So here's the thing: you land at the Pudong International Airport and get the sense of desolate grandeur and last-mile incompetence that you see at Delhi's T3 white-elephant terminal. The difference is the immigration officials all looked very professional; there were no casual "supervisors" hanging about; no officious flunkies escorting VIPs; the security men were real, not guys scratching their privates.
Our designated chauffer was waiting with a graphically soothing placard; young fellow who spoke English and was exceptionally polite. He drove us on wonderful, well-lit expressways to our hotel. We couldn't see much of the city because of the smog but the lights on the highway were bright and we zoomed into the Pudong city center with the smoothness you can only associate with Western transit.
My lack of enthusiasm for the trip-to attend an Asian PR conference-was challenged by my two daughters who accompanied me. "Get over it, Dad. It'll be great," they chorused, brushing aside my concern about language and my Indian jaundiced eye. I was just 13 in 1962 when China delivered the knockout punch that sent the burgeoning republic of India into a tizzy from which it is still to recover.
On my own, I would have checked into the hotel, attended the conference and done the regulatory sightseeing, eaten the standard five-star hotel food and come away marveling at the city with its colored-light modernity. With my daughters in attendance, we traipsed through the Huangpu and Xuhui districts and saw parts of the city that I probably would never have visited, especially when the day temperature was two degrees Celsius and windy.
Shanghai is seared in my memory because of my daughters; the one is the mother of my precocious granddaughter; the other a New York sophisticate. They are so cool and so well-informed that I just let them take me here, there and everywhere. We walked through the old town, wandered through Xintiandi, the upscale part of the French Concession neighborhood that also boasts of the home of the suave Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), who served as the premier of China from 1949 t0 1976.
Zhou was the interlocutor for Jawaharlal Nehru at the Bandung Conference of 1955, in which the first principles of the Nonaligned Movement were articulated; a year before in Peking (now Beijing), Zhou signed with Nehru the Panchsheel Treaty, binding India and China to an agreement of peaceful coexistence.
As we walked through Xintiandi, I marveled at the restoration; here was a city that embraced it European heritage…so unlike any Indian city. My time in Shanghai was cut short because of a family emergency but we did get a chance to walk around People's Square and take in the Bund, a gorgeous esplanade on the Huangpu River, with its barges and bridges.
From the Bund, you can see in shimmering watercolor impressionism, the high rises of Pudong, which my girls called the Gurgaon of Shanghai; looking to our back, we saw the traditional Tudor-style buildings, including the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where we stopped to have afternoon tea.
We walked and walked, marveling at the sheer exuberance of street life even in the cold two-degree-Celsius weather. As we followed Nanjing Road to People's Square, I kept thinking that the Bombay of the 1950s that I knew and loved could have become like this, except power-grubbing politicians, venal bureaucrats and apathetic citizens destroyed it and condemned it to be a slum.
Unlike any city in India, Shanghai seems to be livable for the average citizen; you can actually walk the streets, which you cannot in any Indian city; its riches seem to have been shared with the people. Roads, sidewalks, gardens, public art and mass transport; they have it all in spades; they also have preserved and enhanced their colonial heritage. "Inclusive growth" is not a slogan here; it's real.
In the most superficial assessment, if one is to compare to Shanghai to Bombay (and frankly, there's no comparison), it is clear that Shanghai is in a totally different league, comparable to Paris. Duh! It is called Paris of the East.
Shanghai has almost 24 million people compared to Bombay's 21 million. There can be no question that life seems to be hugely better in the Chinese city. These comparisons are impressionist, I grant you. There's no mistaking, however, the dignity of common people and the preponderance of public goods. If Bombay is part of a democracy (and this is dubious, given the thugs of the Shiv Sena) and Shanghai of an authoritarian system, then without any survey or anything, just looking at the ground reality, I'd rather as an ordinary citizen be living in Shanghai.
In the end, two things stood out. One, the Chinese political system, opaque though it is, seems to throw up decisive leaders, committed to enhancing the public interest. Two, the life of citizens seems to be light years ahead of the daily hassles, slum culture and criminal violence in Indian cities.
As for the race between India and China, I am saddened to report India never even made it to the starting line. It is very likely, as a friend told me, that India is to China as Mexico is to the United States.
This article appeared on Times of India website on January 29, 2013.
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