Why should we care? Because Shanghai is more than just the biggest city in the world's biggest country; it is a great experiment in urban living, and it could affect the way we all live. Bob Simon reports.
Shanghai was a rusting industrial hulk in 1992, when the leaders of China's Communist Party decreed that it should be rebuilt overnight, and rival -- perhaps even surpass -- New York and Paris and Tokyo. Today, the Chinese are still at it, building the city of the future. But is it the future of George Jetson, or George Orwell? Bob Simon went halfway around the world to find out.
There are 16 million stories in Shanghai, but the best story may be the city itself. Great cities are usually built by people over centuries. They evolve. The new Shanghai was built by a political party over a decade. Only a communist regime can do that sort of thing. Think of it. All this construction without a single industrial dispute. No strikes, no slowdowns, no protests by environmentalists. The Republican dream finally come true, in Communist China.
For several years in the 1990s, more than half of the building cranes in the world were in Shanghai. Here are some of the things they built: China's tallest building with offices on the first 55 floors, and luxury hotel rooms, with a view, all the way up to 88; The Pearl TV tower, which looks like a giant hypodermic straight out of Buck Rogers.
The Shanghai Stock Exchange, the building with the hole in the middle, a symbol perhaps of just how open the city is to foreign investment. The message: capitalists of the world unite, in Shanghai.
"I like to compare this period of time with, say, the 19th century California gold rush. You know, here's the wild wild East," says Shanghai club owner Tony Zhang. "It's like a blank piece of paper that you can draw whatever you want. And it's high risk with potentially high return."
Zhang is a Shanghai story. He was born here in 1965, but emigrated to the United States and was educated in California. Then he moved back to Shanghai six years ago, because this is where he thought the action was. Tony Zhang now runs one of the trendiest clubs in town. If you don't have a booking forget it, unless you're young and beautiful.
Says Zhang: "I feel a lot more entrepreneur spirit in this city than, say, back in Los Angeles, because over here everything is unknown. I wake up in the morning every day, I don't know what to expect."
Shanghai is filled with fashionable people. This was a surprise, because last time Simon was there, in 1984, everyone wore the same drab blue and gray clothes. In 1984, You could still buy your chickens on the street.
The New Shanghai hasn't completely erased the old town. There are still tiny islands with narrow lanes and neighborhoods so crowded everyone knows what you're having for dinner, whether you wear boxers or briefs, and when you last took a bath.
That old Shanghai, though, had a shady reputation. After all, it's the only city with a felony named after it. To be "Shanghai'ed" is to be seduced, or taken somewhere against your will. The old Shanghai earned its reputation in a haze of opium, as a town with many parties, none of them political.
The colonial elite called Shanghai "The Pearl of the Orient" and lived in splendor. The Chinese served them, and lived in squalor. That era ended with the Communist revolution - the last one. This new communist revolution is focused on bringing the capitalists back.
"I believe in this case, government created a spark," says Zhang. "But the people will make it happen. The entrepreneur is the one, you know, who makes it possible."
Will the people in Shanghai become demanding of the government in other ways? "I can see China only going to go in one direction, which is becoming increasingly more open," he says.
"Shanghai is like Chicago or New York City. It's a gotta-get-it-going town," says Philip Murtaugh, who runs General Motors' $1.5 billion-dollar operation in China, including this factory that turns out shiny new Buicks, luxury cars that are made in China, by Chinese workers, for Chinese consumers. GM sold only 65,000 cars here last year, but Murtaugh is betting that lots of poor Chinese soon will be earning enough to move from bicycles to Buicks.
Why did GM start with a $40,000 car in a country that has an $800 annual salary? "The reason is that that's what the govt wanted us to build," says Murtaugh.
What the government wants, the government gets. It's a 50 percent partner in the GM factory. So GM is providing the automobiles for China's new rich.
There weren't many new rich in the seedy, industrial neighborhood we went to next. We were looking for a more personal view of the new Shanghai, and we got it from Danny Woody.
"This is a very modern city. You know, the people try to dress nice. They wanna have nice things. They wanna own cars, just like, everybody else. You know, they wanna have nice things," says Woody.
