Pudong Rising

The Seattle Times
May 28, 2000
By Alex Tizon

SHANGHAI – It is one of the most dazzling skylines on Earth. Contained within its periphery are the world’s tallest tower, tallest hotel and soon-to-be tallest office building. And it’s all the more remarkable that the skyline, and the city around it, were built within the past ten years. It is only half finished. The area is called Pudong, a 200-square-mile city within a city. It is Shanghai’s Manhattan. It is China’s jewel. When Chinese leaders want to show off their nation’s economic potential, they point to Shanghai, the country’s largest and richest city. Shanghai leaders point to Pudong.

As Congress debates whether to grant permanent normal trading relations to China, and as talking heads analyze China’s expanding role in the global economy, China itself simply keeps plodding toward its self-appointed destiny as an economic superpower. The House last week voted to normalize trade relations with China, and the Senate is expected to do the same next month. And with China’s anticipated inclusion into the World Trade Organization this summer, the world’s most populous country is bracing for what could be a period of “market shock,” the economic equivalent of culture shock, followed by an era of catch-up prosperity.

Chinese leaders all along seemed confident the West could not resist the lure of 1.3 billion potential consumers. In no other place is this confidence more displayed than in Pudong. The goal is to make Shanghai nothing less than one of the great economic centers of the world, on par with New York, Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo. The rise of Pudong is Shanghai’s big push into the arena.

It has been described as the most ambitious development project in modern history. At one time, 17 percent of the world’s heavy-construction cranes were at work there. And a number of those cranes labored under the auspices of a leading Seattle firm, Callison Architecture, which has been a major player in shaping the Pudong skyline.

Some say government planners may have been too bold. Pudong, critics say, has been grossly overbuilt, as evidenced by vacancy rates as high as 90 percent. Like a Christmas ornament, they say, Pudong is shiny and beautiful on the outside but hollow on the inside. In response, Shanghai Mayor Xu Kuangdi, with confident good humor, likens China to a poor family that has bought an oversized suit for a growing son. The suit represents Pudong. The son, symbolizing the region’s economy, will eventually grow into the suit.

Whichever Pudong might prove to be, and most indications lean toward the big-suit theory, the so-called “Manhattan of the East” is a sight to behold, especially from across the Huangpu River, where the main part of the city lies, and where a waterfront promenade offers a perfect vantage point. “Even the people who live here are amazed,” said Chen Zhenping, deputy publisher of Jiefang Daily, Shanghai’s largest newspaper. “They’ve watched a new city go up right in front of their eyes.”

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After the communists marched into Shanghai in 1949, the city went to sleep for almost 40 years. It was not until the 1979 query, when Deng Xiao ping told the country’s 1 billion residents it was OK to be rich and then opened China’s doors, that the city started to reawaken. By 1990, the city was tap-dancing its way back to the world stage. Shanghai today has a population of almost 15 million and accounts for 8 percent of the country’s economic output, more than half from Pudong.

Ten years ago, Pudong was nothing more than rice farms and low-rise slums. But the government decided to transform the area, and one advantage of a “command economy” is that a decision from the top can be executed quickly and at full throttle, public process be damned. There was the small detail of transplanting a million residents, mostly farmers. If they protested, and Western media at the time said they did, they were not heeded. The residents were moved to “new living districts” — beehive apartment complexes at the edge of town — and retrained as cab drivers, restaurant workers and laborers. What followed was the start of an urban make-over of gargantuan proportions. Construction crews worked round-the-clock, at one point erecting two high-rises a week. Observers wondered who would occupy all the new buildings.

Bill Karst, CEO of Callison Architecture, traveled to Shanghai frequently in the early-to mid-1990s. “I remember looking out my hotel window and seeing 200 to 300 construction cranes in every direction,” he said. Among other projects, Callison designed the new 32-story Bank of China tower in the heart of Pudong. Joe Borich, head of the Washington State China Relations Council, said the building frenzy had a “Field of Dreams” element to it: If the government built the infrastructure, business would come.

The government contributed 10 percent of the estimated $125 billion poured into the Pudong redevelopment; the rest came from overseas companies such as Sony, Kodak, Siemens, NEC and General Motors: companies that wanted a piece of the enormous Chinese market. Microsoft recently opened a large service center, and Bank of America just relocated its offices to Pudong from downtown Shanghai, across the Huangpu River. Because of its location near the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai is seen as a key portal into China’s impoverished interior. An enormous dam project under construction will allow ocean-going ships to move from the sea to Chongqing, a thousand miles inland, making Shanghai the gateway to an economic zone along the Yangtze River Basin, home to 200 million people.

In a single decade, Shanghai went from a low-tech to a high-tech economy. A traditional industry, textiles, all but disappeared, replaced by information technology, financial services, commerce, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. Some 90 transnational companies have set up shop in Pudong.

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The Pudong skyline arrests the senses. It looms like a make-believe city: larger-than-life, gleaming, multihued glass and steel, with architectural lines drawn from a distinctly Chinese sensibility. Subtlety does not inform the architecture. At the center of the skyline stands the Oriental Pearl television tower, a 1,544-foot-tall structure that looks like a giant syringe or something out of Star Wars. It’s 2 1/2 times as tall as the Space Needle. Even from the other side of the Huangpu River, it looms monstrously large. The predominant color is purple.

Not far from the tower stands the world’s tallest hotel, the 1,388-foot, 88-story Jin Mao Building, finished last year. It appears like a towering pagoda. The top third of the skyscraper is made up of the Shanghai Grand Hyatt. Nearby, crews work 24 hours a day on the foundation for what is planned to be the world’s tallest office building, the 94-story Shanghai World Financial Center. It will stand eye to eye with the TV tower. Also in Pudong: the new Shanghai Stock Exchange, which boasts the largest floor space of any stock exchange in the world, and the new Pudong International Airport, which — when the final phase is done — is expected to be as busy as Chicago’s O’Hare.

So meticulously planned is the new Pudong that some might call it over-designed, with nothing organic or spontaneous about it. A large sign at the entrance to a perfectly manicured park reads: “The Central Green provides us a close-to-nature green place for sightseeing and leisure.” And there is still the problem of empty buildings. At one point in the late 1990s, the office vacancy rate reached 90 percent, which is astronomically — some would say catastrophically — high (Seattle’s downtown vacancy rate hovers around 5 percent). But the offices are slowly filling up. Today, vacancy is at 40 percent and dropping. The big-suit theory seems to be filling out.

“We had to build a new city to function as a new city,” said Ma Xiejie, a high-ranking Pudong city planner. “First, the buildings, the skyline. But real progress means many other things than skyline. Now we are working on those other things.”

Not that the skyline is finished. The Pudong redevelopment is a 20-year project. The second phase began this year, and it is planned to be even more ambitious. Another invasion of cranes is expected. “If you think Pudong is amazing to look at now,” said a quietly smiling Ma, “come back in 10 years.”