Mr. Shangkong
PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 4:50am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 8:15am

Shanghai's lofty goals a flight of fancy if key issues not fixed

Free-trade zone has a nice ring to it, but ambitions can only take off when residents are free from cares over bad air, suspect food and web curbs

BIO

George Chen is Managing Editor for SCMP.com International Edition and Mr. Shangkong Columnist. George has covered China's political and economic changes since 2002. George is the author of two books: This is Hong Kong I Know (2014) and Foreign Banks in China (2011). George has been named a 2014 Yale World Fellow. Follow George on Twitter: @george_chen.
 

In a place where access to the internet is restricted, international flights fail to land freely, and, most importantly, local residents cannot even breathe freely, the government is building something new called a "free-trade zone" as part of Beijing's ambition to open up the economy wider and faster to lure foreign money.

Welcome to Shanghai!

I was born in Shanghai, and like my hometown fellows, I have always been proud of being a native of Shanghai, known as the "Paris of the East" between the 1920s and 1930s. When I was writing the column this week, you can imagine I naturally had mixed feelings about many things happening in Shanghai.

In my old and happy days in Shanghai - although not as wealthy or shining as the city looks nowadays - I often went to buy the Shanghai-style egg pies or pan-fried buns at the street stalls after school. Today, Shanghai parents will tell their children not to eat "at random" because you just don't know what the meat comes from (or whether it is really meat or something else you may not want to know about).

Even the eggs could be fake.

Before I moved to Hong Kong, I could still access Facebook freely in Shanghai. I remember I found how useful Facebook could be for me to stay connected with my friends globally after I went from an Asia Society forum in Tokyo where I was recognised as one of its young leaders and met many peers from the rest of the world.

Talking of travel, I guess no travellers like to see their flights delayed or cancelled. Last week, many travellers heading for Pudong International Airport, one of the world's busiest, were told they could not land there and must be diverted to nearby airports.

Blame the smog, the city's No1 challenge in the past week that significantly clouded the global image of Shanghai.

"Isn't it just ridiculous? A city that claims to be building a world-class free-trade zone fails to get international flights to fly in freely?" said a passenger who was on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London on Thursday morning.

The flight was forced to divert to Xiamen where the plane refuelled before another attempt to fly to Shanghai once the Pudong airport gave the clearance that the air quality had improved sufficiently for take-offs and landings.

On Friday, the Air Quality Index of Shanghai exceeded 400 in the morning to reach the "severe" category, the highest in a six-tier national rating system, according to the Shanghai Environmental Monitoring Centre. Masks and air purifiers were quickly sold out and residents advised to try to stay indoors.

China is already the world's No 2 economy, something Beijing has been very proud of. But if you ask local Shanghai people to compare their quality of life now with what it was like 20 or 30 years ago, or just ask them a simple question - are you happy with what Shanghai is like today? - I think the answers will be very mixed.

As a concerned citizen, I decided to write this column to raise awareness of the serious problems that Shanghai is facing. Sometimes, it is not just about GDP. It is just about the way you choose to live comfortably.

george.chen@scmp.com, @george_chen

 

George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong

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