May 2011

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By Denise Ho

At the base of the Oriental Pearl Tower is an exhibition of Shanghai history. The Shanghai History Exhibition Hall (Shanghai chengshi lishi fazhan chenlieguan), created in consultation with the Shanghai History Museum, recreates dioramas of everyday life in the Republican era (1912-1949). A popular tourist attraction for domestic and foreign visitors alike, it has attracted commentary from scholars and China-watchers for two reasons. The exhibition, which focuses on entertainment culture, is taken to represent popular nostalgia for the glamour of the 1920s and 1930s. Others remark upon the fact that the exhibition is decidedly apolitical; neither the labor movements of the period nor the founding of the Communist Party is featured, and these omissions are interpreted as evidence that revolution has dropped out of history. Instead, the vignettes of “old Shanghai” celebrate a history that was both modern and cosmopolitan, a history which serves today’s agenda of economic growth and globalization.

One diorama, however, is neither modern nor cosmopolitan. Past a scene of singing Chinese choir boys and another tableau of swirling dancers in an elegant ballroom, a series of straw-thatched hovels comes into view. This diorama depicts an urban shantytown; mannequins dressed in rags stand in front of slum dwellings that recede into a trompe-l’oeil background under a grey and ominous sky. Though this shantytown scene contrasts sharply with the rest of the exhibition, there is no explication of it, and the visitor could easily overlook the beggar mannequins on his way to the next diorama of consumer culture and urban leisure.

While the shantytown diorama might be viewed as an out-of-place curiosity or perhaps ignored altogether, it actually has a history as an exhibition, one which is older than the presentation of any of the other buildings presented in the Shanghai History Exhibition Hall. In fact, the diorama presents two histories. The first is the history of the urban poor, the story of refugees and laborers who lived on the margins of Shanghai society, and who built makeshift homes in the International Settlement and concentrated in the Chinese-governed area of Zhabei. This narrative has been explored by historians such as Hanchao Lu and Janet Chen, and Christian Henriot has described the particular wartime devastation of Zhabei District. The second history is less well-known, and that is the history of exhibiting the poverty of pre-Liberation Shanghai. In the Maoist era, a fragment of the shantytown was preserved, an artifact of the past saved for propaganda.

This exhibition was located in Fangua Lane, the site of a residential “new village” in the experimental district of Zhabei in post-Liberation Shanghai. Fangua Lane, located north of Suzhou Creek and near the Shanghai Railway Station, was one of the largest slums in the city when the Communist Party came to power in 1949. The area, caught between the Chinese and the Japanese during the war, was literally burned to the ground; in the aftermath of war, the municipal government did not rebuild and refugees fleeing civil war poured in. In 1949 the Fangua Lane area hosted over 3,800 of the straw-thatched shacks and makeshift tents that comprised the slum. Naming the area an “experimental district,” the new Communist government addressed problems of labor and sanitation, and in the 1960s it built 31 five-story buildings, which provided housing and utilities over 1,800 households. While these concrete apartment blocks will be familiar to any contemporary traveler to China as remnants of the Socialist period, in the 1960s they were entirely new. To underscore the new buildings and their promise of New China, the Zhabei People’s Committee and the Shanghai Municipal Cultural Relics Commission preserved eighteen of the old thatched huts on the northern edge of Fangua Lane New Village. Thus, even while completing new buildings in 1965, the state simultaneously engaged in creating a life-size exhibition that juxtaposed conditions in the “old society” before 1949 and the “new society” since “Liberation.” In two of the old houses, the Cultural Relics Commission put up an exhibition called “Fangua Lane Past and Present.” Over the years of the Cultural Revolution, Fangua Lane played host to thousands of official foreign tour groups and visiting schoolchildren. Foreign visitors were led through the old shacks and visited families in the new apartment buildings; the fragment of shantytown served as a backdrop for old residents who retold stories of their lives to Chinese schoolchildren. In 1977 the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee designed the site as a cultural relic unit (wenwu baohu danwei) and well into the reform period Fangua Lane was presented as an object lesson, a place to compare old and new (xinjiu duibi) and to contrast the bitterness of the past with the joys of the present (yiku sitian).

