The two golden ages of Shanghai

First impressions linger, maybe longer than they should. I arrived in Shanghai late on a rainy night. People were scurrying about with umbrellas and flapping raincoats. Here and there a raucous bar or restaurant produced some noise and laughter, but the streets outside were glistening, dark, and silent, in some places strangely deserted for a city of thirty million people. The Suzhou Creek looked oily black and sinister. In short, the impression fitted perfectly with the old gangster movies of Shanghai in the 1920s. Anything could have happened on those streets; a body dumped in the Creek would disappear without trace.

By day, Shanghai was much more the city of skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls that I had expected; even the Suzhou creek didn’t look so dirty. A bittern-like bird was catching fish in its waters, so it can’t have been that bad. But the impression from that first night lingers.

Suzhou Creek, looking towards Pudong, Shanghai

Suzhou Creek, looking towards Pudong, Shanghai

Shanghai is unlike the rest of China. The contrast with the other mega-city of China, Beijing, is especially striking. Shanghai’s distinct character is conditioned by its special history, which in turn has been conditioned by its geography.

Shanghai sits at the mouth of the Yangzi (Yangtze) River, which up to the twentieth century was the key commercial route to the interior of China. The city grew first on that internal trade, processing cotton grown locally into cloth and shipping it up the river on the flat-bottomed, shallow-water-capable ‘sand junks.’

With this fact in mind, the imperialist powers who sought to prise open the Chinese market to capitalist penetration made their principal base here. Shanghai was the most important of the five ‘Treaty Ports’ which China was forced to open to foreign trade after China’s defeat by British forces in the First Opium War in 1840. The city grew even faster on this foreign trade: the export of silks, tea, and ceramics, and above all, the imports of opium.

Astor House Hotel, in continuous operation since 1853

Astor House Hotel, in continuous operation since 1853

Shanghai was their springboard for the exploitation of all China. First Britain, then France and the United States, created ‘concessions’ in Shanghai, sectors of the city controlled as direct colonial enclaves, strictly demarcated and policed by British, French or American armed forces, beyond the reach of Chinese law. Japan followed suit in 1893, establishing a concession in the Hongkou district. A large Russian expatriate community also grew up, without its own concession, settling mainly in the French district. More than a hundred years later, this still distinguishes Shanghai: there are far more foreigners here than anywhere else – French, German, American, Russian, British tourists and expatriates crowd the Bund. English is widely spoken here.

Where Beijing best represents Fortress China, self-sufficient and distrustful of all things foreign, Shanghai is China’s gateway to the world, and the world’s point of entry to China. In class terms, if Beijing best encapsulates the survivals of pre-capitalist China, the emblems of the celestial empire and a large collection of villages, Shanghai epitomises bourgeois China, with all the good and bad that that implies.

European style buildings on the Shanghai Bund

European style buildings on the Shanghai Bund

Shanghai’s architecture reflects the city’s two ‘golden ages’. The first was in the 1920s.  The architecture of the Bund (the Huangpu river front) represents this period: a long row of solid buildings in European style, housing banks, stock exchanges, hotels and commercial warehouses. One example, the Astor House Hotel, established in Shanghai in 1853, opened a grand new building in 1911, and has maintained a continuous operation to this day. West of the Bund lie leafy districts of opulent art deco houses and cafes also dating from this period.

French Concession house

1920s house in former French Concession district

The second ‘golden age’ is the most recent two or three decades, which have transformed Pudong, until recently an area of swampy farmland on the opposite side of the Huangpu river, into one of the most striking rows of modern skyscrapers in the world.

Skyscrapers in Pudong, Shanghai

Skyscrapers in Pudong, Shanghai

The first golden age began with the revolution of 1911, which overthrew the last imperial dynasty and loosened the feudal fetters on the development of capital. Modern cotton mills and other capitalist industries sprang up in the concession areas and on the outskirts, drawing workers from the surrounding countryside.

The foreign capitalists who were the chief beneficiaries of this golden age grew very wealthy, as the buildings along the Bund show. They got a taste of the riches they would enjoy if they could only conquer the whole of China. The prize, they thought, was ready to fall into their hands.

But the growth of capitalism also brings the growth of the class which will bury capitalism: the proletariat. A powerful working class assembled in the factories of the concessions. These workers felt the insult to China’s sovereignty far more deeply than their bourgeois overlords. It was no accident that the first party of the proletariat in China, the Chinese Communist Party, was formed in Shanghai at precisely this time and place.

Seventy thousand workers at the Japanese cotton mills in Shanghai went on strike in 1925. When British police fired upon a demonstration by these workers, killing seven, the strike spread to the whole working class of Shanghai. (A similar killing of 57 demonstrating workers by British and French police in Guangzhou led to a general strike in Guangzhou and Hong Kong a short time later.)  The rebellion spread inland to the peasantry, who demanded relief from debts, and soon began occupying the land. The bourgeois nationalist party supported by the wealthy merchants of Shanghai, the Kuomintang, looked on with alarm.

Shanghai worker arrested by Kuomintang troops 1927

Shanghai worker arrested by Kuomintang troops 1927

The Communist Party at this time was bound by a policy of support to the Kuomintang, and when the Kuomintang turned on the working class, the workers were disarmed. Kuomintang troops occupied the industrial districts of Shanghai and carried out a bloody massacre of the Shanghai workers (I have written in more detail about this here.) The consequences of this defeat were colossal: it spelled the end of Shanghai’s first golden age, and accelerated the city’s descent into gangsterism and corruption, and ultimately, war. The door to a  Japanese assault on China had been opened.

The rapid capitalist development of Shanghai’s present-day golden age will also inevitably give birth to a working class movement, just as it did 90 years ago, but with some notable differences from that time.

Chinese flags flying on the Bund

Chinese flags flying on the Bund

On the one hand, Shanghai, although it is China’s largest city with a metropolitan population of 34 million, is now only one of many large industrial cities in China. It remains one of the world’s largest ports, yet its relative importance to trade in China has also diminished. While boats still ply the Yangzi, there is now an extensive rail and road network, and many other seaports and airports connecting China’s internal market with the rest of the world.  Shanghai will be a major component of any future proletarian movement, but not the beginning and end of the movement that it once was.

On the other hand, today Chinese flags fly proudly from every building on the Bund. The bourgeois class that occupies the art deco houses and cafes of the former French concession area, and the modern skyscrapers, is predominantly Chinese. So resistance towards foreign domination will most likely be a lesser element than it was in the 1920s.

And most importantly of all, the working class in China is immeasurably stronger – numerically, economically, and in its general level of culture and experience, than it was in 1925.

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