…”


“Some say there’s going to be a war in the Middle East,” responded Miss Wang.


“No there won’t be,” said Mr Li, “there’s too much to lose”.  “Mr Obama, won’t let that happen.”


It was wonderful to listen to these young people talk so animatedly and knowingly about world affairs – thanks due to the Internet of course, not to mention the decision to fast-track its roll-out.


Mr Li was on a roll: “Obama will save the world.  But even so it’s going to be a difficult 2009 for all of us.”


They all nodded.  But when the subject turned to “their future”, there was a very different response. 


“The economic problems in China are short term,” said Miss Cao.


“Yes,” said Mr Li, “short term.”   “…We Chinese have come a long way.  These present difficulties won’t set us back.  It’ll just make us stronger”. 


All three of them nodded.


A change in the weather?