Shanghai’s 2035 future imagined: a paradigm for a high-end society?

By Virginie Arantes

Created in 1949 under leader Mao Zedong, the People’s Republic of China experienced the fastest sustained economic expansion in world history under China’s Communist Party. Opposing Western countries and modernization theories, the one-party system has been dominating the state and society and reinforced its grip on power with Xi Jinping’s election. The Party-state is determined to put China at a world stage and to create an ecological civilization, a “New Green Era”, putting an end to the previous industrial civilisation.

Since the 1950s, to respond to the challenges of rapid economic development, master plans are used to diffuse the central-local government policy directives. Important guides to the rational development of a province or a city, they act as relevant instruments to study the Party’s strategies in demographic, economic and social objectives.

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A photo of Shanghai’s iconic Pudong Skyline, Shanghai, 2016. Source: Virginie Arantes

A showcase of China’s economic success, Shanghai is the world most populous city. Shanghai 2035 is the City released State Council-approved master plan for the years 2017-2035. The goals are ambitious, with promises about air quality and an inspiring narrative about the metropole becoming a world centre for finance, trade and technological innovation. The unique ‘East meets West’ speech-making is used in the envision of “an admirable city of innovation, humanity and sustainability as well as a modern socialist international metropolis with world influence.”.

‘Head of the dragon’ of China’s economy, Shanghai is said to be the city most likely to surpass Silicon Valley, ahead of Tokyo, London and New York (KPMG report). The development of innovation hubs, favourable government policies and incentives, accelerators, tech parks, corporate investment and so on, influence the city’s perception to the outside world. In Shanghai 2035, innovation is regarded as the city’s “national mission and historical responsibility of guiding the region to in-depth participation in the international competition.”. The Metropole is advanced as a role model for China and as a paradigm of sustainable development for other megacities.

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The Shanghai 2035 exhibition offers visitors a glimpse into the city’s growth over the past century and its development plans in future. Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, August 2018. Source: Virginie Arantes

Though, to reach such goals, Shanghai needs to focus on several metrics: tackling pollution problems, increasing green spaces, increase forest coverage, develop more public surveys, increase the weight of the cultural sectors, along with many others. These rather “positive” stances are displayed among other less “popular” targets, such as more “bottom-line control” and population size ceiling. In a quest to manage the “big city disease”, Shanghai is capping its population at 25 million. The current population is estimated at 24 million. The citizens are also expected to be “law-abiding, credible and well-mannered” and the city to “Strictly follow central government’s requirement”.

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Shanghai 2035 plan to become an ‘excellent global city’. Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, August 2018. Source: Virginie Arantes

Towards sustainability or a “selective” city development?

Considering those metrics, what strikes me most is the way these rather unpopular measures are presented to the public. Particularly, the way this envisioned future mixes increasing concerns among China’s population for their environment with new authoritarian modes of governing. The first time the central government announced its intention to control the size of its largest cities’ population was in late 2013, during the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee. At that time, they argued that it would redirect the rural population towards small to medium-sized cities (to speed up their development). Environmental concerns were not on the agenda. Today, as Shanghai 2035 shows, population control is (re)framed as a way to mitigate the contradiction between rapid population growth and resource and environment restrictions. Using this rhetoric, the state is politicizing access to cities by linking it to environmental issues.

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Municipal government propaganda posters covering a new construction site: Implement the spirit of the 19th Party Congress to deepen the creation of a national civilized city. Shanghai, August 2018. Source: Virginie Arantes

Other policies, such as eradicating illegal residences or closing illegal migrant schools, have been put in place. With the need to limit its population, foreign and low skill workers are pursued and expelled from the country. Since April 2017, a Chinese regulation set up a classification of the work permits in three categories (A, B, C) depending on the qualification and the skills of each foreigner working in China. As the plan states, priority is to be given to “high-calibre talent”.

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The ‘Chinese Dream’ is a slogan used by China’s President Xi Jinping to encapsulate its vision for the country. Wall of an old neighbourhood being destroyed in Shanghai, August 2018. Source: Virginie Arantes

In the way Shanghai’s future is envisioned, a sustainable development narrative is at its core. Yet, it is being used as an encompassing notion to instrumentally mobilise and legitimise a variety of planning practices, such as smart urbanism, space coordination or, as I’ve been trying to demonstrate, how and for whom cities are developed. Environmental protection has become a useful way to create pragmatism and erase ideological debates and antagonism. This politicisation of the Environment is important because it warns of the many risks associated with questions related to social justice. In the end, the story is always the same: the metropole aims to achieve economic growth, a “global city” status, security from threats and (finally) environmental sustainability. In this urban machinery, the market economy and globalisation are seen as irreversible facts. Let’s hope the coexistence of high living standards, illiberal politics and efficient state capitalism with a stable one-party dominant rule will not become the rule. For that, more questions need to be asked to assess the costs such inequality would have on cities development. Maybe then, new better-imagined futures are likely to emerge.


Virginie, PhD at the ULB (Université libre de Bruxelles) in Brussels, Belgium. Her research focuses on the rise of environmental social activism and its relevance to contemporary Chinese politics. She is interested in sociopolitical issues, democratization and the concept of “civil society” in China.

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