Dec 05

Shanghai’s Tower of Babel

Written by chinayouren on Friday, December 5th, 2008 at 4:06 pm
Filed under:Analysis | Tags:, , , , ,
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If you’ve been reading the Chinese press this week, you might have come across two strikingly unharmonious pieces of information.

I am speaking of the treatment of the Shanghai Tower news by China Daily (ht Shanghaiist). In the space of 3 days from 11/28 to 12/01 China Daily has changed its tune radically in two articles about the construction of the new tower, which started last Saturday.

The first article is pretty neutral. It announces the beginning of the works, and has Shanghai CCP’s Lin Xu declare that spending on infrastructure will “help companies to weather the crisis“.

The second article, an unsigned editorial, is ripe with criticism of about every possible aspect of the project. Including some juicy ones: “symbolizes that blind worship and race for skyscrapers has reached a new high” and “The money could still be spent better elsewhere on so many priorities“.

What is going on here? Who forced this article into Beijing’s China Daily, the largest English language newspaper in China? It is a quickly written and poorly edited/translated article, someone obviously overrode the usual procedures of the newspaper to get this text to press ASAP. Someone you wouldn’t dare to edit or reject.

And you know what, as I was reading these articles, the old song came to my head:

“Let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. And the Lord said, Behold!”

Ah, arrogance, our old Shanghai friend! It looks like the Beijing lord is upset once again with his children. A new episode of the famous Beijing-Shanghai CCP feud that has gone in recent years all the way up to the Politburo. In case you missed some chapters here are the keys: ever since the Hu-Wen team came to power there has been a more or less hidden struggle between the two main factions in the CCP.

These are the two groups associated to Beijing and Shanghai, representing the Yin and the Yang of today’s Chinese politics. Here are some useful tags for your reference:

Shanghai: business, the “New Right”, Jiang Zemin’s old clique, Real estate millionaires, Eastern China, get rich first and: To stop the crisis help the companies.

Beijing: politics, the “New Left”, Hu and Wen, harmonious society, balanced development, Inland China, land reform and: To stop the crisis social fiscal policies.

Tectonic Study of Zhongnanhai

And perhaps now, in the light of recent events, it is time to do some political analysis and get some 2+2 together to add 8, as I said in my post of yesterday. This is the evidence we have:

1- Shanghai Tower unexpectedly bashed by Beijing based China Daily.

2- Billionaire Huang Guangyu arrested. While Huang is a son of Guangdong, part of the crimes investigated were committed in Shanghai, through his brother the Real Estate tycoon. More than possible connection with the Shanghai clique.

3- General nervousness observed, as in the aggressive reaction to latest Sarko – Lama meeting, which looked to me slightly rash for the usual behaviour of Chinese authorities. See analysis here.

Is it only me or are there some magmatic movements under the Beijing crust? I would say that Hu is moving to rally the troops and close ranks in advance of a potentially difficult 2009. Perhaps he is preparing the way for the controversial period when he tries to implement social fiscal policies, strongly opposed by some sections of the Party. Just as patriotic Dalai Lama incidents can consolidate Hu’s power bases outside the party, a few harsh words and the arrest of a billionaire consolidate his power inside it.

My conclusions might seem a bit far-fetched, I admit it, and the evidence is still weak. But the Chinese government is shrewd, and if we want to figure it out we need to use our imagination and think one step ahead.

So set your eyes on 2009 right now, and let me know what is your take on these events.

Credit Image: Gensler / Quotation: God

This is the latest of a series of entries about the Crisis and Chinese politics that I’ve posted this week on CHINAYOUREN. I am crossposting to try to get some more feedback from all the people in this forum who know China well. The objective is to sum up  ideas and see if we get to understand a bit better what is going on behind the scenes today, and what are the most likely moves of the Chinese government for 2009.\

Chinese politics remain a mystery for most, and there are few real experts in this field. So feel free to post any ideas you might have, even if they sound too imaginative. Also, I am trying to build up a good blogroll on Chinese politics so if you have some good links (or books) that can help in this field please recommend.

