Shanghai’s Past, Hong Kong’s FutureRoundup
tags: China, urban history, global cities
James Carter is a professor of history at Saint Joseph’s University and the author of Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai (Norton, 2020).
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California–Irvine and the author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020).
Sometimes, when a city changes, residents are suddenly forced to ask themselves hard questions: Should we stay, or cut our losses and leave to start afresh somewhere else? Will this place still be enough like the community we love in a year or a decade to make it worth sticking it out? If we don’t leave now and things get worse, will we still be able to get out? Even if we’re okay now, what about our children? And all these personal questions boil down to bigger ones: What does it mean for a city to be free? What happens when a free city loses its freedom? And when does that occur?
Seventy-one years ago today, these questions were being asked by many residents of the most cosmopolitan city on the China coast: Shanghai. Some had considered leaving in 1937, when the Japanese took over all Chinese-run parts of Shanghai, and again in 1941, when the city’s two enclaves of foreign privilege, the International Settlement and the French Concession, fell to Japan. But they had stayed, only to face a choice early in 1949, when the Red Army advanced toward the great metropolis of the Yangtze Delta. While many locals welcomed the Communist Party’s arrival, others, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, feared that their way of life would be dramatically changed once Mao Zedong’s forces took over, and changed for the worse. As the first battles outside the city began on May 12, 1949, those who had remained surely wondered if they’d made a mistake.
Seven decades later, the same questions are being asked again, but in Hong Kong. In the Pearl River Delta’s most cosmopolitan city, the people asking the questions today might have pondered leaving in 1984, when Beijing and London made the deal that would change a British colony into a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They also might have considered leaving at other, later points, including before July 1, 1997, the day of the Handover. Today—as the mainland government warns that it is losing patience with locals seeking to defend the liberties and legal protections that make their city markedly different from all mainland ones, protesters battle with police after nearly a year of struggle, and the novel coronavirus disrupts daily life and the economic activities that make the city’s unique lifestyle possible—Hong Kong residents may be wondering again if they’ve made a mistake.
Hong Kong and Shanghai are connected by more than just history: they have long competed for the crown of the China coast’s most worldly, wealthy, and cosmopolitan city (even during eras when racism and segregation limited the freedoms of many of their residents). And each one’s successes have been matched by the other’s downturns. For a time, Shanghai was an open and prosperous city far outstripping its sleepy colonial counterpart—before 1949. But as Shanghai suffered under Maoist rule, Hong Kong prospered. Both have triumphed when they remained open to outside finance and outside cultures; both have turned stagnant when denied access to the world.
Therefore, the story of Hong Kong and Shanghai isn’t simply a defining story of the last two centuries of Chinese history. It is really the story of all world cities around the globe today: how they thrive and how they decline.
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