A contemporary history of China (Part III): precarious power


The post-1979 era of ‘opening and reform’ opened China’s economy to global capital. Since then the State has been managing this process to ensure its own political legitimacy and stability. As such it fuels a populist nationalism, embedded with anti-American and anti-Japanese feeling, and a neoconservative nostalgia for the past. Moreover, although Confucianism was rejected under Mao, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has since pursued a spiritual moralisation and harmonisation programme known as ‘new Confucianism’, in which “Confucius [has been] turned, through an extraordinary sleight of hand, into an advocate of profit and economic growth” (Mitter, 2005, page 295).

From the early 1990s, the pace and intensity of economic growth in China has been extraordinary. There has been a dramatic proliferation of rural migrants and consumer goods into the urban domain – stirring up two phenomena. On the one hand, there is the significant growth of labour unrest, which is the only political force capable of threatening State power. See my pieces, Chinese workers fight for democracy and China’s new worker militants, for more on this. On the other hand, there is a crisis of culture, particularly among China’s new (sociological) middle class. Wang (in Rosen, 2004) refers to an apolitical, material-seeking, ‘post-communist personality’ that rejects life under Mao and reflects the CCP’s drive for wealth. This, I suggest, operates in contradictory conjunction with what Yang (in Schein, 1999) identifies as a micro-political, ‘counterstate individualism’ expressed through consumerism.

History redux: the case of Shanghai

The city of Shanghai is worth briefly exploring to grasp the contemporary nature of a rapidly globalising, developing and urbanising China.

The city’s evolution is commonly identified through three main periods, commencing with the 1842-1945 imperial era. From a fishing village, the Nanking Treaty of 1842 established Shanghai as a major treaty port, attracting an influx of foreign capital and key imperial powers to transform it into a major financial and trade centre of the Far East and one of the leading cities in the world. Under the treaty-port system the city was divided into two wealthy foreign-run districts (which developed, at that time, the most advanced urban amenities in Asia, with the exception of Tokyo) and an impoverished Chinese municipality. These socio-economic districts, to this day, are apparent in the urban landscape: with the Western-style boulevards of the International Settlement and French Concession, known then and now as the ‘high corner’, and the industrial centres and shantytowns of the Chinese municipality, the ‘low corner’ (Wu, 1999, 2002; Wu and Li, 2005).

During this imperial era, Shanghai gained a reputation as ‘the Paris of the East’, ‘the bright pearl of the Orient’ and ‘the paradise of adventures’, and the Shanghaiese as natural entrepreneurs (Farrer, 2002; Zhang, 2002). Bickers (2004: 39-40) comments of the high corner of Shanghai in 1919:

This was a rhapsody to light, to modernity, style, display and opulence. […] Shanghai was not only a city of wealth, but a city unashamed of displaying wealth. […] East didn’t meet West in Shanghai: Russia met Britain, Japan met Portugal, India met France, and all met in China. And China met China there too. New China met ‘Old China’ […].

Furthermore, Shanghai had the repute as ‘the whore of Asia’ (Farrer, 2002) – with foreigners in the city sensitive to its association with bars and brothels.

In marked contrast then, the subsequent 1949-1976 Maoist era saw the end of this so-called Western decadence as the city’s doors were closed. Shanghai became one of China’s major industrial bases and ‘cash cows’ (meaning a significant proportion of its annual revenue was siphoned off for central government). The establishment of a number of work-units (compact, self-contained areas in the city) typified where many ordinary Shanghaiese both worked and lived.

The post-1979 opening and reform era has been shaped by a decentralisation (not a decline) of state power, the emergence of non-state economic players, and a new economic structure based on tertiary industries and a rationalised selection of primary ones (Han, 2000; Wu, 2003a). While the engines of the country’s early economic growth during the 1980s were the special economic zones (SEZs) in southern China, Shanghai itself was held back until the beginning of the 1990s (central government preferring instead to maintain the city as a reliable cash cow). In response to the international fallout of the 1989 military suppression of the Tiananmen Square uprisings, i.e., the easing of foreign capital to China, the CCP reasserted its commitment, symbolic and real, to opening and reform by announcing in 1990 the designation of its largest SEZ at that point in Pudong, east of Shanghai’s Huangpu River. This was twinned with the state’s ambition to make Shanghai China’s first global city (an international economic, financial and trade centre) (Han, 2000; Wu, 2003a).