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35 Responses to “Shanghai’s Tower of Babel”

  1. pug_ster Says:

    Building a building of that height would be hard, not because of financial reasons, but because that they are building in Shanghai where they have issues with water table and earth underneath shanghai is very soft. It was difficult to build the Financial Tower itself, but if they would build it any higher, the weight of the building would actually sink the building. It is not like they are building on Bedrock like in Hong Kong and NYC.

  2. bt Says:

    Excellent job, Youren.
    According to the Financial Times (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/16eff70a-b270-11dd-bbc9-0000779fd18c.html?nclick_check=1), the details of the stimulus plan are more complicated than what it seems at a first glance.

  3. Netizen K Says:

    “[W]e need to use our imagination and think one step ahead.”

    Who are “we”?

    This is sloppy post. No facts. Lots made-up stories.

    Not good for FM’s reputation.

  4. wuming Says:


    Instead of printing more money to finance the 4 trillion stimulus package, much of it will be done through bond offerings. It will not be surprising that the actual package turn out to be much larger. There is already talk of local governments want to have a combined 20 trillion stimulus package, however that number does look suspiciously like those produced during GLF.

    Both in terms of budget deficits and the trade deficits, China is at the opposite end of the spectrum compare to US. I’d sooner question the US rescue/stimulus packages than those of China’s.

  5. bt Says:

    @ wuming

    I didn’t judge anything, just give a link to a FT article to start the discussion … to be honest, I don’t have a lot of knowledge about economy. I just want to say that things are much more complex that it seems.
    Do you know who is expected to buy the bonds?

    As for USA (EU too, less but still), I agree with you … you cannot spend more that what you earn … otherwise soon or later you have to pay the price. These crazy policies have to stop in the future.

  6. wuming Says:


    Do you know who is expected to buy the bonds?

    I would assume Chinese citizens mainly. You can earn a better return than the saving’s accounts (or under the mattresses), and much less risky than the equity market.

    If the stimulus package start to produce result, then foreign capitals may want to get a piece of action as well. Now these capitals are parked in short term US treasury debt (driven the Treasury bill yield to negative territory) and waiting for investment opportunities. Of course if that were to happen, it could demolish the current dollar hegemony, and signalling an actual change of economic world order.

  7. bt Says:

    @ wuming

    Thanks a lot for the reply.
    The Chinese citizens are notoriously sparing a lot (40% of the country’s GDP, and probably nowadays the total spared money is around 20 000 billions yuans).
    However, they seem to be quite reluctant to spend their money (retirement, health, education, …).
    Will they accept to buy the bonds, in your opinion?

  8. wuming Says:


    Chinese could also be eager investors, but they were burned by the stock market, therefore should be reluctant to come back to that again. However, treasury bonds are much safer investment, actually perfect instrument for saving for retirement and other longer term aims.

    They also may indirectly invest in bonds since insurance companies and fund managers are certain to buy a lot of those.

    I don’t claim to understand how the current global economy works, much less how it will work in the near future. I certainly sense a great paradigm shift happening right in front of our eyes.

  9. bt Says:

    @ wuming

    As usual, time will tell…
    I find the current situation somewhat strange. Even from the Chinese perspective: imagine that you work selling something to a customer, but that half the money you earn from your work is given back to this customer as a lend. Huh!. Cool, you have a power on this customer. Once you are pleased with this power, won’t you prefer to keep the money for yourself in order to buy things and to get a better life?

  10. wuming Says:

    The stranger thing is the debtor’s power over the creditor, since the creditor is afraid of the debtor’s defaulting (well, that’s a mouthful.) If China sells its US sovereign debt holding (>$500 billion) all of a sudden, the US bond market and currency will crash, greatly reducing the value of the $2 trillion reserve — Mutually Assured Destruction in monitory terms

  11. bt Says:

    @ wuming

    Completely agreed … sounds more like a dangerous tango than a symbiotic thing.

