This is the sixth city newsletter.  We shall now take a break to research and write a book.
– Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna
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Everyone agrees that the number of foreigners in Shanghai has declined over the last two years, even disregarding the city’s present damaging Covid outbreak. The sheer difficulty of re-entering China is just one among several reasons.

More disputed is whether this decline is long term – with Adam Dunnett, head of the EU Chamber of Commerce, going so far as to argue in 2021 that there has been a decade-long drop of 22% in the foreign population in Shanghai (residents from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are registered neither as foreigners nor Chinese). Whether that figure is accurate or not, there is no doubt that, compared with other global cities, Shanghai’s foreign population is small, less than 1%.

But such a broadbrush overview may mask more nuanced shifts – the presence of Westerners in Shanghai may be in decline but Asian expats seem on the rise. Perhaps Shanghai is on a slow path to being an Asian city, in terms of its population. The head of an International School in the city says the places left vacant by Westerners are being filled by the children of overseas Chinese – another trend prompted by Covid.

Whatever the long-term population trends, explanations for the recent decline in foreigners (Westerners) are legion – some economic, some administrative and some political. Of the last, there is much talk in the Western media that China is becoming less hospitable to Westerners – with a rising tide of nationalism and the government’s intermittent hostility to foreign influence, not least to US culture.

For some, such government rhetoric and some of its policies smack of ‘decoupling’ or the closing of the Chinese mind, to reengineer the title of Allan Bloom’s, The Closing of the American Mind.

There could hardly be a better place in China to test this hypothesis than Shanghai, a city of 26 million, often thought to be the most open city in China.


Education is the most high profile arena in which the ‘closing of the Chinese mind’ hypothesis is said to find backing. Widely reported abroad, the Shanghai municipal government last year banned English language exams for primary school students. Its explanation was that the decision helped to alleviate the work load of Chinese students; those opposed to it saw it as an anti foreigner act.

To even greater fanfare, private tutoring of core subjects (Chinese, Maths and English) has been forbidden. Defenders say this is a necessary decision to help minimize the huge gap between rural and urban children (60% of rural children don’t make it through high school; Shanghai is second in the global league table of billionaires according to the latest Hurun Global Rich List). For opponents of the government, this ban is, whatever else, another sign of hostile foreigner sentiment.

But with the inventiveness which distinguishes middle classes all over the world, Shanghai parents are having their children taught subjects such as history by private tutors – which just happen to be in the English language. Private tutoring of English is happening, just under another name.

Yet, at the same time as this increased regulation, there has been no attempt to halt the stable and often increasing exodus of older children to schools and universities outside China, which was begun in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping. Universities in the UK have benefitted greatly. In 2016-17 there were 95595 Chinese students; in 2020-21 that number rose to 143820. Perhaps this UK rise is due in part to the decline in numbers of Chinese students in US, with tensions between the US and China cited as one of the causes.

Friends in Shanghai say that there are a couple of explanations for this continuing rise in overseas education: first, an unwritten and unbreakable contract between the Chinese government and the middle class about the ‘rights’ of their children to be educated abroad; second, the demands of the economy, especially for cultural and creative graduates. In the early 2000s, the government declared the importance of cultural and creative industries, yet the sector’s achievements are still a mixed blessing. Perhaps it is not unrelated that subjects in the cultural and creative industries in UK universities are seeing the fastest growth in Chinese applications.

A commercial/cultural city such as Shanghai needs creative professionals as the city government readily acknowledges. Which means, to adapt an old Marxist formulation, there is a contradiction between the political suspicion of foreigners and the economic imperatives of openness.

A sign of the power of the economic pull can be seen in the reliably rumoured conversation between the Shanghai government and a very prestigious Western arts education institution about setting up in Shanghai. It would be unfair to name it at present.