Woody buys old Chinese military motorcycles, and refurbishes them to the tastes of wealthy Western motorcycle aficionados. Woody took Simon for a spin around town in one of his better-selling models. He's been living in Asia for ten years, the last five in China. In Shanghai, he's found the perfect mix of the foreign and the familiar. Or that's one way of putting it.
Woody is single. The scene, says Woody, is "fabulous. Are you kidding me? I'm a walking dead man in L.A. I'm over 50. But in China, you know, I'm an older guy. People like older people. They respect 'em."
Woody is having a good time in a city where many of the sights would be familiar, or at least understandable, to most Americans. But there is one difference here.
He is living under a Communist regime. How does he feel about that? "I see things that I don't like. You know, but I see things in America that I don't like. So it's, it's a give-and-take. There's rules here, just like there's rules in America. You don't want to break the rules here. I don't want to be a law-breaker here."
Says Woody: "You don't want to talk bad about the government, you know. That's, that's to me, is scary."
That's the thing about Shanghai: everything appears to be up to date. But behind the image is an unchanging reality: Shanghai is still a one-party town.
Just ask Mian-Mian. She explained to us just how the rules are enforced in the New Shanghai. We met at her apartment one night, while she was taping a scene from a movie, which was being made without benefit of government approval.
The movie is a Chinese version of "Friends" Mian-Mian wrote the script, with a big part in it for herself.
Mian-Mian wrote a novel on a similar theme, called "Candy." One of the big government-run publishing companies put out the book. But after a few months on the best-seller list, the very same government ordered it removed from bookstores. "Candy" was banned in China.
Why? 'I'm thinking maybe my book have too much detail about, about young people go out, sleep around, talk drug. Because this is the first book in China to talk about this," says Mian Mian.
Still, Mian-Mian believes the government can't control the future. "All the information is coming. You know, we can easily go to Internet. We can very easily get the music we like. It's not like before. And we can watch every film, new film, from Hollywood, from different countries. Shanghai now, the window is open."
With her book banned, Mian-Mian now makes a living planning parties for Shanghai's new rich at fashionable clubs and restaurants. The next night, she and her friend, an actress named Fifi, took us to one of those clubs to meet a local singer.
His name is Coco, and he got his start studying classical music at a conservatory, but gave that up to sing the classics of American pop. He comes from Hunan, the same province where Mao was born. But that's where the similarities end. Coco does not follow the party line about Shanghai.
Says Coco: "I think Shanghai is a very feminine city. I just have this feeling. I think Shanghai's like a, like a wealthy girl. She's very nice at this second. And she can treat you very awful the next second. Very spoiled. And can turn its face like the weather in summertime."
Coco is hip, flamboyant, and openly acknowledges that he's gay. A few years ago, that combination would have landed Coco a healthy dose of re-education. It would be too much to say that everything goes in Shanghai today. But most everything seems to be coming.
Xudong Zhang was born and raised here, but now teaches at New York University. On a recent visit, Professor Zhang was shocked, positively shocked by the sights and sounds of the new Shanghai. Call-in shows, for instance, are now very popular on Government-run radio stations.
What do people call in and want to talk about? "All kinds of things. You can talk about homosexuality. You can talk about how to make money. You can talk about personal ambition. Of course, there are certain areas that nobody would want to touch upon."
For example? "Well, political, you know. Say the Parliamentary democracy, for example. Party politics. Freedom of the press. That's absolute taboo. And people know that."
But Xudong Zhang thinks that Mao would not like Shanghai if he saw it today.
In effect, the old city has been Shanghaied by progress. The new city is cleaner, faster and richer, of course. But amidst the high rises and the high expectations, there are no streetside soup kitchens, no hand laundry service or outdoor baths. There is no place for old men to tell long stories. There is no looking back anymore. In sum, there is no Chinatown in Shanghai, there are no odors of dumplings or barbecued duck.
Says Xudong: "I think you cannot help but having a sense of loss, because a certain form of life is disappearing. It's just becoming another city and in that sense the old Shanghai is gone or at least its days are numbered."
Simon sent a postcard from Shanghai's squeaky clean international airport before he left. We have seen the future, he said, and we're coming home.