Stories about Fangua Lane would have been familiar to Shanghai residents, as the local newspapers covered the construction of the new buildings and the fate of its inhabitants. During the dramatic makeover of the neighborhood, the press included photographs of the new construction and poems about life in the new buildings, and portrayed celebratory moments at Chinese New Year. In all of its portrayals, Fangua Lane was taken to exemplify life in New China; its residents were examples of the laboring poor who had been oppressed in old society and who had “stood up” in New China. Reporters concluded that Fangua Lane was a microcosm of China and that the families taken together stood for the untold numbers of laboring people who had “stood up” (fanshen).

At face value, these narratives of the residents of Fangua Lane are typical examples of propaganda in Maoist China. Though the Communist understanding of history is premised on the idea that ordinary people are its makers, the characters of the Fangua Lane stories were flattened into political correctness and the recipients rather than the makers of history: a beggar who had suffered the twin oppressions of feudalism and imperialism was remade into a post-1949 Party Secretary, a laborer who had faced the greatest privations now found honorable work, and the old savored retired life in New China, surrounded by children who were educated and employed. Though we learn little about these people through their stories, we learn about the nature of propaganda: individuals with exemplary lives were presented as representative, the identity of the individual mattered less than the type of character they were chosen to portray, and model behavior and model narratives were outlined for all to imitate.

The exhibition of “Past and Present” within the larger exhibition of the shantytown remnants also illuminates the nature of propaganda and the usage of exhibitions as propaganda in the Maoist period. Here the boundaries between life and exhibition were blurred; Fangua Lane’s inhabitants were written into “Past and Present” and lived themselves in the apartments that were open for tourism. A visitor would see in the exhibition a dialogue between an elderly resident and a foreign friend before replicating the conversation himself. The beggar-turned-Party Secretary was featured in the display, and she might be standing in the courtyard when the visitor emerged from the preserved straw shack. The authenticity of narratives about “old society” was supported by numerous artifacts—by shreds of old clothing in the display, by the buildings themselves, and by the individuals who lived in Fangua Lane. Without the “old society,” it was explained, one could not understand the new. The objects of the old society were saved to lend credence to narratives of the new, no matter how much the foundations of new society were shaken.

Without this context, the shantytown diorama in the Shanghai History Exhibition Hall has no message. The fragment of slum saved as a “cultural relic unit” in the Maoist period gained its ideological message through juxtaposition with new buildings, through the narratives of old residents who related carefully crafted stories, and through an explicitly didactic exhibition. And yet, tucked in between scenes of commerce and culture and displays of entertainment and leisure, the shantytown diorama is a re-created artifact that shows what poverty lurked behind the neon lights of old Shanghai. In this way, its function echoes that of the Maoist-period Fangua Lane exhibition, and—especially if the Oriental Pearl Tower exhibition is meant to foreshadow life in today’s China—the shantytown diorama becomes the most political scene of all.

Denise Ho is assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky. Her first book, Antiquity in Revolution, studies the politics of culture in twentieth-century Shanghai through its museums and exhibitions.

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

The first thing I do when I begin an academic book is read the acknowledgements. I follow this habit for a number of reasons: I like to know who the author’s teachers and influences have been; I want to see which archives and libraries he or she has visited; and I often enjoy the glimpse I get into someone else’s life and work, whether or not we’ve ever met. A book’s bibliography tells me which sources the author has drawn on, but the acknowledgements are where I truly get a sense of the personal and material factors that helped shape that scholar’s research.

Those material factors come across most clearly in a paragraph of the acknowledgements that I usually just skim through, where the author provides a laundry list of different types of funding that have supported the scholar’s research over the years. Despite my often hasty read of this section, however, I have noticed that some grant programs appear more frequently than others, and their recurrence signals to me that those might be good places to look when I need money to finance my own research. After all, they’ve awarded money to generations of scholars whose work falls into the same geographic region or field of study as mine, so there’s a better-than-even chance that they’ll like my project too, right?

The Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) grants have long been one of those important funding programs, providing resources to more people than I can count and enabling them to travel to locations around the world for extended periods of fieldwork. The program’s mission is explicitly outward-looking: its description on the U.S. Department of Education’s website explains that projects funded by the Fulbright-Hays “deepen research knowledge on and help the nation develop capability in areas of the world not generally included in U.S. curricula” (excluding, for example, Western Europe). A product of the Cold War, the DDRA program was founded by the U.S. government in the early 1960s as part of a push to increase Americans’ understanding of the world around them by supporting educators who would conduct research abroad and then return home to share their work with students and colleagues. Ever since I entered graduate school three years ago, the Fulbright-Hays (and separate but related Fulbright-IIE) has loomed large in my mind; while I certainly didn’t assume that I was sure to receive one of these prestigious grants, I knew that the program had a significant history of funding dissertation projects involving research in China (including that of China Beat consulting editor Jeff Wasserstrom, a DDRA recipient in 1986-87).

That history took a big hit last week, when the Department of Education announced that due to budgetary shortfalls, the 2011-2012 Fulbright-Hays competition had been cancelled. No word about the program’s future, but in my eyes suspending the grants even once is dire enough.

I heard this news on Friday, less than 24 hours after passing the qualifying examinations that transformed me from a graduate student into a PhD candidate whose primary concern is now how to fund and execute a dissertation project. I wasn’t in this year’s Fulbright-Hays competition; I already knew that my research would be conducted stateside for the 2011-2012 academic year, so I didn’t apply. Putting together my application for next year’s competition, however, was going to be a big part of my summer, and that now looks like it might not be on my to-do list after all.

Are there other funding sources out there? Yes, absolutely; the Fulbright-Hays was by no means the only fish in the sea. It was, however, quite a big fish, one that provided awardees with a certain peace of mind and ability to carry out their work without having to negotiate multiple funding agencies and their bureaucracies. Applying for grants takes time—both the applicant’s and his or her advisor’s, who often have to write letters of recommendation—and even after a grant is awarded, the recipient must be vigilant about filing paperwork, ensuring that funds enter one’s bank account in a timely manner, and sending in reports at the end of the project explaining how the money was used. It is entirely possible to find multiple small grants that are collectively sufficient to support overseas dissertation research, but graduate students must squeeze the time-consuming application process into their ordinary teaching and research schedules, to say nothing of time they normally spend with friends and family.

It’s also worth mentioning that some of those alternative funding streams have been similarly reduced or eliminated in recent years, particularly for students at public institutions. In the University of California system, for example, the Pacific Rim Research Program—which has funded dissertation research for many students in East Asian studies, including another China Beat consulting editor, Kate Merkel-Hess—has been steadily eroded over the past few years. Everywhere graduate students turn, it seems, we find another door marked “Not accepting applications at this time.”

What concerns me most about the cancellation of the Fulbright-Hays isn’t necessarily its immediate effects on my colleagues and myself, though those aren’t insignificant. Rather, it worries me—even frightens me—that with this action the U.S. government is signaling its lack of commitment to education and forging bonds with communities abroad. Programs like the Fulbright-Hays grants aren’t just about supporting individual scholars; they have a larger mission of promoting work that collectively helps all of us contextualize the world we live in and recognize how it has come to look the way it does. By not providing the funding necessary to support this year’s crop of applicants, the government is implying that such work isn’t important, that we can exist in a global community but don’t need to understand it.

I have a shelf full of books whose acknowledgements indicate that American leaders grasped the significance of this mission in the past. I am now concerned, however, that few are willing to continue it into the future, and this loss, surely, will be to the detriment of all—not just graduate students.

By Chris Cherry

Li Fei
Beijing to Zhoujiapu village, Hebei

For an introduction to Chris Cherry’s “Factories without Smoke” photography series, see here.


By Xujun Eberlein

On April 2nd, entering China at Chengdu’s airport, I was held for a few extra moments and ordered to wait to the side. I watched as my passport was handed to a different desk, apparently for further scrutiny. This did not happen to my American husband who went through before me, nor to a couple of Chinese-looking people behind, nor to me on a previous trip two years ago. I asked what was wrong, and the stern-faced custom officer raised his voice, changing from Chinese to English: “Please wait a moment!”

