Recording the Reform and Opening Up of Pudong New Area

Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong, an international school located in Pudong. To provide a better living environment for foreign executives, the Biyun international community in Pudong constructed several international schools for expat kids. courtesy of Pudong New Area Information Office

Exclusive Interview with Xie Guoping, Author of A Chinese Miracle: The Development History of Pudong

Senior media professional Xie Guoping has been working as a journalist and editor his entire career. He started with Pudong New Area Weekly (now Pudong Times) in 2002. Since then, he has continuously recorded and pondered over Pudong’s development. In the years that followed, he completed three books on Pudong, a symbol of China’s reform and opening up, namely Pudong: A Story of Economic Prosperity, The Pudong Story and A Chinese Miracle: The Development History of Pudong.

Zhao Qizheng, former minister of China’s State Council Information Office and first director of the Administrative Committee of Pudong New Area, holds Xie Guoping in high regard. “Xie not only documents the news of the present, but also examines history of the past,” commented Zhao. “He grew up alongside Pudong and documented its original development history, providing reliable source materials for subsequent researchers to reflect on its history and its impact on the history of philosophy.”

Xie Guoping researches and surveys Pudong from a historical perspective.  by Qiao Zhenqi

Xie Guoping researches and surveys Pudong

from a historical perspective. by Qiao Zhenqi

China Pictorial (CP): What’s your general feeling about Pudong’s development and opening up over the past 28 years?

Xie: In terms of reform and opening up, the Chinese people made the right decision. Over the past 1,000 years, Pudong never changed much. However, in just the past 28 years, the area has achieved a high degree of industrialization and urbanization that took developed European countries two centuries to reach. What were the drivers of this success? Westerners aren’t providing any solid answers, and sometimes even people like me who are immersed in Pudong’s development cannot explain it.

Before the development and opening up of Pudong in 1990, for most residents of Puxi—the historic center of Shanghai— Pudong was a backward place. Back then, Pudong suffered from poor urban construction, narrow roads, primitive living conditions, scarce cultural facilities and extremely inconvenient land and water transportation. Since roads in Pudong were designed according to county-level standards, they were narrow, without any bridges or overpasses. Yanggao Road, which runs from east to west across northern Pudong, now offers eight fast lanes and two slow lanes. However, in the 1950s it was just a 3.5-meter-wide road paved with gravel and cinders, nicknamed “sheep bowel.” Public transportation was even poorer back then. By the end of 1990, Pudong was served by only 48 bus routes and 35 cabs. Crossing the Huangpu River to reach Pudong from Puxi or the other way round was even more difficult, given that there were no bridges, tunnels or subways at that time. The problem became even more serious from the 1980s. Enterprises located on either side of the river were plagued by bad cross-river transportation. Traffic jams during rush hours were already severe headaches and vehicles waiting to cross the river queued for hours every day. Sometimes, the wait time to cross the river was more than 10 hours. The situation became even worse on foggy days. Although Shanghai residents were experiencing a housing shortage back then, a popular saying went that “a single bed in Puxi is preferable to a room in Pudong.” Today, Pudong’s development and changes are apparent for the whole world to see.

I remember that when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) announced the launch and opening up of Pudong New Area in 1990, some Western media outlets and political forces called the move merely a political overture from China rather than real action. Milton Friedman (1912-2006), a renowned American economist and Nobel winner in economics, visited Shanghai around that time and described the development of Pudong New Area as “a Potemkin village.” The term “Potemkin village” was inspired by stories of a fake portable village built by Russian minister Grigory Potemkin solely to impress Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in the late 18th century. Later, “Potemkin village” became synonymous with fraud. Years later, however, Lanny Ebenstein, author of Milton Friedman: A Biography, opined that the economist was wrong at that time. If he was still alive today, he would reconsider his views, the biographer predicted.

Renowned British economist and Nobel laureate Ronald H. Coase (1910-2013) called China’s process of embracing the market economy an extraordinary story. No one would have believed it before it happened. But the miracle happened just the same.

CP: What is the significance of Pudong’s reform and development to Shanghai, to China, and to the world at large? What are the differences between Pudong and Shenzhen in terms of reform and development?

