In Defense of Shanghai

Readers react to Lisa Bergson's recent column on the thriving, teeming, and toxic metropolis

Factory Days columnist Lisa Bergson's recent report from the smog shrouded heart of Shanghai drew a deluge of reader mail (see BW Online, 11/22/02, "The Great Pall of China"). Some readers consoled her with the news that the city's eye-watering pollution has actually improved over recent years, and many pointed out that other Chinese cities are even worse.

What follows are edited excerpts from some of thsee letters. In all cases, since the Chinese writers were often critical of Beijing's policies and did not put pen to paper in the expectation that their words would be published, BusinessWeek Online has used only first names:

From Neville, a Chinese student at a leading U.S. B-School: "I deeply share your concerns of China's environment degradation. At the same time, I view it as a painful price to pay in China's struggle out of the communist shadows and toward a new direction and new identity. It is very regrettable that China seems to follow the path of 'pollution then treatment' adopted by other industrialized countries decades ago. It may be the path of least resistance for political leaders as they are confronted with the enormous pressure of rising unemployment. To some decisionmakers, the pollution as the lesser of two evils.

"While extremely disappointed at the environmental pollution in China, I do see light at the end of the tunnel, as I compare current pollution in China with that of 1960's industrial countries. Expect to see an increasing number of environment organizations starting to form and educate people about the health implications of pollution. In my view, the growing environmental awareness of the public is the most powerful and fundamental force to check pollutions, other than the top-down approach.

"I encourage you to expand your business in China. Socially responsible foreign companies set good examples to other foreign and local ones operating in the Chinese market. I see China and the new, emerging globalized economy as an opportunity to shape the future of many Chinese people. I hope your burning lungs are much better now. It takes me weeks to recover from my trips back to Beijing, a more polluted city than Shanghai."

Danny makes these observations: "I liked your tale of gas and fumes in Shanghai, although it's far worse up here in Beijing, only clearing when the factories have the day off for holidays.... I've worked here for six years and it's the most exciting place to be. The cityscapes are changing as fast as the business world -- and it never gets dull."

Shanghai expatriate Wei hails the progress on quality-of-life issues his hometown has made: "Pollution is a lot better than it was eight years ago. This was done by putting strict restrictions on vehicles. (most cabs now are powered by natural gas). Shanghai also moved a lot of factories to other provinces, which greatly reduced pollution. A public park, for example, now stands where Shanghai Rubber Factory used to be.

"I was back in Shanghai in 1995, and was really bothered by the smog (even though I grew up there). Now, you can see blue sky very often, which was impossible in the 1990s. The river use to be black and smell most of the year. Now, it' somewhat green and never smells, even in summer. Even though I've lived in the States for the past 10 years, Shanghai is still my favorite city. I'm proud of its achievements in the past decade."

Hong Kong resident K.J. has this to say about China and the media, both domestic and international: "I live in Hong Kong and have been to Shanghai many times since 1990. Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, and people from the West love to tell horror stories about China. There main reason: True ignorance. These tales tend to come from people who will never accept anything other than what they are used to at home.

"I have also seen Chinese people becoming more sophisticated in the way they look at the world. They do not believe their own government's propaganda, but nor do not believe what CNN has to say, either.... Nothing is black or white, it's all in between. Like they say, 'China is different.'"

And from Ming, another former Shanghai resident: "In Shanghai, you can feel a sense of youthfulness and excitement in the air.... Was the air quality there that much of a trouble for you? We stayed there for a month and what really overwhelmed me was the amount of people and traffic on the street, everywhere in fact. It had been so many years since I left, I almost forgot what my hometown was like. Only Manhattan can help to ease the homesickness your article has brought back to life."

Then there was this critical missive from John C.: "I thought your article would provide some useful insight on developments in China. Instead, it was a cliche-ridden. Everyone knows that China's cities are polluted, and the citizens of Shanghai don't need your pity ("I feel bad for the people, whose health and quality of life is so threatened by their quest for development"). If you had any clue about Shanghai 20 years ago, you'll know that poverty has always been the biggest polluter, worldwide.

"So you were surprised that life isn't particularly oppressive in Shanghai? Wait, you mean to say that you didn't see people held in stocks and being roughed up by the Public Security Bureau? Fact is, Shanghai is arguably the most progressive city in China, and enjoys more economic freedom than most others."

Victoria F. says: "What a story! It made me laugh and feel excited at the same time. I came from China many years ago. I have been watching China closely for business opportunities. Personally, I think that is a great marketplace for people like you who dare to venture into that smoke shrouded country with many golden opportunities. As you said, China will 'affect us, sure as the sky'"

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