“The Yankees have invented a stone-breaking machine. The English do not make use of it, because the ‘wretch’ who does this work gets paid for such a small portion of his labour, that machinery would increase the cost of production to the capitalist.” (Marx, Capital: Volume One)
My recent visit to Shanghai was the last of nine in which I have glimpsed urban development “the China way”. My photo story captures themes present in each of my visits that have haunted me.
The former Chinese Communist Party leader, Deng Xiaoping, who initiated the era of “opening and reform”, famously said: “Development is the only hard truth.”
If capital is akin to a monster, then a gigantic monster was set loose in Shanghai from 1990, and has gluttonously and mindlessly trampled over people and eaten up land ever since — commodifying and extracting surplus value at a reckless speed.
Over the years, the sight of low-rise alleyway, working class living that is half demolished, with people still residing within it, has been less and less prominent in downtown Shanghai, simply because more and more of the demolition has been completed. The working class have been largely moved out of the centre to the isolating high-rise apartments of the suburbs — placed within new tower blocks that have been as quickly put up as old homes have been destroyed, and which signify urban regeneration that will fast degenerate.
Shanghai is urban dystopia. It is a city of hardware, with no regard for software: culture, civil society, freedom to pause, and to think, and to question.
If one sits in a taxi at night driving through the dazzling skyscrapers of Pudong, the Special Economic Zone just over the river from downtown Shanghai, one feels like one has entered Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. The scale of Pudong is a frightening mash-up of the might of global capital and the muscle of Chinese totalitarianism — this is urban development, the China way.
It is the subtle sights of Shanghai that have always struck me the most, and the absences too: where are the poor? Space and place is so controlled in Shanghai’s centre that one can stroll from Starbucks to Starbucks, visiting global retail chains in between, and simply miss the missing population. What we call gentrification in the West appears on such a vast scale in Shanghai that what one can actually see — if awake enough — is capitalism at its most naked.
There’s the next, near-erected skyscraper, such as the one I walked passed once by the Bund at midnight, with orange sparks against a black sky right at the top, generated by welding, as rural migrant workers toil for little pay and no health and safety protection. And there are the rural migrant workers digging holes in roads and pavements with pick axes and shovels, rudimentary equipment which once puzzled me.
Yes, labour in China is that exploited, it is cheaper to employ workers to dig into concrete with pick axes and shovels than it is to employ a mechanical digger.