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  Shanghai Postcard   (2001)

Despite all the time-honored cliches about the inscrutable East, China is not so much an enigma as simply a nation which lends itself quite fluidly to whatever preconceptions you're looking to prove.

If you're seeking evidence of China's embrace of state-ordained capitalism and rapid economic growth, then Shanghai's dazzling skyline of shiny new postmodernist towers and boulevards of fashionably dressed youths will certainly carry your argument.

If, on the other hand, you're sure there's a dark underbelly to the capitalist beast, then look no further than the clutch of beggar children darting out to pester Big Noses if they dare to leave the comfort of their ritzy hotels on foot.

For every outrage against the Falun Gong, there's a government-restored Buddhist temple like the one I toured in canal-happy Wujian, or the Catholic service in full swing that I happened to float past in that same city.

But if you're not trying to buttress one ideological take or another, it boils down to this: it's the jobs, stupid.

The standard story goes thusly: a wandering army of 100 million unemployed workers from the rural heartland are infiltrating the coastal metropolises seeking low-end work; the success or failure of the central government's economic plans hinge on how successful they are in generating work for these desperate and potentially disruptive hordes.

But on the ground, another story is more visible: massive and pervasive underemployment. Behind every counter requiring two workers, there are six. And this isn't just in tourist-oriented hotels--it's everywhere.

In the newly developed Pudong district's riverside park, the guards--bored out of their minds, sleeping on benches or staring stolidly into space--far outnumber park users. And that's not even mentioning the huge brigade of gardeners toiling away amidst the lawns and flower beds.

Government offices throughout the country are filled with wage earners reading newspapers, sipping tea and gossiping, or napping--anything but doing any productive work. Why? You can point to many factors, but the main one is simple: because there isn't enough to go around.

The Shanghai museum memorializing the very first meeting of the Communist Party isn't exactly a hotbed of activity nowadays. As you might imagine, gaping at dusty prints of the Party's founding fathers (a disconcerting number of whom were later executed for "traitorous activities") gathering around a COMINTERN representative isn't exactly de rigueur anymore. Crowds gather in the underground mall or in the Microsoft aisle of the bookstore, not Party museums.

There were exactly three of us viewing the exhibits: one Chinese fellow and two Big Noses. The museum wasn't empty, however; there were plenty of guards on each floor, trying to stay awake, and a gaggle of saleclerks in the empty Museum gift shop, chatting away the day. The factories outside Shanghai, the gritty focus of actual production in the area, are a different story. Here, plenty of people are working, often in abominable conditions and always for extremely low pay--about $60 a month. China's per capita income is about $3,300, but it certainly isn't the average income of the folks keeping the factories running. Despite that, hope and pride are running high in China right now: pride in China's rapid growth, and hope for a better future.

But it isn't just the disgruntled farmers' sons and daughters sneaking into Shanghai that should worry the central government--it's all the tens of millions of bored, underpaid people just getting by and hoping for a better job next month or next year. With billboards along the Bund screaming the glamorous benefits of Motorola StarTac cell phones, and new Buicks racing by with twenty-something occupants ostentatiously using their StarTacs, any widespread loss of hope could have unpleasant political consequences for the economy's handlers.

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