Reversal of fortunes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 September, 1999, 12:00am
 

If it's Thursday in Shanghai, chances are Xu Kuangdi is greeting a stream of visitors to the impressive marbled City Hall that fronts the spruced-up gardens of People's Square. It is the public's day at the town hall. The mayor of the great city on the Huangpu likes to hear what people think. Workers groups, business associations.


A decade ago, when Zhu Rongji, then mayor of Shanghai, plucked Professor Xu from his comfortable and respected niche in academe and made him the city's director-general of planning, all Professor Xu heard were complaints.


In 1989, traffic chaos had Shanghai almost at a standstill. Commuters complained about two-hour trips to work; unhappy foreign investors had endless grumbles about haphazard telephone links and too few international flights; lack of housing was a major headache for everyone.


These days, the engineering professor and vice-president of Shanghai Industrial University is likely to hear a different story.


A big clean-up in advance of this month's Fortune 500 Global Forum and the People's Republic's 50th anniversary celebrations has made the city glitter.


Most large infrastructure projects are either up and running or in the advanced pipeline. Shanghai is looking good.


If it's Saturday, chances are Professor Xu doffs his political cap and reverts to his role of educator. At weekends, four graduate students doing doctorates in engineering are tutored by him at City Hall. He remains a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.


When he ends his term as mayor in 2003, he hopes to go back to the classroom. His age, now 62, will make him too old to return to his former post as director of Shanghai's bureau of higher education. He wants to teach. 'Ask the city library and they will tell you I borrow all the magazines,' he says. 'I've kept up to date.' Will he follow the customary route of former mayors (Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji) and head for greater political glory in Beijing. 'No,' he says forcefully. 'No. I'm too old.' He does not seem it; vigour and imagination are his trademarks.


Age, he continues, is a major municipal problem. Not only is Shanghai's workforce having to switch from old industries such as textiles to new service roles, but people are getting older. Soon, he warns, the sprawling city will have about 22 per cent of its population aged over 60.


The ageing population makes it harder to achieve what Professor Xu sees as his most urgent task. His focus is to raise the overall quality of life of the people and the cultural civilisation of the city.


Within a short stroll from the imposing granite municipal headquarters of City Hall is the splendid opera house, the magnificent museum, the city planning exhibition hall. All are new. All are among the gems - along with vast sporting stadiums, a glittering convention centre in Pudong, a stunning array of new hotels and an emerging sophisticated cafe society - that make Shanghai with its historic mystique a booming tourist destination.


This is no deliberate policy to challenge Hong Kong's tourism industry, Professor Xu insists. It is a consequence of his major task of harmonising economic development with environmental protection.


The main core is economic development - building Shanghai into the regional hub of the Yangtze Basin and central China. He sees Hong Kong playing a similar role as financial centre for the south and Southeast Asia.


Ask Professor Xu to explain the competitive and complementary roles of Hong Kong and Shanghai, and he starts talking about football. China is like a great soccer team with two star strikers, he notes. Hong Kong and Shanghai are keen and talented and each is trying to score. 'The roles are not in conflict,' he contends.


In many ways, the challenges confronting Professor Xu when he became mayor four years ago were a mirror image of Hong Kong's difficulties, except worse. The sheer size of the city and the comparative backwardness of its infrastructure compounded Shanghai's problems.


Plans were under way for the series of hugely ambitious projects that have now transformed the city - the vast new airport, ring roads, aerial expressways, an underground railway system, public parks and, above all, the dramatic development of Pudong.


Just as Hong Kong's industrial workforce has dwindled with jobs emigrating over the border, Shanghai has had to cope with retraining 1.29 million workers laid off from inefficient state enterprises. The SAR is constantly challenged by illegal immigrants; Shanghai has a 'floating' population of at least three million mostly illegal workers from surrounding provinces.


The story goes that when then Shanghai mayor Zhu Rongji offered the planning job, Professor Xu protested that he detested central planning. 'Then you're the man for the job,' Mr Zhu apparently replied.


Urbane, erudite, sophisticated and intelligent, the mayor is relaxed and casual, with a beaming sense of humour, often self-deprecatory.


It was his 'recreation' to study English when he was sent to the countryside as part of the 'so-called May 7 school' at the tail-end of the Cultural Revolution in 1972.


He was deputy dean of his engineering faculty when he was dispatched to the miserable poverty of Northern Anhui in the 'learn from the masses' campaign. At first, he was a farmer, then he was made a cook. Those two years helped improve his grasp of English, he says with a chuckle.


There was little humour in the situation at the time, when hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were banished to some of the most backward regions of China.


A decade later studying in London, those lonely hours of language studies paid off. It was while at Imperial College that the engineering academic was offered a job with a Swedish industrial firm. But after two years, he returned to his classroom - and that's where he wants to go when his term finishes as head of China's thrusting port city.


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