By Jillian Smith
Yesterday I journeyed into the heart of downtown Shanghai. The words of my program director, You Sha, hung around my head like the city smog as I walked.
“The people of China are rich now,” she said. “They don’t mind spending the extra money to have nice things.”
Opulence was the only word that seemed to make any sense as I meandered down West Nanjing Road.
I have been to many cities, the nice parts of many cities. I have seen how the notably wealthy live in New York, San Francisco and even Singapore. But the sheer concentration and density and volume of the gilded class that greets the Shanghai tourist is a shock that floored me almost as much as the prices of the things which that class consumed.
This consumerist culture was something I had been told of before. Gaige Kaifang, or the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, had inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs, an opening of massive economic growth and the general rise in a middle class that was more materialistic than ever. But walking through and very palpably experiencing a rising middle class is very different than simply hearing of it.
Hordes of college-aged students, my fellow peers, people who have no business walking in and out of stores like Prada, Burberry and Godiva, did so with a nonchalance that made me noticeably stare. Cars packed the streets, but a startling number of those cars were Range Rovers, Porches and Lamborghinis. Whole families came into the ultra-hip, overpriced coffee shops which I haunted just to get free Wi-Fi and were sitting their children down to entire dinners of gourmet lattes and hand-pressed Paninis. I was invited to a dance club in the French Concession. The average table price? $8,000 USD.
In China, bourgeoisie seems to no longer be a dirty word.
For a kid from Youngstown, however, observing the rising middle class and rapid march toward consumerism had an odd tinge to it. I couldn’t help thinking — though I know the correlation isn’t entirely correct — that all of the hustling, bustling, glowing, glitzy, luxurious happiness that swirled the expertly manicured tree-lined avenues had been put there through some great vampirish suctioning away from places like Kalamazoo, like Gary and like Youngstown.
All the vibrancy and verve and cute and prosperous main streets that had left these once great progenitors of industrial America seemed perfectly comfortable in their new home in Shanghai. Meanwhile, those Rust-Belt cities, despite some progress, continue to hemorrhage people and dollars. The people of these cities have felt the vampirish nature of this wealth transition for some time. That is why they, in large numbers, switched their traditional union vote to put up President Trump in the last election. He seems to have cut directly to that concern that took me traveling across an entire ocean to understand.
And yet, as I reflected on that opulence, it seemed less and less appealing the more I felt the gummy feeling that never leaves my mouth when I breathe in the air too long. Or when I walked into a convenience store, and there was a whole aisle devoted to air masks. Or when I try to brush my teeth and I am told the water is undrinkable.
It seems as though the world has reached an age of uncertainty. It’s not certain if President Trump will bring back jobs to the Rust Belt, nor is it certain if China’s economic growth will continue to sustain itself. It also remains to be seen if those two trends are mutually exclusive. But whatever happens, the Mahoning and Huangpu rivers seem to have been the biggest losers in this grand contest. Let’s hope that a different course of action can be taken in this new age.