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What 'freedom' looks like in Shanghai

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The famous Shanghai skyline, which features the buildings at the financial district of Pudong. Photo by NICK OLAYAO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Prior to going to China, I already had a number of questions about the country, especially since its government has famously made it hard for foreigners to gain information about them. This barrier to accessibility is most likely why when there’s talk about China leading this “new world order,” I often dismiss it as yet another exaggerated assertion about the Asian country’s power.

China is often pitted against the U.S., being the two biggest economies in the world. But I find it hard to fathom how China can have global ascendancy over the U.S. when America’s soft power — the domination in terms of education, culture, aid, and the arts — remains profound all over the world.

As expected though, in its bid to be a world leader, China has also been investing on soft power. It has funded international media networks (Xinhua, their news agency, plans to have 200 foreign bureaus by 2020), extended aid to African countries, and installed cultural study centers in many countries. But the country’s crusade for soft power is restricted by the incongruity between what China projects to the international stage and its actions.

During my trip to Shanghai, I thought it could be a chance to answer my questions about the elusive country and its place in the world. Going through the immigration isles of the Pudong International Airport already felt as though the mega-power was exerting their supreme authority by getting all of the foreign tourists’ fingerprints. Additionally, we were told to download VPN (Virtual Private Network) and use WeChat because otherwise we would have a hard time accessing the Internet. WeChat can also only be used when another WeChat user can vouch for your registration.

On one hand, it feels reassuring to know that when something bad happens, the government can easily identify me and ideally come to my rescue. But on the other hand, as someone who is used to a lenient (to a massive fault) rule of law and as someone who is not accustomed to having high-tech, top-notch security in the Philippines, it feels suspicious — why do they need all my fingerprints? At this point, I’ve seen enough “Black Mirror” and have read enough daily news to validate my vigilance.

The view of Shanghai from the Oriental Pearl Tower, a T.V. tower that provides guests a bird's eye view of the city. Photo by NICK OLAYAO

One of the chefs at Quanjude Restaurant in Shanghai. This place is one of the top-rated restaurants in the city that serves roast duck. Photo by NICK OLAYAO

But with all the cautionary tales and anecdotes I’ve heard about the country, seeing Shanghai — its conservation of heritage architecture and its towering buildings that mark its economic success — made me think about the prejudice I’d already fostered against the country even before going there. I went to Shanghai while conversations about the Recto Bank incident were still going on and the increasing number of Chinese coming to the Philippines were still discussions that riled up many Filipinos, so I might have subliminally believed that this country that I’d never visited was not to be admired nor enjoyed.

As we went to Quanjude Restaurant (a place that allegedly serves the best Qing Dynasty-era roast duck) or to Oriental Pearl Tower (a building that gives guests a bird’s eye view of Shanghai), I found myself looking for evidences that would feed my hypothesis: that the Chinese are rude, that they don’t know how to fall in line, and that they have the worst comfort rooms. At some point during the day, I was in a queue at a squat-toilet public restroom, when a middle-aged Chinese woman inserted herself infront of me. I tapped her on the shoulder and signalled that she should go to the end of the line, but she just shrugged. I felt vindicated.

When I catch myself thinking this and feeling this kind of exoneration, I am forced to reflect on what this says about me: Am I a casual racist? I’m generalizing the Chinese race to have these certain qualities as opposed to recognizing that every person is an individual who is only part of a race. Upon identifying this dangerous line of thinking, I continued the tour with a more heightened sense of empathy. When some of them do things that I consider rude, I sought to understand where they’re coming from. I noticed how there seemed to be a spirit of desperation in some of them, a desperation that I have also seen in Filipinos, in the way we scramble to go inside an already packed train because we don’t have much of a choice or in the way jeepneys zoom past each other to have more trips, and thus, more income.

Perhaps this fast-paced, dog-eat-dog lifestyle is apparent in most urban centers, but the obvious difference in these megacities lies in the infrastructure, that physical display of “economic progress.” Shanghai has some of the world’s tallest and biggest buildings, exemplified in the famous skyline that features the holy trinity of glass towers in the city: the Shanghai Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and the JinMao Tower. Going around Pudong, I was transported to that stereotypical urban tableau — people in suits or pencil skirts walking with a cup of coffee and takeaway sandwich in hand while talking on their smartphones.

The holy trinity of glass towers in the city (from left): the Shanghai World Financial Center, the Shanghai Tower, and the JinMao Tower.

