Harish Khare

Market economy is thriving with Chinese characteristics.

IF YOU stay at the Okura Garden Hotel in Shanghai you come out on to Maoming Road, which leads to a boulevard called Huai Hai Zhong Road. This part of the town is the heart of the old French Concession, when the foreigner had extracted his own autonomous enclaves from a weak central authority in China. Today, Shanghai is described in guidebooks as shopping nirvana. And Huai Hai is at the core of that consumerist paradise in the new Communist China.

Look left or look right, go east or go west, high quality consumerism is on display. From Maoming, turn left on Huai Hai. A journey of discovery begins. A giant Capitano arch greets the visitor. Gujin (lingerie), Geox (shoes), Hailives (dresses), Lacoste, Swaroski (expensive, expensive jewellery), Luisa M (women's collections), Armani Exchange, CK, LAB, 0039, On & On (boutique), Paris (wedding gowns). All these up-market stores, all within one block, must be catering to a very affluent clientele.

At the next crossing, a steaming jeans-clad Western woman model is spread across a giant Calvin Klein billboard. More expensive stores. Rize Dragon (wedding gowns), Finsun (luxury leather), SU (expensive underwear), Fugminiao (shoes), Max & Co (Haute Couture photography), Gujin (lingerie), Cabbeen (men's boutique). Ah, a bookstore. Shanghai-Hongkong Joint Publishing Co. Full of Chinese books (including a book on General Pervez Musharraf and another on Mother Teresa), many customers, and a few English books, mostly Agatha Christie.

Cross the road. More super-expensive stores. Yves Roche (lingerie), Tissot (Swiss watches), Tian Bao (jewellery), Shanghai Story (women's clothes), Shanghai Tobacco Store (brands from all over the world), Capitano (men's clothes), Watson (your personal store), United Colours of Benetton, R.B.T. (tea shop), and, ah, one more bookshop.

Shanghai City of Books is an incongruity in this avenue of wealth and consumerism. But the management books section is the largest, revealing the new preoccupation in the new China. Titles like Golden Collar (successful shortcuts for careers), Best Sellers' Secret (how to succeed in marketing), Loyalty (superior to ability), Job-Hunting (guide for high salary positions in foreign enterprises) points to a growing professional class, out to learn everything from Wall Street-approved wisdom. The bookstore is rather crowded for an afternoon. Many customers are sitting on the floor, browsing. A pleasing sight.

In the midst of all the pursuit of "growth", it does appear that perhaps some Chinese are worshipping different gods (of knowledge).

Out on Huai Hai, the parade of consumerist allurements goes on. On Maoming Crossing, a huge billboard artistically displays recent issues of Elle, boldly advertising the "Sexy: Spirited: Stylish" theme. Next door, Walt Disney, McKids, entice young customers. There are no vendors on the road, but through a few grilled doors one can peep at ordinary tenements. A beggar here and a beggar there does distract if only for one fleeting moment from the uninhibited pursuit of American-style consumerism.

More global brand names. L'oreal, Pepsi, McDonald. The magnificent garden along Maoming Road has nine huge posters of Christian Dior.

All these glitzy display of free market shenanigans begins to make sense as part of a national policy of broad-mindedness. Ma Xuejie, Vice-Director in the Press and Information Office of the People's Government, Shanghai Pudong New Area, spells out the policy: "The investor has come [to China] to make money, protect him, not be jealous of it." Mr. Ma tells us that 15,000 foreign companies have invested more than $33 billion in the greater Pudong area alone. Two hundred out of the top 500 global companies have set up shop in Pudong.

Mr. Ma expounds three elements of the new market economy. First, have long term development goals. Which means welcome the experience and expertise from all sources, and gain from global wisdom. Be open-minded to the outsider. Secondly, provide a conducive administrative environment for enterprise. It means rule of law, it means protecting the investor's intellectual property, it means changing China's custom and tax laws so as to conform to international requirements. Give protection and guarantees to the foreign investor. And, thirdly, be broad-minded.

New self-assurance

Broad-mindedness boils down to a new kind of self-assurance when it comes to dealing with the foreigner. Accommodate the foreign investor, not from a position of weakness, not in the manner that the British, the Americans, and the French were able to demand and get Concessions in the heart of Shanghai at the beginning of the 20th century. The new approach reveals a notion of control, with the Communist Party being in masterly command. "The Communist Party of China is the ruling party. Abide by the rules of the party," says Mr. Ma. He adds that while the Pudong Administration has considerable autonomy, the central government is always there "to manage and manipulate."

Broad-mindedness also means an uninhibited acknowledgement of American supremacy. "Fifty years ago the USA was not the sole power in the world. Today American economic, technological and scientific prowess is a fact." This explanation comes in response to a question as to why the Chinese are learning the English language at a fervid pace. "English is attractive because of the USA; if we have to catch up, we must know the language of the sole power," says Mr. Ma.

Broad-mindedness also means acknowledging defects in oriental civic sense. It is not enough to persist with the oriental belief that human beings are intrinsically good and capable of self-discipline. "Every culture has its own merits; but we can learn from others, too," says Mr. Ma, revealing a new national self-confidence.

Broad-mindedness means readily making a minor concession to the outsider if it begets a larger gain. In Beijing we learnt that a few weeks before President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States, under American pressure the Chinese authorities had closed down a flea market, where all kinds of pirated computers and other electronic gadgets could be bought at throwaway prices.

At Yua Yuan Market in downtown Shanghai, a market designed for the foreigner and the out-of-town tourist where they are encouraged to bargain about branded goods of dubious authenticity, we come across a wall-poster. Put up by the Shanghai Administration for Industry and Commerce, the poster, dated October 25, 2005, prohibits unauthorised sale of about 40 global brand names like Mont Blanc, Hermes, Cartier, Chanel. The poster warns that those violating would face "penalty." The wall-poster is in English. Some cheek. Or call it, national chutzpah.

If what one witnesses on Huai Hai road is Chinese communism, it is not all that unattractive a proposition.