Shanghai Express

Shanghai: At the mouth of the mighty Yangtze, halfway between Beijing and Hong Hong is China’s biggest city – indeed the world’s biggest by population (if suburbs are excluded). Yet Shanghai is (literally) a breath of fresh air after Beijing. It feels less crowded, the traffic is more considerate and the roads are a more manageable width, it’s warmer and wetter – a relief from the dry acrid chill – and it’s far, far prettier.

The 16th century old Shanghai
Glittering 21st century Shanghai

Wall of flowers lines the Bund

The city is an interesting mix of wooden 16th-century Chinese buildings and gardens, European 19th- and early 20th-century grand statements and residential terraces, and the glass-clad sky-piercing architecture that has come to characterise the 21st-century.

Art deco doors of the Peace Hotel
At deco lion. The medieval Ming dynasty arts and crafts used a lot of simple geometric motifs that were popular again in the 1920s.
European buildings on the Bund

The gardens and parks here, while as regimented and stylised as a silk screen print, include a welcome variety of trees and flowers – elsewhere, the monotony of lines of poplars are relieved only by those Lego conifers or a rare silver birch.

Chrysanthemum tea

People here are better educated, more people speak some English, they are wealthier and healthier, with men and women living to 80 and 84 yrs, although with the current trend for chain-smoking, I suspect those impressive ages will drop.

Tourists take photos using iPads now
Where there’s water, there’s koi
Dragons have featured in Chinese decoration for millennia

I’m staying in a great Victorian institution, in good company: Charlie Chaplin, Einstein and Bertrand Russell have all stayed here. From my window I can see big fancy cars gliding past the Russian embassy, an old man pulling a handcart piled high with wooden sheets, pedal and electric bicycles, weaving with mopeds among vegetable sellers and suited businessmen. Above it all are the bright lights of a big city whose per capita energy consumption is higher than New York or London’s.

Medieval bronze yak pot in the excellent Shanghai Museum
Bronze water dish

I’ve come to China, in part, to look at one of the most pressing questions of our time: how will China provide its people the benefits of development that Shanghai residents enjoy without sacrificing further the environment on which it (and we all) depends?

3000BC jade funeral urn
12th century vase
Art deco vase from 1920s. Plus ca change…

I’ve learned of all sorts of impressive attempts by the government to clean up its coal stations, capture the carbon dioxide emitted – including one facility here in Shanghai that can apparently capture a whopping 100,000 tonnes of CO2 – of attempts to store the greenhouse gas in saline aquifers in Inner Mongolia, or oil fields in the Bohai Sea. There are wind farms carpeting the Gobi desert, and solar PV farms scattered across the country, geothermal projects in Tibet, including plans to use a screw-expander technique to generate power from warm, subterranean water or to recover energy lost in heat from factories…

Majhong players, Ming dynasty
Deer, Ming again
This symbol means happiness and longevity

But as the Western car industry vies for the lucrative Chinese market, a country with very little oil, China is experimenting with filthy coal-to-oil technology, while scaling back its electric vehicle ambitions.

A pot for paintbrushes

Building a green economy was never going to be easy. As Changhua Wu, director of the Climate Group, says: “China might be able to leapfrog over some industrial or technological stages, but it can’t leapfrog over the costs involved in deploying the latest clean options.”

7th century birdfeeder
Pipe smoker
Piper and friends

China doesn’t have any choice but to take environmental issues seriously, however as a poor country rapidly developing, it hasn’t been given – or asked for – handouts from richer nations.

7th century child-sized ceramic statue
Dismounting camel rider (7th century)

As the Guardian‘s Asia correspondant Jon Watts says: “China is trying to do something without precedent in world history: it is trying to decarbonise its economy even before it has finished industrialising.”

Let’s hope it succeeds.

A pot from 6000BC

In the morning, I’m heading firmly into the future, taking the Shanghai Maglev train. At 431 km per hour, it’s the world’s fastest commercial train and faster than an Formula 1 car!

4 thoughts

  1. It’s great to hear from a wandering Gaia again and I look forward to hearing more about your visit.

    If you have a chance while you’re there, I’d be very interested to hear what the view of officials and others in China is about shark finning (and, although the issues are very different, harvesting from endangered wild species, including elephant and rhino).

    Shark finning received some good coverage on Simon Reeve’s programme here last Sunday.

    While shark fin soup isn’t only consumed in China (unbelievably the New York Times published a recipe recently ) the Chinese government could, if it wanted, do much to change habits and reduce the impact this real tragedy of the commons.

    I’d be interested to know whether finning and the ivory trade are even seen as problems in China and whether there is any realistic chance of stopping them. My guess is that they aren’t and that even if the official line was in favour of conservation, corruption is so deeply rooted that a change to laws or government policies would have little effect.

    If that’s the case, then maybe a combination of science and capitalism could help? Shark farming, for example?

    More on finning here and on the ivory trade here

    1. Sadly, every menu had at least one shark fin dish on it, Andrew. And often lots of other undesirable ingredients too.

      1. Apparently shark fin doesn’t even taste very good! It’s an awful situation, not only a tragedy of the commons but there’s obviously a vicious circle which means the rarer that sharks become the more expensive and therefore more desirable they’ll be. I can only imagine that a technological solution, like commercial farming, will fix this. It’s difficult to imagine that economics will deal with it: if there were only a handful of sharks left the hunters would go all out to kill them as they’d be incredibly valuable.

        Anyway, on a positive not, really liked your photos and description of Shanghai.

  2. When the word China crosses my mind, I only think of Beijing, The Great Wall, Southern China, Xi’an, Jiuzhaigou and Zhangjiajie as the places that I really want to visit. Shanghai is never in the list. But your description of the city has changed my mind. I think it’s much more interesting than I previously thought.

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