  12. Joel Says:

    The article you’re discussing made me do a double-take when it came through my bloglines – at first I assumed it was from a Western blog.

    I think the Chinese (and Middle Eastern?) thing for super-skyscrapers is interesting. There’s got to be some kind of cultural connection there (among other factors, of course).

    Also, in Tianjin, as in other Chinese cities, new buildings are always going up, many of them quite luxurious, but there are still plenty of unoccupied buildings, most of which are also luxurious. The majority are living in cramped, old apartments while expensive new apartment towers and office buildings remain mostly empty. What’s with building stuff for which there apparently isn’t a demand?

  13. wuming Says:


    Though the obsession with skyscrapers didn’t start with Asians, it is certainly being carried to absurd extremes by them now. I actually have the same unresolved puzzle about the sprouting new housing developments as you do. Across from my parents’ apartment near Sanlitun, the richest developer in China (and the world? I forgot his name) is building a brand new apartment-commercial cluster which is going to charge 30000 yuan per square meter … on the other hand, these are all private developments, who are we to judge?

    The relevant question is where they are going to spend the stimulus package? I think covering China with the high speed railroads like that between Beijing and Tianjin is a great idea; and covering China with more expressways is a lousy one. Building decent roads in the rural area that connect villages and townships and railroad stations also make sense.

  14. Wukailong Says:

    @wuming: Kind of off-topic, but what do you think about the Sanlitun village which houses, among other things, Adidas and Apple Store? First I thought it was bizarre, but now I like the feeling of it.

    Speaking of expressways, this is one case where I hope the Chinese leadership do not study the US, for all in the world. The way Americans depend on cars for everything (to the point where you can’t walk around in some cities) is something I would never like to see in China. It is understandable that more people want cars as their standard of living goes up but cities also have to care for people who want to walk around or take the subway. Also, imagine two cars for every family…

  15. Joel Says:

    sure, private developers can build whatever they want. the situation just looks odd to me, so I’m wondering what’s going on.

    we love that new highspeed train. the few times we’ve gone into Beijing from Tianjin, it’s been so great. though it’s also relatively pricey.

  16. chinayouren Says:

    @Netizen K #3

    Hi, Netizen K. You are right, the post has few facts and many hypothesis. I never try to hide this fact and if you read on you will see it says exactly that.

    But I do not agree that it is bad for FM’s reputation. I think the reputation of this site is not built upon its accurate research, but more on encouraging discussion on China from people with many different POVs and different backgrounds.

    Like I say above, I will be grateful if you point me to some websites or books that analyze these things more accurately. I read dozens of blogs and newspapers about China every week, and I rarely come across anyone that even tries to see behind the scene of Chinese politics.

    BTW, when I say “we” I just mean: “We Who Do Not Know And Seek Enlightment”. Feel free to exclude yourself from that we if you want.

  17. Raj Says:

    In regards to the Dalai Lama/EU matter, do you guys think that in some respects the Chinese government sees other countries’ foreign policy as always having a price tag – i.e. that if they make the right threats/inducements they can always get their way? I certainly think it might be the case. Beijing has been used to getting its way over a range of issues when dealing with developing nations, so perhaps it thinks that with European states it can get the same thing.

    In 2005 it thought the lifting of the EU arms embargo was a done-deal. It had “paid” for this to happen with $billions of trade deals. So when opinion changed and it was canned, there was as far as I can remember genuine surprise and shock.

    Does China sometimes forget that it is not the only country in the world that sees its own policies as being sovereign and not subject to external interference?

  18. Joel Says:


    that’s one of my favourite things about living in a Chinese city: I don’t need a car! I love being able to bike to everywhere I need to go. And if biking doesn’t work, the buses are OK, and taxis are usually easy to get.

  19. wuming Says:


    Already parts of cities like Beijing got so cut up by the road bridges and closed roads (ala Robert Moses of New York City) that you can’t easily bike or walk.


