More Thrills Than Skills – A Half-Life in Journalism, Part 107

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is to be published March 1 next year, by Kennedy & Boyd, Glasgow, and available from

A television show to welcome Chinese New Year at the beginning of February – a sort of cross between The Eurovision Song Contest and Sunday Night at the London Palladium (remember?) – shows film footage of furiously waving units of the Chinese People’s Army doing their good works in far flung locations, from the border with Siberia to Xizhang.

This is all about unity, the integrity of the state and continuity. In a country with 5,000 years of recorded history, few question that concept of homogeneity.

I make an observation to my Chinese girlfriend on the couch about the Dalai Lama. Not something I would do in public, I might add. “Dalai Lama, him very bad man.” End of discussion. Later, she did become No.1 wife, though.

Of course, Shanghai is not China. Shanghai is the atypical showpiece of an already diverse and vast land about which generalisations are facile. Shanghai has always been different. I got to a lecture given in the de-luxe surroundings of the top floor restaurant, M on The Bund, with its breathtaking views over the skyscrapers of Pudong district, the relentless commercial traffic of the Huangpi River and the solid historic architecture erected by the old money on The Bund. Professor Dr Wu Jiang makes the point convincingly. “Shanghai has always been a business-orientated city rather than a political city.”

Shanghai has been chosen by the Chinese leadership to spearhead the economic development of China. Indeed, to symbolise it. It is breathtaking in its energy, verve and very impertinence: the most populous city in the most populous country in the world, greater Shanghai with an area of around 7,000 square kilometres is home to some 16 – maybe 18 – million people. The Shanghai Daily announced in a front page headline in November 2003 ‘Population Surpasses (sic.) 20 million’.

The story is, of course, officially inspired; there is contradictory evidence within the story to verify this. And, of course, the headline with the extraordinary ‘surpass’ claim, doggedly designed to fit its space on the page, is a prize example of ‘Chinglish’. But, by the time I left Shanghai, the popular comparison that was being drawn was that Shanghai was bigger than Belgium: bigger in landmass, and with more people.

It has long been unique. Many epithets have been applied to Shanghai like ‘The Paris of the East’ and ‘The Whore of the Orient’. Some are more complimentary than others. Aldous Huxley famously observed, “Nothing more intensely living can be imagined.”

Before I went to Shanghai I must have heard a varying statistic half a dozen times if I heard it once. It was the oft-quoted statistic about the world’s building cranes. Some people said that more than 20 per cent of the world’s supply of cranes were located in Shanghai. Some, 50 per cent. And some, even, ventured 80 per cent. I’m not sure which statistic held true.

More recently, I’ve spent some time in Dubai which is sprouting from the desert in a similar fit of boundless energy. You now hear the same sort of claims about the world’s cranes in Dubai and it seems determined to build an urban desert on even greater scale than Shanghai.

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