Shikumens that can be found in the district of Xintiandi. These were built with stone and bricks, and have Chinese-style wooden doors outfitted with brass ring knockers. This architectural style was most prominent when Western countries started trading with China. Photo by NICK OLAYAO

All over Shanghai, luxury cars are commonplace. Buses and taxis are aplenty, and their tube system is divine. Every nook and cranny in the city, at least in the areas we’ve been to, seem to be perfectly manicured. The district of Xintiandi, for example, is almost car-free and its side streets are lined with trees, making it a delight to walk around in. While it is now an arts and entertainment hub that includes high-end restaurants and designer shops, the district has retained the Shikumen residences that were built around the 1850s, when Britain defeated the Qing Dynasty during the Opium War, forcing China to open its ports to Western trade.

Our tour guide said that the shikumens best reflect the marriage of Eastern and Western cultures in Shanghai. Shikumens, built with stone and bricks, have Chinese-style wooden doors outfitted with brass ring knockers. Its pitched roofs can make it seem as though they are terraced houses in European towns while its floor plans mirror the Chinese courtyards that were commonly found across the country. 

But amid the evident Western influences in this part of Shanghai, Xintiandi also hosts the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, as if to remind tourists and locals alike that while the city has openly embraced international brands and companies, it does not forget the “century of humiliation” that Western countries caused China.

In the museum, the notes that preface works and artefacts do not seem to wince at saying that after the Opium War, the country suffered from “Western powers’ large-scale invasion and plunder,” and that “the important task of saving China from peril historically fell on the shoulders of the emerging proletariat.” The entire museum essentially hammers home the need for the country’s ruling party, the Communist Party of China.

The founding leaders of the Communist Party of China at the entrance of the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Xintiandi. Photo by PORTIA LADRIDO

In the museum, the notes that preface works and artefacts do not seem to wince at saying that after the Opium War, the country suffered from “Western powers’ large-scale invasion and plunder.” Photo by PORTIA LADRIDO

I roamed the museum with caution, purposely not wanting to deeply empathize with what I’ve been told is propaganda. I read about this “century of humiliation” and found that there were in fact unequal treaties that not only allowed foreigners to trade goods with low tariffs but also establish a higher status in China. A New York Times piece talked about how historian Willam C. Kirby argued that these “unequal treaties” also had benefits to China, such as industrial innovations and the education system. But he also highlighted how this didn’t mean that trade agreements were mutually beneficial. Kirby explained: “One should always be cautious that what is good for you, you imagine is good for the other party automatically … It might be, it might not be.”

This knowledge all the more challenged my notions of Shanghai, and ultimately, of China. Indeed, when your country suffered from the hands of Western rule, what is so wrong about ardently protecting one’s own? However, as China imposes regulations that somehow reinforce an authoritarian political system, it also makes it hard for me to make sense of their actions. Truly, when you’re inside Shanghai, it’s easy to forget the ways in which the government has suppressed freedom. When you have an efficient public transport, paved roads, excellent roast duck, the second-largest Starbucks roastery, and a rapidly growing economy, it gives the illusion of perfection. I can see how it can be hard to question the government more so when it has been able to lift over 800 million people out of poverty.

It’s twice as difficult to be a tourist in Shanghai and give a nuanced perception of the place, especially when I only did just see the surface of the city. I do not live there and our tour guide only discussed how more and more Chinese want to be in Shanghai because of the smorgasbord of opportunities in the city. She speaks so highly of the metropolis, even comparing it to Lang Lang, a renowned Chinese pianist who she says deserves to marry an equally reputable partner. She seems to trust that the government has done its job well and that it’s up to the citizens to make the most out of the opportunities opened for them.

If the cost of freedom is economic success, then is this what I want? 

I asked if I could name her as a source, and she politely declined, not wanting to be recorded. It may only be out of preference, but perhaps it can also be a deep-rooted fear of possibly saying something that resembles criticism. I myself was hesitant on asking political questions, frightened of being summoned. This exchange and the entire trip only remind me of what Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew said about his country:

“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters — who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

Is this what the Philippines needs?

Should I question this proclivity to the free exchange of ideas and open debate? Should we fight for the kind of independence that China has? What does independence look like in the first place? How much foreign influence is enough influence? How much freedom is enough freedom? Is it even quantifiable? If the cost of freedom is economic success, then is this what I want? Is this what we want? Is this what we need?

I went to Shanghai looking for answers, and I only left with even more questions.

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