    I only had one visit of the northern Sanlitun Mall, so it can’t grow on me yet. However, I don’t think you can do anything bizarre in China anymore, everything have been tried and built. The mall just north of this new one was built several years ago with comparable fanfare, it is already passé. Same fate awaits the Norther Sanlitun Mall when the Southern Sanlitun Mall come into being. If the trend continues, the “slum” (state of the art in the 1950s) that my parents live in would sell for 50000 yuan per square meter. I can’t wait.

  20. chinayouren Says:

    @Raj #17 yes, China acts like everything has a price. But don’t all the countries do the same? I mean, there are 2 main ways to have influence in the international community: economic power and military power. China in its”quiet rise” policy is not using arms for the moment. It doesn’t invade countries once in a while to reaffirm its authority like USA does. So economy is the way to go. Can you tell me an example of EU acting differently? Are you thinking of the so called soft power?

    IMO your example of the embargo is all about China’s rise being so fast that it’s difficult for its leaders to measure its own influence at a given point in time. Things that they can get away with today wouldn’t do only 5 years ago. It is must not be easy for a government to ride a fast wave like this. Miscalculations are bound to happen

  21. WillF Says:

    I’ve probably read the China Daily more than most Westerners have, and I’ve always wondered something: who are they writing for? I’ve never spoken to a Westerner who regarded the paper with any credibility. I imagine many Chinese use it as an English-learning tool, but I can’t imagine it’s thought of as a primary news source in China, with the hundreds of Chinese language papers out there. So if foreigners aren’t reading it, and Chinese aren’t reading it, who is?

    Which brings me to my next point: why would an official criticize the Shanghai Tower in an English language paper? Is there a Chinese version of the op-ed that’s published in Chinese papers? If not, why would the op-ed, which seems to me to be speaking to a Chinese audience, limit that audience by publishing an English article?

    Note that these are genuine questions, not rhetorical criticisms.

  22. bt Says:

    @ WillF

    Agreed … I personally know some Chinese who use the China Daily as an English-learning tool.
    You can find the Renmin Ribao in many languages too … who read it, that’s a good question (don’t use it as a learning tool anyway … their translations are sometimes quite strange).
    I think you made a good point … but if it’s less ‘sensitive’, some people can make bolder statements … might be an opportunity to ‘test the idea’ before throwing it elsewhere.

  23. Raj Says:

    CY @ 20

    Can you tell me an example of EU acting differently? Are you thinking of the so called soft power?

    There’s a difference between small nations/economies and European states, especially the larger ones like France. Although money does talk, I can’t remember the last time European states tried to buy the foreign policy of powerful countries over something like the visit of the Dalai Lama. You might be able to correct me on that. But in my view sometimes some things cannot be bought. Some countries realise this, even if they try – does China, though?

    IMO your example of the embargo is all about China’s rise being so fast that it’s difficult for its leaders to measure its own influence at a given point in time.

    This may or may not be what you were thinking of, but my interpretation is that the Politburo were too cocky about China’s position in relation to the European nations.

  24. bt Says:

    @ Raj

    I can’t help thinking that the calculation of the CCP has been quite strange.
    Especially that now, they will have to deal with the Czech Republic, one of the most fiercely sensitive country on these issues for obvious historical reasons.

  25. Raj Says:

    bt, you’re not the only person who thinks this “calculation” is strange….

    So now that Sarkozy has met the Dalai Lama, what will China do other than mutter? I’m honestly curious. Do too little and no one will take its threats seriously. Do too much and it will seem childish, possibly pushing France and other European nations away.

  26. vmoore55 Says:

    What can China do, she’s a girlyman.

    The DL got all the white boys on his side and now China is gonna get a whopping.

    Even that big penis looking tower is not making China stand up as a real man.