His unfriendly tone concerned me, even after I got my passport back. I’m not a dissident. I don’t know the recently arrested outspoken Chengdu writer, Ran Yunfei (nor, for that matter, the renowned artist Ai Weiwei, who would be detained in Beijing the next day). But in China you never know what might happen, and I do have an English blog, on which I sometimes discuss “sensitive” topics.

I mentioned the customs incident to an American-Chinese writer friend. Like me, he had been an active participant in the first democracy movement after the Cultural Revolution, from the late 1970s to early 1980s, when we both were university students. But unlike me, he gave up commenting on current affairs, after a customs incident years ago in which he was nearly denied entrance into his native land. He now writes harmless fiction and gets no trouble whatsoever.

“Sounds like you’ve got yourself on some kind of black list now,” my politically-savvy friend said. “You are lucky to get your passport back. They were being lenient to you.”


I thought he’d mention my US citizenship, but no, he said, “Because your parents are old generation Communists, just like my parents. Without our parents, those in power today would have never gotten where they are.”

His reasoning would have been true three decades earlier. China’s political tightening-up comes in cycles. After the Cultural Revolution ended in the late 1970s, there had been a “second spring” period when the political atmosphere was quite relaxed, and we felt we could finally speak our minds without punishment. Boy were we wrong. Deng Xiaoping soon pushed down Beijing’s “democracy wall,” despite its role in securing his power. In 1983, Deng launched the “clean-up spiritual pollution” campaign against writers. One of my short stories got into the Central Propaganda Department (CPD)’s black list and I was threatened with big trouble. It was my parents who, through their connections, got me off the hook. But now my “old-generation Communist” parents are withered and feeble like candles flickering in the wind.

As soon as I arrived in Chengdu, I heard my 85-year-old father had just had an operation to install a pacemaker the day before in Chongqing, following a mid-night scare when his heart nearly stopped.


In the high-speed rail—called “dong che” by the locals—I watched the speedometer on the wall steadily rise to 200 kilometers per hour and stay there. Before I left China in 1988, it took an overnight train about 10 hours to travel the 350 kilometers from Chengdu to Chongqing. Two years ago, with the travel time reduced to four hours, I was already overjoyed. Now it takes only two hours. I heard that next year an even faster rail line would further reduce the travel time to one hour. Such is the speed of China’s development. Economic success in the past two decades has caused nearly all my old friends, including those who participated in the 1989 student movement, to feel that the government’s actions at Tiananmen Square were justified.

I went to see my hospitalized father, thinking of words to comfort him. To my surprise, he wasn’t much concerned about his heart; instead he told me he had been deeply depressed lately. This wasn’t like him, a jolly, sometimes silly, old man. I asked what was making him depressed. He said, “I keep thinking of the things I did wrong when I was young, like spreading the propaganda that the three-year famine was caused by natural disasters…”

Coincidentally, the topic of the famine years had also come up two days earlier in Chengdu, when I visited Liao Bokang, an 87-year-old man who had been Chongqing’s Party chief from 1983 to 1988. In Sichuan province (which then included Chongqing), the famine from 1959 to 1961 resulted in ten million starvation deaths, mostly in rural areas. That was one seventh of the province’s population. The famine was nation-wide as a consequence of the fanatic Great Leap Forward movement, but Sichuan was hardest hit because its then Party chief, Li Jingquan, transported a large amount of grain to Beijing and Shanghai, despite the province’s own severe food shortage. Unaware of this, people believed the Party media’s claim that the disaster was natural. Apparently, this widespread belief was what led starving peasants to quietly wait for their deaths without any protest.

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By Joshua K. Leon

The scale and speed of migration into Chinese cities is unprecedented in modern times. Consequently no single state has ever been pressed to alter its built environment so drastically in just one generation. Much has and will be written about this critical period in Chinese history, but three timely recent books stand out. The Concrete Dragon by Thomas J. Campanella lucidly describes the broader aesthetic alterations in Chinese cities during this planning and building boom. Shanghai Rising, a volume edited by Xiangming Chen, explores the complicated nexus of state power and global forces that underpins growth in the eponymous business capital. The Great Urban Transformation by You-Tien Hsing explains China’s furious territorial politics from a geographic perspective. Together these interdisciplinary works speak to the broader aesthetic, cultural, and territorial dimensions of urban China’s (literal) ascent. While urbanization is hardly unique to China, these books all give sufficient emphasis to the national context, and while they grapple with the requisite role of global forces in reshaping local environments, in toto they tell a story of urbanization with Chinese characteristics.

