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