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Shanghai surprise

Continued from Page 5

That's a Shanghai attitude. There's more genuine socialism in Alberta.


Shanghai slows down at night: There are fewer cars, the street lamps wash the city in yellow sodium light, the smell of cooking leaks through the streets. This is a good time to walk and think about what life is going to be like in the West when China controls the world the way America has — what it's going to be like when we work for them, as Noranda's employees soon may.

I see foursomes of young women on their way to a midnight snack (dumplings or crayfish, a Shanghai tradition), linked arm in arm ("I think it's an extension of the single-child policy," Richard Xavia says, "so they all treat each other like brothers and sisters"). Then I think China is the most innocent place on Earth.

Other times, I see people working harder than they ever do in North America — migrant workers welding through the night high up on buildings wrapped in bamboo scaffolding and green netting — and I think, we don't stand a chance.

A Canadian diplomat I talk to, a deeply experienced China hand, puts it more diplomatically. "What is the moral imperative of China's leadership?" he says. "It may simply be that there are a lot of Chinese. But the fact that they want to live as well as they can in a middle-class way in a city, with maybe Manhattan as their model — is that so unfair? Is it unfair of them to want their life expectancy to be higher than 50?"

It is not. It's just that there are a billion-three of them. It's just that China has a habit of giving way to sheer momentum, whether it takes the form of enslaving emperors, opium-dealing foreigners, Communist ideologues or brash capitalists.

"You always hear about 5,000 years of Chinese civilization," Handel Lee says one afternoon, sitting on a black leather couch in his office in front of what looks like a first-century Chinese bronze ding, or food dish.

Mr. Lee is a Chinese-born, American-educated mergers and acquisitions lawyer who also happens to be chairman and co-owner of the $62-million Three on the Bund project. He is 43 years old.

"But what was that culture? It was a civilization based on philosophy and art. Not on the Chinese military or on a political philosophy — merely on art, and history.

"And since 1949, it's gone. Contemporary Chinese culture — well, look at it. It's this rapacious economic behemoth, ripping the place apart. But it's got no heart. It's got no soul."

Mr. Lee hopes that his favourite project, the Shanghai Gallery of Art, will bring that lost culture back to China. The gallery flaunts the most subversive modern art in China today — the work of artists who left the country under the Communists, such as Sui Jianguo's looming polyester dinosaurs (stamped Made In China and sprayed Chinese red) or Xu Bing's sly investigation of tobacco imported so profitably into Shanghai by the British American Tobacco Corporation a century ago (one out of every three cigarettes in the world is smoked in China, where 750,000 die of lung cancer a year).

Mr. Lee hopes that such art will introduce an idea as radical in China as it is these days in Washington — that individual expression and resistance might keep the excesses of both Western capitalism and Chinese authoritarianism at bay.

Of course, no one can truthfully predict how free Shanghai will be of either force — nothing like Communist-capitalist China has ever happened before. You could just as safely follow the advice of a slogan I spot one night on a construction hoarding in Shanghai: Adore The World. Be After It. Be In It.

In a city of 17 million, everything gets to be true at least some of the time.

I leave a couple of days later, taking Shanghai's high-speed train to the new Pudong Airport. The Mag-Lev train covers the 30 kilometres — a trip that can take an hour and a half in a car — in eight minutes.

The station is spotless, and almost empty, like a landscape in a science-fiction movie. It's the first time I've been alone in public in two weeks. Attendants in light-blue dresses stand around and smile.

I sit facing forward, and watch the orange digital read-out in the train record our speed. We are banking sharply through the Sunqiao agricultural zone, land that has been farmed for centuries, when the Mag-Lev hits 408 kilometres an hour.

I look out at the impossible green of China, at the bamboo bent to shelter the growing food, at the rice fields and the human specks tending them. But as soon as I focus, they are gone, while the train races forward to a new surprise.

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