I am fortunate to visit Shanghai regularly as part of supporting the China Leaders for Global Operations program, the sister program of MIT LGO. Shanghai is an almost cartoonishly ultramodern megacity, particularly in the Pudong area across the river from the old downtown. Basically rice paddies and a few warehouses in the 80s, Pudong is now home to the world’s second-tallest skyscraper and dozens of other buildings that would dwarf everything else in Boston or most places. Check out this amazing timelapse of Pudong from 1987 to 2013 and my photo below of the glowering Shanghai Tower, capped out at 2073 feet and almost ready to be crowned with the Great Eye of Sauron to become fully operational.
The amazing displays of state and personal wealth you see in Shanghai’s central business district are all the more striking because they both contrast with traditional images Westerners may have of Communist rule, and are also fully representative of / controlled by the Communist leadership of the country. One evening my colleague and I had dinner in a mall where every last store was a global elite luxury brand. We were seated in the restaurant between a guy wearing Prada and a woman wearing Burberry, while I (ahem) was rockin’ a Costco dress shirt…non-iron! Yet even amidst these outward signs of super-luxe, you do still see people on utility trikes collecting scrap metal, and our Chinese colleagues talked about how hard it was to make ends meet living in Shanghai.
In looking at these and other contrasts in China, I find a helpful guide to be the work of writer James Fallows (whom I got to meet at MIT in 2012). His basic take is that China today is like ‘ol Walt Whitman, contradicting itself and containing multitudes. Yes, there are incredible scenes of people honking the horns of their Bentleys to get a scrap-metal bike to move along, and no, it’s not clear how the success of bringing so many millions out of poverty (and a good chunk to Prada-wearing riches) will be reconciled with the continued lack of free expression and arbitrariness of state rule. But for all these reasons, along with its sheer scale in the world economy, China is all the more essential for Westerners to deal with and try to understand. I am lucky this program gives me the chance to try and do that.
Just on this trip we discovered a new area in which these contradictions are evolving. You may have heard about the massive anti-corruption drive launched this year by Xi Jinping, trying to throttle back some of the excesses of Party and state-owned company officials taking advantage of their positions to become super wealthy. The latest wrinkle is that officials are now banned from taking executive MBA programs, some of them partnerships of Chinese and Western universities, on the theory that both the officials and others who sign up for the EMBAs are doing to to create illicit networking opportunities. You can ask, aren’t all EMBA programs about networking? But even leaving that aside, what is striking for me is that this edict took effect more or less immediately. One dean quoted in the FT says that all officials enrolled in EMBA programs at his school had already withdrawn, with the execs from state-owned companies likely to follow suit. This is just a teeny microcosm of how the Party is trying to evolve policy and maintain the country’s acceptance of their rule, but it shows how academic relationship-building and the slow accumulation of trust and good practice are challenged by working within a system in which the ground rules can change very quickly.