Already I find myself guilty, as Campanella might say, of trafficking in superlatives. The Concrete Dragon’s descriptive style allows the author to vividly capture the aesthetic changes happening in urban China. His descriptions derive from personal accounts as well as extensive research drawing on the author’s background in planning and architecture. The approach is resultantly visual (helped along by Campanella’s own photography). Campanella’s objective, to describe the contours and consequences of a “wholesale reinvention of the city as we know it,” cannot be done without first underscoring the vastness of China’s expansion (p. 15). Some sample evidence: In one recent year China put up 28 billion square feet of new housing, while in another it spent $400 billion on construction projects. Shanghai has added the equivalent of 334 Empire State Buildings worth of office space over a 14-year span (p. 15). Construction—and lots of it—is a defining feature of Chinese modernization.

Globalization is part of this story. Yet Campanella describes global influences operating in China not simply as exogenous denationalized market forces acting on a passive society, but as forces that have been harnessed by the state and an emergent affluent class. This serves as context for a much-needed discussion on suburban growth (population is actually falling in some urban cores, and instead spreading outward). New developments are roaring through urban peripheries, creating landscapes that are oddly international. A huge share of new residential development features foreign motifs, emblematic of China’s renewed place in world affairs and indicative of personal status. This is illustrative of China’s transition beyond the socialist ideal of housing as a commodity, toward housing as a consumer lifestyle. But nothing embodies the consumer transformation more than theme parks, of which China has more than any other country. Here too we see hybrid influences, from Buddhist revival to Soviet Communism according to Campanella, who devotes a full chapter to the subject. For instance, Shenzhen’s Minsk World is home to an actual mothballed Soviet aircraft carrier, replete with an attendant Russian MIG squadron. To apply Campanella’s analysis, we are seeing a reengagement between China and the world on a symbolic level embedded in its living spaces.

Xiangming Chen’s edited volume Shanghai Rising examines the unique nexus of global forces and developmental state policies that are transforming Chinese localities. Shanghai is catering more heavily to global markets in its development, but its success in doing so relies on state planning. Its economic transition from manufacturing toward higher value service sectors—insofar as it has been achieved—rests upon massive state investments in both publicly and privately utilized infrastructure.

The first set of essays in Shanghai Rising situate Shanghai’s increasingly prominent place among Asian cities. Shanghai experienced 12 percent annual growth since the 90s, and attracted nearly a quarter of China’s foreign direct investment in 2006 (p. xv). Despite this impressive rise, and its rapid development of state-of-the-art infrastructure, Shanghai is facing a shortage of high-end knowledge workers—a proverbial hardware versus software dilemma. Even though Shanghai’s built environment has come to resemble first-tier global cities like Hong Kong and Singapore (both the subject of comparative case studies), the complexion of its economy retains significant differences. For instance, as Tai-Lok Lui and Stephen W.K. Chiu emphasize, services make up less than half of Shanghai’s economy but virtually all of Hong Kong’s (p. 113). Despite their structural differences, however, there are two important reasons for comparing Shanghai to Asia’s existing knowledge capitals. First, Shanghai’s rise means competition in areas where these cities have long held competitive advantages. The top-tier global cities may have to reorient their traditional functions, particularly when it comes to managing investments in China. Shanghai’s rise raises the likelihood of competitive triangulation between cities, complicated further by Beijing (not the subject of a case study) which has a distinct attraction enjoyed by neither Shanghai nor Hong Kong: proximity to the central state, which retains considerable power in allocating national resources. Second, Shanghai too is beginning to deal with diminished competitiveness in certain sectors due to increased wages and land costs. As Ann R. Markusen and Pingkang Yu point out, its position could be perilous if new employment sectors do not quickly replace jobs lost in manufactures.

