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This is the way things often get done in Shanghai. The rule is no rules, only relationships. As one Shanghai businessman says, "I pick my lawyer based on the judges he knows."
The Zhou case eventually brought about significant reforms in the city's real-estate market open land tenders and, more recently, land auctions. But penalties are still wildly inconsistent. Mr. Zhou was finally sentenced to three years in jail.
Last July, by startling contrast, Xiao Hongbo, a 37-year-old deputy branch manager at the China Construction Bank, was executed for filching four million yuan ($600,000) from customer accounts to support his eight mistresses (about seven more than was wise).
"If you don't have a strong backer," a well-established Shanghai resident insists, "it's a bullet to your head, and they charge the bullet to your family."
Even today, Chinese journalists here will write out Zhou Zhengyi's name rather than say it aloud in public.
"This is a police state, don't kid yourself," another businessman says. "And the Chinese are obedient compared to others."
Nevertheless, over the past 20 years, 90 per cent of the population of Shanghai has moved or been relocated to new, more spacious digs. The Western press has questioned many of these expropriations, and the way people are replanted in the suburbs like so many cabbages. But Shanghai's density improves as the high-rises rise.
"Foreign journalists didn't understand the crowded living conditions in Shanghai," Sijia Yu, the city planning department's 37-year-old chief, told me one morning. "Sometimes three generations lived in one single room. That means six or seven people crowded into less than 10 square metres. In the early 1980s, the residential space of each person in Shanghai was the size of a newspaper. Now, almost everyone in Shanghai enjoys a space the size of a room 13 square metres."
One afternoon, walking through the secondhand market in Qiujiang Road you can buy anything here: a drill press, a bike ($20), a copy of Microsoft Office (60 cents), Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head (75 cents), a DVD of the just-released movie Collateral ($1.10) I see an old man leaning out of a second-floor window of an old shikumen alley house. He waves me up.
I walk down a dark alley, past a nest of wires and clotheslines, past a foursome playing mahjong, up a steep flight of narrow, shallow steps, through a common cooking room shared by six families and into a small flat.
His name is Zhang Guan Qing. He's 74. The place is spotless. His cuffs are turned up. He lives here with his 72-year-old wife, Sun Ying Di. They didn't always: Back in the 1960s, they lived on Henan Road in Zhabei District, behind his father's house. His father was a factory owner. One day in 1967, the Red Army confiscated everything they owned, to punish him for his father's "bad family behaviour."
The young couple were so embarrassed that they moved here to disappear into a teeming slum, to raise three children in a 34-square-metre, three-room apartment half the size of a small studio flat in Toronto. That was 37 years ago. They never left.
Lots of reasons are given for Shanghai's residential makeover. One that's seldom mentioned is the desire to repair China's past, to brick up the memory of the Cultural Revolution and the pain it forced into so many lives.
Shanghai's cheap. A quart of milk is 75 cents, a six-pack of Tsingtao beer $2.40. A full set of knock-off Callaway clubs, in a Callaway bag, with Callaway golf shoes in a Callaway golf shoe bag, will set you back $225. You can buy a counterfeit watch in a counterfeit box with a counterfeit warranty.
But civic life costs more and more. The average Shanghaiese makes 7,416 yuan a month, or about $13,380 a year. Most estimates say you have to make twice that to qualify as middle class, which 20 per cent of the city does. But the Shanghai Municipal People's Government auctions car licence plates to the highest bidders: This year, the price averaged more than 40,000 yuan, half the cost of some cars.
The outside wall of the Hongkou District Primary School on Zhongzhou Road bears four words, in English and in Chinese, in foot-high golden letters: HARMONIOUS PROGRESSIVE STURDY INNOVATIVE. But education costs have doubled for the average Shanghai family since 1995. Paying money to obtain entrance to a good school is not unknown, nor is (a new development) paying for good grades.
Hospitals are ostensibly free, but any urgent surgery in Shanghai requires "the red package" a 50,000 yuan ($7,500) cash payment to the doctor (who makes only $450 or so a month).
"If you pay the guy so little," a long-time resident of Shanghai points out, "you can't expect him to have high morals."