Shanghai and the Mystery of China's Soft Power

07/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A city of 19.2 million, 8 years in the make-up room, at a cost of US$45 billion, all decked up in a skin-tight techno silk cheongsam and vertiginous high heels, huskily commands the whole world to listen: "Look at me, guys, this is how the future looks like. Your future". As sensual global plots go, Shanghai turbocharged by Expo 2010 (cost of US$ 4.19 billion) is hard to beat. The Expo logo seems to twist the traditional double happiness concept into an even happier ménage à trois -- a modification of the Chinese character for "world" stylized as three people: you, me, and The Other (or everyone else), all -- according to official rhetoric -- "throwing their arms around each other".

Don't believe the hype though -- from "spectacular audio-visual experiences" to screen goddess Gong Li as the "charm ambassador" for the France pavilion; from the display of "mankind's achievements" in economy, science, technology and culture to the security paranoia (the dreaded "bomb in the metro" actually showed up inside an SUV on the other side of the world, in Times Square). Yes, the US Embassy-as-Fortress syndrome rules anyway: the Expo site is encircled by a double security fence topped with electric shock wires.

But is that all there is?

Most of Asia suffered from hubris during the Asian miracle -- but not China. Expo 2010 in Shanghai might be a test of whether China can think outside of the West's intellectual box. It might be a showcase of the charisma of Chinese culture -- as in the golden era of the Tang dynasty (618-907). But as much as Chinese intellectuals wonder whether Hollywood movies would one day be ranked alongside Tang dynasty poets, all the bling bling the world is seeing in Shanghai may not be as glittering as (Chinese) gold.

The Xinhua news agency pulls no punches; it describes the official Expo theme "Better City, Better Life" as showcasing "the direction of future development for mankind, prompting countries to seek the common goal of sustainable development".

I spent late last year holed up in front of a privileged window to the Chinese miracle; a modern apartment ensconced at the historic, art deco Embankment building near Suzhou Creek, with a fabulous rear view of the Bund and, in the background, across the Huangpu river, post-everything Pudong. The impression was that the whole city was being hurled from the 19th century to the 21st in one (very noisy and very dusty) Great Leap Fast Forward.

But what I learned from many a resident was that in this Shanghai as epitome of urban post-modernism, the official spin was in fact clashing head-on with an apotheosis of steel and glass towers, car-friendly boulevards, megamalls and impersonal squares; that is, the cost and waste of reproducing a Western development model. Now in Expo mode, Shanghai still seems to be showcasing a frantic property boom continuing to feed an oversized bubble. Not exactly a picture of "sustainable development".

When Shanghai residents protested against a slew of environmentally disastrous property schemes, they had to be as creative as May 1968 Paris students; they hit city squares in "unorganized walking" fashion. If they went "political" or "organized", they would be thrown in jail.

No wonder. This is a regimented system where global capital, multinational corporations, financial institutions, the State and a small business oligarchy rule over the toiling popular masses; a system that created a new office under the State Council with the mission of wei-wen ("maintain stability") -- in fact sculpting into law the late Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping's slogan, "Stability overrides everything else".

At the end of the Expo, next October, the world might as well vote on whether Shanghai has even attempted to answer the riddle of what makes an environmentally friendly "better city". Yet things get even more complex when we turn to Shanghai as an expression of modern Chinese culture.

China harbors very few intellectuals capable of interpreting to the world the multiple strengths -- and the overall appeal -- of Chinese culture. And this still has to be done in English, the resilient measure of global cultural debate. It's not only about selling Confucius or Lao Tzu -- but about "translating" and adapting them to post-modernism.

Nuance is essential to link China's formidable past to its turbocharged modernity. But in a mercantilist system that stifles creativity and dissent, nuance is not exactly a prized commodity. Chinese architecture, cinema, and especially TV series may harbor exceptions. But where are the great writers? And Chinese modern art is basically a derivation of American pop.

Culturally, could China be forming en masse what Zhou Zhiqiang from Nankai University in Tianjin calls "happy imbeciles" -- a cultural form secretly encouraged by the State's aesthetical project? Any visitor to Shanghai itself, outside of the Expo, will see very little nuance. The pervasive dream is to blindly follow the mercantilist, Western conspicuous consumption model.

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences will tell us that at the moment China is still a vast work in progress -- motoring like crazy to catch up with hyper-modernity. So inevitably the huge masses of laobaixing -- the average Chinese -- have to be all frantically searching for their own measurable, self-satisfying indicator of personal power.

But this does not invalidate the fact that myriad pavilions at the Shanghai Expo project such a pale image of modern China. As much as everything foreign in China is instantly sinicized, Chinese culture is also capable of endless permutations and mixing. The Chinese do feel that the whole world nowadays is thirsty for Chineseness. So they don't need to apply a particular enticement procedure -- the global interest is real. It's as in Taoism stating that water does not need to entice anyone or anything -- it's a passive but very strong power.

Yet the narrative and the images to project China's new modernity dream all over the world - a dream that after all was "imposed" by the West -- still have not been conceived. Mere Party-sanctioned nationalism - not to mention Expo theatrics - is not enough. The only way for China to seduce the world with its soft power is through a real political and cultural opening up -- beyond showing off its economic might. As Chinese writer, editor and artist Dong Qiang so delicately puts it, China needs to "inject a little bit of reality in its celestial dream, and a little bit of dream in its day-to-day reality".

No new "Beijing consensus" is totally replacing the "Washington consensus" in terms of a new geopolitical reality -- at least not yet. On the other hand the best Chinese minds argue that some universal values of Chinese culture -- such as the unity between Man and Nature, and harmony among differences -- are still not fully appreciated in the West. Once the Expo hype is settled, we can always dream these soft power values may finally emerge as part of a "Shanghai consensus".