The second set of essays in Shanghai Rising deal variously with the global forces reshaping Shanghai localities. The built environment reflects Shanghai’s emergent globalism. The city’s rise has coincided with the emergence of globalized spaces from high-end shopping areas, to business centers, to a growing foreign residential presence. The essays in Shanghai Rising generally do not portray globalization as a ghost-in-the-machine exogenously acting on passive state and societal structures. Shanghai, by this narrative, has a distinct sense of efficacy as it modernizes, striving to harness global forces through an ambitious state. John D. Kasarda, for example, depicts global markets as a race to the swift in which the places that succeed are able to effectively organize their built environments to accommodate consumer demands. The just-in-time transport of many categories of physical goods must subdue time and space, making air shipping increasingly important in world trade. Airport clusters are consequently key components of urban economies, a competition that China has embraced with a binge of airport construction.

You-Tien Hsing’s The Great Urban Transformation is a magisterial study of territorial competition in core cities, as well as the urban fringes and (most wrenchingly) the rural hinterlands. Reform era decentralization and market restructuring initiated a scramble for authority over profitable redevelopment. Hsing draws on immersive field research—using colorful vignettes of her personal experiences at the beginning of each empirical chapter—and a formidable command of reform-era land laws. Competition over land is particularly fierce in China, she explains, because land rents are a vital source of government revenue for cities (land is still nominally controlled by the state).

As a consequence an entrepreneurial spirit pervades local governance. In core cities, “socialist land masters” hold authority over properties owned by the central state, a legacy of the top-down era (p. 34). They have de facto control over territory located within the jurisdictions of municipal governments, which for their part have sought to reclaim control of this valuable land by promoting redevelopment according to the logic of profits. In practice this means replacing money losing state-owned property usage with more capitalist oriented land uses such as “banks, hotels, retail shops, high-end commercial housing, and office towers” (p. 39). Meanwhile, urban fringes, the second set of geographic locations Hsing studies, are increasingly crucial points of territorial contestation as cities expand. There, urban governments encroach upon rural governments that once thrived on decentralized industrial development, subverting rural authority by staging dense urban development projects on former farmlands. On the rural outskirts, the third location studied by Hsing, semi-legal development projects legitimate the position of rural townships struggling to control land profits despite their legally ambiguous position.

Land is a major source of profit and revenue, but also an underlying source of inequality, subjecting entire communities to painful displacement. With a Jacobsean eye, Hsing explains why some communities are resilient to these pressures while others are not. Guangzhou’s Shuping Village, a historic settlement on the city’s urban fringe, has managed its autonomy in the face of what Hsing characterizes as an extractive governance structure. Villages in the city, she argues, have the distinct advantage of retaining collective legal rights over land, and remain under the authority of village collectives. This differs from core urban neighborhoods which are integrated into the municipal government’s authority structure. This anecdote makes the case that peasant villagers can thrive in urban fringe areas if they are semi-autonomous and sitting on land that appreciates in value because of urban growth. The system Hsing calls “village corporatism” also entails a distribution of profits through shareholding, though those without residential status are left out.

Despite this potential for exclusivity, Hsing sees village collectives as bright spots in grassroots civic engagement—shielding residents from displacement and enabling a lasting community identity among peasants while simultaneously diffusing the profits from development. Peasants on the rural fringe are less resilient. Urban expansion into these areas results in the mass expropriation of housing and farmland, and while this campaign has devolved at times into violent confrontation between peasants and developers, collective mobilization on the rural fringe remains comparatively weak. While Shuping Village could successfully assert legal claims over its territory, these communities are vulnerable to predatory displacements by more powerful urban governments seeking cheap land. “Therefore,” explains Hsing, “relocation is never a neutral movement between equal places” (p. 191). Opaque negotiations facilitated by developers create mistrust between villagers, precluding unified resistance. Demolition crews intimidate by cutting off services.

These fascinating passages by Hsing illustrate an inequality theme that runs vividly throughout all three books. The ambitious blend of technocratic state planning, land reform, and globalization that propels Chinese development forward has also created a noteworthy share of unforgiving living spaces.

Josh Leon teaches International Relations at Villanova University, and covered the 2010 Shanghai World Expo for Foreign Policy in Focus and Next American City. A longer version of this article appears in the June 2011 issue of Cities.

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