Thursday, May 6, 2010

Back to the Future

Who is the father of modern China, Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping? I've heard the Chinese debate this question. On the one hand, Mao liberated China from the twin evils of the Japanese and the Nationalists. On the other hand, it was Deng's policies, not Mao's, that led to the economic miracle transforming China.

Officially, Mao is the father of New China. His portrait hangs in Tian'anmen Square. His face is on the currency.

But on the east bank of the Huangpu River, things are different. It's the twentieth anniversary of the opening of Pudong. At the foot of the Oriental Pearl Tower, a billboard displays Deng's grandfatherly face and his words calling for the building of a new Shanghai.

Under the tower is the Shanghai City Museum, endless hallways of photos, dioramas and plastic models. It's equal parts culture and kitsch.

Shanghai has been a trading center for a millennium, but it didn't become a world player until after the Opium War. Foreign investment built the city into a regional economic center at the beginning of the twentieth century. And it's rebuilding Shanghai a century later.

As I walk past the displays, I wonder how the curators will deal with Shanghai's history during the Japanese invasion, the civil war, the early Communist years. This answer is, they don't. Shanghai's history ends in the 1930s, bustling with economic activity, but with dark clouds gathering on the horizon.

Older Chinese know the rest of the story. In the 1940s China was at war. And in the 80s and 90s, it was rebuilding.

But there are three decades of turmoil and upheaval the Chinese still haven't come to terms with. And they can't blame the Japanese or the Nationalists. The disasters of the Hundred Flowers Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution were all home made.

Perhaps the Chinese are too busy moving forward to look back. But we are also reminded, those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them. The future of Shanghai in 2010 looks every bit as bright as it did a century ago.

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