In Focus: The Global Environment of Business

From emerging to emerged in a few seconds

The Huangpu River runs through Shanghai, separating east from west, old Shanghai from the new. On its eastern bank is the Pudong District, whose colossal skyscrapers house the financial behemoths who underwrite everyday transactions in the global environment of business. Two of the skyscrapers, identical twins, are impossibly concave nears the top, their upper floors leaning in, as though in conversation with each other. The Huangpu’s western bank is lined by one of the most pleasing stretches of classical architecture anywhere, the buildings of the Bund. Here, in another, colonial era, different great powers ruled global commerce.

I had come to Shanghai from Nanchang, where my partner Laura, my daughter Madelaine and I visited the orphanage where Madelaine, who we adopted in 2000, spent the first 15 months of her life. It was an emotional visit, and in some way I was thankful that we had made plans to spend a week in Shanghai, where we would meet up with Madelaine’s two friends who live in Japan.

Shanghai’s population is a staggering 22 million. It is a megalopolis that assaults and overwhelms and that, above all, needs to be taken seriously. From the power palpable in the high-ceilinged lobbies of the Pudong’s skyscrapers, to the rich and fascinating history of Chinese civilization on display in the Shanghai Museum, and even to the audacity and persistence of locals peddling counterfeit watches and purses, Shanghai demonstrates that it can do what any of today’s “established” powers can do. Its prowess is manifest in just about every aspect of daily life and it puts the lie to (and maybe even laughs at) the notion that China is an “emerging market.” The deniers who refuse to believe that the country will sooner or later become the world’s greatest economic power may eventually be right. However, any step backward is likely to be a blip, not the cataclysm many in the west seem to predict and wish for.

Trying to separate yourself from the unrelenting waves of humanity on Nanjing Road — Shanghai’s great neon honky tonk of tacky shops, fast food joints and enterprising peddlers of five-dollar Swiss watches and Italian purses – is almost fruitless. But several times I was able to do so, to stand alone and observe. What a show to be thinking about, of all people, the political philosopher Edmund Burke and his observation about “the inevitability of gradualness.” But gradualness does not seem to be a word in the Chinese vocabulary, at least certainly not in Shanghai’s. The Pudong was developed and built in a frenzied 15-year period. So too was the remarkable network of roads and interchanges, many of which seemed to be in excellent repair. And so too were the many, many hotels and office towers of the Huangpu, another commercial hub. Density is an afterthought in Shanghai, and from almost any vantage point in the city is easy to see that ambition has trumped tradition. Shanghai wants to get there now, not eventually.

On our second-to-last night in Shanghai, we took a short boat ride on the Huangpu. There were tourists and locals, lovers and families, all of them gawking at or snapping photos of the awesome, cascading light shows playing on the glass-walled skyscrapers. It was a special night. And beyond the sight of people enjoying the simple pleasures of being with each other on the deck of a tour boat, it was easy to see why, perhaps not tomorrow, but eventually, Shanghai will be the nexus of the global environment of business.

Stephen Bernhut, Editor