Charm offensive

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 12:00am

What does it take to become a modern international metropolis, the phrase beloved by Shanghai officials? A giant airport, high-class shopping and eating, excellent museums and galleries, wealthy foreign residents and expensive apartments would be some of the elements - plus a charismatic mayor, like Michael Bloomberg of New York or Bertrand Delanoe in Paris.

Shanghai has most of these ingredients, but does its mayor, Han Zheng, meet the standard?

We journalists had our once-a-year opportunity to meet him last Wednesday. The press conference should have been held in March, shortly after he took office, but was postponed because of Sars and the Chau Ching-ngai land scandal.

Mr Han, 49, was in good form. The two crises that dominated the first five months of his term seem to be behind him, and he was happy to tell us that the city's gross domestic product would grow this year by at least 10 per cent, with fixed-asset investment rising 24 per cent.

We would have preferred no speech at all - a written text would have been fine - to leave more time for questions, but communist party officials like giving them. Mr Han spoke for about 35 minutes, with no translation.

The question-and-answer session lasted an hour and he replied clearly and with an abundance of figures. Our questions were not sharp enough - too general and not specific.

The most sensitive issue in Shanghai is land, how it is sold and the terms of compensation for people who are moved. That is what has caused demonstrations and sit-ins over the last 10 years, not protests for democracy, free speech or an open press. That is where the skeletons in the official cupboards are hiding.

But we gave Mr Han an easy ride on this issue. At the end, he was happy enough to shake the hands of all the journalists, like a politician running for office.

A career bureaucrat who has worked only in Shanghai and joined the party at 25, he lacks the ease, humour and sophistication of some of his predecessors, like Zhu Rongji. Mr Zhu was mayor during the spring of 1989 and is credited by people for saving the city from the armed confrontation that scarred Beijing.

So perhaps Mr Han is not yet a modern international metropolis mayor - but he is working hard to become one.