View from Shanghai over to Pudong. (Photograph by Bassi)

Since the 1990s Shanghai has undergone an economic and building boom, which, in scale and pace, has arguably been exceptional in the history of global capitalism. The dominant symbols of the city are those of Western cultural commodities (Wu, 2003b). The city’s government has drawn upon the past imperial discourse of Shanghai as ‘Paris of the Orient’ in order to promote the place globally as a reawakening hub of entrepreneurialism, which is rediscovering and rekindling its internationalism and cosmopolitanism and restoring its place in the world order (Wu, 2003a, 2003b). Sensationalist journalism in the 1990s pitched the city as the ‘Far Eastern Promise’, ‘The Shanghai Bubble’ and the ‘Field of Dreams’ (Wu, 2003b). The target for its economy is to develop the largest trade and retail centre in China, as well as real estate, information services and tourism (Han, 2000). Shanghai has been marketed as a city of work and a city at play (Wu, 2003a), with the local government strategy to “create an internationalized and attractive image to global capital” (He and Wu, 2007:207). One consequence being that “the demand for pursuing exchange value overwhelms the demand for maintaining the everyday use value of old urban neighbourhoods”, so, notably, residential displacement (of poor people) from the inner city to the suburbs has been vast (Han, 2000; He and Wu, 2007:207; Zhang, 2002). Another consequence is the acute exploitation of labour-power, in particular, of the city’s millions of rural migrants.

The Old City, Shanghai. (Photograph by Bassi)

Rural migrants and the hukou

Rural migrants, because of the hukou or household registration system, work without basic legal rights and welfare benefits in China’s cities, since the hukou restricts such rights and benefits to one’s place of origin. The Financial Times (2013) estimates that there are 260 million rural migrant workers in China’s cities, which brings the total proportion of the population living in cities to 52.57%. 35.29% of the population have urban hukou. The idea of scrapping the hukou is resisted by local and central government as it is seen as economically burdensome. Minor reform to the hukou has led to some concessions, but this literally comes at a cost (for example, access to schooling at a fee higher than for city residents). The hukou effectively makes rural migrants second-class citizens and especially precarious workers. This has not stopped significant numbers of rural migrants from protesting for better conditions of existence.

China Labour Bulletin reports that the workers’ movement in China, during the period of 2009-2011, was revitalised by a new generation of migrant workers demanding better pay and working conditions:

 These young activists have not only won noticeable concessions from their employers, they have also forced the government and trade unions to reassess their labour and social policies.

In December 2013 the CCP detailed a plan to ‘abolish’ the hukou, which is part of its wider ambition to drive forth with urbanisation in order to boost domestic demand for goods and services as both export-led growth and investment in infrastructure have slowed. However, while:

… China will continue to emphasize the growth and development of “small cities” by removing hukou restrictions for these underdeveloped areas. … “megacities” like Beijing and Shanghai will likely continue to have strict limitations on hukous in a bid to fight overcrowding and rising housing costs. (Tiezzi, 2013)


As China’s economy has grown, so too has both inequality and the visibility of inequality, such that anger against the super-rich and Party corruption is commonplace. In addition to an increased militarisation of labour movement unrest, political protests around land grabs, lack of affordable housing, environmental damage (albeit with an element of NIMBY-ism), and unsafe food and water are on the rise. The Party clings to power by relying on a combination of nationalism and economic growth (the latter of which has been decelerating of late). The omnipresence of the totalitarian hand of the State continually threatens the closure of outlets of resistance. Today’s China (like yesterday’s China) is one where the Party can ‘make disappear’ its critics. And yet the struggle continues, courageously unabated.


Bickers, R. (2004) Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. London: Penguin

Farrer, J. (2002) Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

Han, S. (2000) ‘Shanghai between State and Market in Urban Transformation’ Urban Studies 37(11): 2091-2112

He, S. and Wu, F. (2007) ‘Socio-spatial impacts of property-led redevelopment on China’s urban neighbourhoods’ Cities 24(3): 194-208

Hornby, L (2013) Human cost of China’s hukou system. Financial Times, November 8.

Mitter, R. (2005) Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Rosen, S. (2004) ‘The state of youth/youth and the state in early 21st-century China’ in Hays Gries, P. and Rosen, S. (eds.) State and Society in 21st-century China: Crisis, contention, and legitimation. London: Routledge

Schein, L. (1999) ‘Of cargo and satellites: imagined cosmopolitanism’ Postcolonial Studies 2(3): 345-375

Tiezzi, S. (2013) China’s New Urbanization Plan. The Diplomat, http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/chinas-new-urbanization-plan/

Wu, F. and Li, Z. (2005) ‘Sociospatial Differentiation: Process and Spaces in Subdistricts of Shanghai’ Urban Geography 26(2): 137-166

Wu, F. (2003a) ‘The (Post-) Socialist Entrepreneurial City as a State Project: Shanghai’s Reglobalisation in Question’ Urban Studies 40(9): 1673-1698

Wu, F. (2003b) ‘Globalization, Place Promotion and Urban Development in Shanghai’ Journal of Urban Affairs 25(1): 55-78

Wu, F. (2002) ‘Sociospatial differentiation in urban China: evidence from Shanghai’s real estate markets’ Environment and Planning A 34: 1591-1615

Wu, F. (1999) ‘City profile: Shanghai’ Cities 16(3): 207-216

Zhang, T. (2002) ‘Urban Development and a Socialist Pro-Growth Coalition in Shanghai’ Urban Affairs Review 37: 475-499

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s