Looking out from the old Broadway Mansions hotel in Shanghai up the Huangpu River, to the right stands the granite faced buildings of the Bund and to the left, Pudong District’s gleaming glass skyscrapers.

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Up the Huangpu

The two sides of the river are bookends to Shanghai’s emergence as a modern and economically powerful metropolis of 20 million-plus inhabitants: The Bund, a strip of mostly foreign banks dating from the 19thCentury in what was a quasi-colonial city-state largely run by Britain and the Americans within a decaying China; Pudong, once a bleak warehouse district, is now a financial district and signature of China’s emergence as a global economic power with ambitions to lead the world.

Shanghai’s development has seen foreign occupation, anti-foreign unrest, civil war, Communist ascendancy, the disastrous Great Leap Forward, intra-party power struggles, the even more disastrous Cultural Revolution, and eventual economic reforms that led today’s economic effervescence.

Things seem pretty calm, in a crowded way. Strollers crowd the waterfront to take selfies, eat ice cream and rush to get seats for an hour’s cruise riverboats. Shoppers so throng Nanjing East Road that sidewalks are made into one-way thoroughfares, one side toward the river, one side inland. Construction continues at break-neck speed; a trip to scenic Suzhou and its canals, 50 miles away, is a mostly unbroken landscape of high-rises.

Yet, there are signs of state repression are unmissable. The lousy Internet search engines, available because of the ban on Google. The impossibility of getting certain web sites through Chinas electronic Great Wall. The facial recognition cameras at every turn. Continued arrests of real and imagined foes of the regime. Plans to monitor citizens for any sign of anti-social behavior: Everything from jaywalking to excessive purchases of foreign goods to quarreling with a neighbor to trying to search forbidden web sites can lower an official “social credit” and effect your job or possibility to get a loan, a job or ability to travel.

Which makes me wonder just what is it that Chinese government is afraid of?

Is it the underlying anarchy expressed in Shanghai, where drivers make U-turns at random and ignore government exhortations to be polite through its endless moralistic Spiritual Civilization campaigns? Is it fear of occasional signs of public discontent, like recent public protests over drops in property values? Is it concern that growing inequality might lead to political protest, as has added to simmering ferment in Hong Kong?

Or is it something more disturbing on the horsizon? Sometimes, China seems to be on a war footing. Praise for the People’s Liberation is a frequent topic of government propaganda. It’s hard to tune into the government’s numerous CCTV channels without running across a documentary or fictional film about the World War II battle against the Japanese or the triumph of the Communists over the Nationalists in China’s civil war.

Perhaps the government fears that the Communist Party is losing its cachet. Recently, Shanghai reopened a refurbished museum dedicated to the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which took place in the city in 1921. Ushers from the Peoples Liberation Army escort hundreds of school kids daily through the place, which perhaps ironically is located in what is now in one of the city’s top high-end shopping districts.

Or maybe President Xi Jinping worries that a slowing economy might rile up workers and even opponents of his rule within the Communist Party, now that he’s president for life (the Party has scrapped term limits). So, it’s time to tighten up. (Shopping tip: Xi’s mammoth two-volume “Governance of China” is available at the First Party Congress Museum!)

The fear that underlies all this heavy-handedness is a riddle. Everything is Bu qingqu, “not clear,” the phrase government officials use when asked a question they don’t want to answer.

On the bright side, I decided to tell a mild Xi joke while purchasing a small jade amulet. I asked for a discount. The salesperson said hers was a government store, so the price was fixed. I said, President Xi won’t mind; he’s generous.

Everybody laughed. I was relieved.

How China’s surveillance regime will effect urban life 

Xi Jinping does a museum.

Does Xi have problems with the PLA?

Byproduct of US-China tensions: possible real estate recession

Great writer whose books are banned in China.