Xie: For Shanghai, the development and opening up of Pudong solved many problems related to backward urban infrastructure and a lack of structural diversity while promoting Shanghai’s transformation as a whole. Before the development of Pudong, Shanghai was an industrial city with a simple structure. A sixth of China’s light industrial products were made in Shanghai. Now, Shanghai is an international economic, financial, trade and shipping hub, as well as a science and innovation center. It is fair to say that the development of Pudong has driven the overall transformation of Shanghai. It transformed Shanghai into a multi-functional central city on par economically with New York and Tokyo. In the 1980s, Shanghai served as the rear guard of China’s reform and opening up. However, after Pudong’s development and opening up, Shanghai became a striker and ushered in a golden age of economic development.

In the early 1990s, China’s economy faced multiple difficulties and the country’s reform was already at a crossroads. At this critical period, the development of Pudong was launched, which resulted in a strong demonstration effect. A saying goes: “Economic focus was on Shenzhen in the 1980s and on Pudong New Area in the 1990s.” The development and opening up of Pudong sent a signal to the international community that China’s reform and opening up would only go deeper and broader. Deng Xiaoping, considered the chief architect of China’s reform and opening up, called Pudong China’s “trump card.” “If Shanghai achieves fast development, it will provide a shortcut for our overall reform and opening up,” Deng once asserted.

Poised at the forefront of China’s reform and opening up, Shenzhen blazed a new trail and fought its way out of obscurity in the 1980s. If Shenzhen ran the first leg of China’s reform and opening up, Pudong took up the baton for the second leg. If the reform in Shenzhen broke the ice, the development of Pudong was a crucial battle. If Shenzhen served as a window of China to the world, Pudong opened a door. Over the 40 years since China’s historic reform and opening up, the Chinese government has been performing experiments with policies and institutions in various designated areas step by step, with a pragmatic attitude of “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” What a wonderful experiment! Looking back at a process that started with special economic zones before expanding to new areas and comprehensive reform pilot areas and finally to pilot free trade zones, the main thread has always been evident: the great experiment of China’s reform and opening up.

The Lingang passenger vehicle base under SAIC Motors. Automobile manufacturing is a pillar industry of Shanghai.  by Wu Huiquan
The Lingang passenger vehicle base under SAIC Motors. Automobile manufacturing is a pillar industry of Shanghai. by Wu Huiquan

CP: In your opinion, what influences has Pudong’s reform exerted on modern sensibilities? And how have changes in minds powered Pudong’s development?

Xie: It is interesting that Pudong was labeled an “experiment” all along during its development. For example, it became China’s first comprehensive reform pilot area in 2005. China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone, which was launched in 2013, is also located in Pudong. The word “pilot” was used in the English translation of the free trade zone’s name because it carries the meaning of both “serving experimentally” and “leading the way through unknown places” in English. Deng Xiaoping once asked Shanghai to “further emancipate minds, be bolder and go faster in conducting reform and opening up.” Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, emphasized that Shanghai should find the courage to carry out experiments, drive reform to a deeper level and make reform on its own. Thus, the builders of Pudong have been bestowed a pioneering, determined and ambitious spirit. They opened passages through mountains and built bridges over rivers. Today, Pudong has become the very pioneer and forerunner of China’s reform, opening up and innovation-oriented development. For example, considering China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone, Pudong is currently “making over” its local government to kindle bigger changes in governmental functions. This move calls for determination and the willingness to take on major responsibilities. It demands that Pudong be courageous enough to carry out experiments and drive reform to a deeper level.

CP: Against the backdrop of the anti-globalization trend, what is the significance of Pudong’s continuously expanding reform and opening up?

Xie: The development of Pudong is a successful example for China’s reform and opening up. Today, Pudong has proved the significance of China’s reform and opening up and that China has taken the right historic path to merge with the world economy. Back then, Deng Xiaoping required Shanghai to carry the torch to an even more open China. Thanks to its opening up, Pudong’s GDP soared from six billion yuan in 1990 to an expected figure of one trillion yuan in 2018, an increase of around 160-fold. It is fair to say opening up is embedded in Pudong’s DNA. These days, the anti-globalization trend is popular globally. I believe that as a role model, Pudong provides significant references for other countries and regions, especially for the economic and social development of countries and regions along the Belt and Road.

Pudong also gives China confidence because it makes clear that the nation has taken the right path since the beginning of its reform and opening up in the late 1970s. Today, when foreigners say that the Belt and Road Initiative won’t be realized, I point to Pudong and its high-degree industrialization and urbanization that took developed European countries two centuries to achieve. Just as Chinese President Xi Jinping put it, the CPC and the Chinese people now have the confidence to provide Chinese solutions for human exploration of better social systems.

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