  27. FOARP Says:

    @WillF – The China Daily is an “Image project”, and also serves as a mouth-piece for the government to talk to non-Chinese speaking foreign journalists. It also makes medium-to-bad toilet paper.

    @Vmoore55 – Do you actually have a point? Or are you just here to fling around racist and ignorant commentary?

  28. chinayouren Says:

    @WilF #21 –

    Good point. I was thinking the same myself, why publish it on China Daily? And more in general, what is the use of a money losing machine like China Daily? The only reason for China Daily to exist is as a tool for the CCP to give a certain image of China to the World. And in this way it does work: do a search for China Daily on Google News and you will see it is quoted every day by all the main newspapers and press agencies in the world.The problem is that this role is already covered by Xinhua, so I agree China Daily feels redundant.

    So who reads China Daily? Students of English, proffesional journalists and bloggers, I guess.

    But back to the Tower: I already searched for that when I wrote the post and I couldn’t find any Chinese language papers carrying the article. There is a chance that it is just a move by an editor of China Daily to try to attract readers, now that they have the pressure to become profitable. But still, it is strange to see so radical opinions in CD against a project that has already been approved.

    In the end, it is understandable that this story doesn’t go very far. The construction has started already, and I can imagine there is a contract already in place with Gensler and the subcontractors, so it wouldn’t be reasonable to stop it now.

  29. Raj Says:

    “What can China do, she’s a girlyman.”

    Any chance of some moderation action? Trolls are irritating, even if some find them funny.

  30. Leo Says:

    A lot of non-Chinese nationals do read China Daily. A lot of Foreigners ask me questions about what is written in China Daily. I don’t know People’s Daily has an English version, and I don’t think Xinhua has an English print publication.

    A lot of bloggers and commentators also give me an impression that nobody watch CCTV-9. Later I realize for those who want to know something about China but don’t speak Chinese, CCTV-9 is, in fact, the only viable option. ESPN and CNN by Satellite disk don’t make up for that.

  31. Ted Says:

    @Chinayouren: The attack piece was a riot. I have a friend who works for one of Asia’s larger architectural firms and she got a good laugh from it as well.

    You may have come across this already but I thought it was related to the stylistic comments of the China Daily editorial. http://cmp.hku.hk/2008/12/08/1416/

  32. chinayouren Says:

    Hey, thanks for the link Ted! Actually I hadn’t seen that article (it was published after I wrote my post!). But from what it says, it might well be that the editorial is just what it is supposed to be: the opinion of the editors in the magazine. It is surprising however that China Daily can take the liberty to attack so violently a flagship project like this. Can you imagine any editor doing that with the olympics? I don’t know. I have asked David Bandurski what he thinks of the CD article, I would love to hear his opinion.

  33. wuming Says:

    Most of the building projects in China are privately financed. One example is the cross bay bridge on Hangzhou Bay, financed mostly by private capital from Zhejiang and Shanghai. As hard as we try to twist our mind to adjust to the capitalist reality of China, some of this stuff is still beyond comprehension. Now I wouldn’t be that surprise if one day China Daily (or CCTV for that matter) will be owned by some businessman from Wenzhou.

  34. chinayouren Says:

    Yes it is beyond comprehension, but only because the information is incomplete. Scan all the news for example about Huang Guangyu. I can well imagine this man was in the Party. But I can not know what his position was there because none of the articles say it, they all repeat basically the same information. Which gets me back to my point, no one is doing research on chinese politics. Ora t least it is not publicly available on the internet.

    As for private capital… yes, the notion of private capital is relative in China. For example Huang Guangyu owned a big business and now perhaps he owns nothing… In China business is well integrated in the structures of power (like in most countries), the difference is that it all happens behind closed doors.

  35. Ted Says:

    @Chinayouren #32: “it was published after I wrote my post!” LOL, I noticed that too but didn’t want to suggest that CMP was sourcing from FM 🙂 It’s really interesting that this third voice is emerging. OK now I have to practice my Chinese so I can one day read the third voice.

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