It’s a not dissimilar story when it comes to the formal cultural field. Of course Covid has diminished the presence of international artists, performers and institutions in Shanghai – the impressive West Bund Art & Design fair which takes place in November each year has not had the substantial international presence of either galleries or collectors that it regularly had before Covid. On the other hand, the important new Museum of Art Pudong, designed by Jean Nouvel, has had as its largely backroom consultant, the Tate in London, which supplied the first exhibition, ‘Light: Works from Tate’s Collection’, attracting 410,000 people; not a few of MAP’s staff are UK-educated.

Decoupling or ‘closing down’ is not what Shanghai is doing in the educational or cultural field – but perhaps it is developing a dual cultural and educational ecology analogous to the much discussed dual circulation economy.

Coffee drinking has been a foreign habit that the Shanghainese have enjoyed for more than 100 years. The great writer Eileen Chang (张爱玲)went every afternoon to the same coffee shop beneath her flat in Changde Apartments when she was writing such seminal works as The Golden Cangue or Love in a Fallen City. Later, the coffee shop metamorphosed into various stores. But in 2008 it became again a coffeeshop, called The Colourful Bookstore, marinaded in images of the writer.
Shanghai has now more coffee shops than any other city in the world, with more than 7600 (London has 3233 and Tokyo 3826). According to the Shanghai Coffee Consumption Index report there are 15 streets in Shanghai with a coffee shop every 100 m. Half of Shanghai coffee shops are artisanal whilst 35% belong to major international coffee chains such as Starbucks or Costa; and Shanghai’s Starbucks Reserve Roastery on West Nanjing Road is the third largest Starbucks in the world. Statista claims that the coffee market in China is growing 11.3% per annum and its value is expected to reach 21.7 billion yuan ($3.4 billion) by 2025.
If once coffee was a sign of a cosmopolitan lifestyle, today the younger generations drink coffee also for reasons of health. Coffee is as good for you as water, they say; it even helps to xu ming 续命 (get through life), an increasingly popular expression during the Covid years.


One important sign of Shanghai’s openness over the last ten or fifteen years has been the emergence of contemporary private art museums that have worked internationally and with a nimbleness that the State museums have often found difficult to match. One of the key museums is the Yuz Museum, owned by the late Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi Tek, who died from pancreatic cancer on 18 March, a few days after the opening of a landmark Yoshitomo Nara show in his museum (disclosure: we were among Buditek’s many friends). Together with the collector Wang Wei’s two Long Museums, one in Puxi, the other in Pudong, the Yuz Museum shows Chinese art and brings important foreign artists into China. There have been a number of obituaries in the West and we don’t mean to rehearse his history here.

But the history and future of the Yuz Museum might be seen as a test case of China’s tilt towards State-driven cultural institutions rather than private ones. Ten or fifteen years ago Chinese private museums – and Shanghai was in the vanguard – were an important innovation. They seemed to be part of a burgeoning civil society. It was the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas who said that in eighteenth-century Europe the artworld needed to become ‘private’ to escape the shadow of the State and the Church. Perhaps Shanghai was escaping the shadow of the State. There were even those in Shanghai who told us that the government encouraged the opening of private museums showing riskier art, allowing the government the excuse of deniability if necessary.

Budi Tek, a pioneer of Shanghai’s private museum ecology, tried to find a way of making his collection ‘public’ without losing entire control, when he was given the cancer diagnosis. That went against laws in China and did not happen. Nor did a potential ground-breaking partnership with LACMA in Los Angeles.

It now looks as if Budi Tek’s collection will endure (how and where we do not know) but that the Yuz Museum itself will enter into a partnership with the West Bund Group (西岸) – an arm of the Shanghai government. In itself this may not be a matter for regret; on the other hand company owns the West Bund Museum where Paris’ Centre Pompidou has taken up residence – the deal seems to be that the Pompidou is there but invisible from the outside of the building. There is no Pompidou branding on the street.

In the same spirit, as we mentioned earlier, London’s Tate has largely been a backroom consultant to the new museum of Pudong (which may have been a good judgement by Tate. Western museums working with China have come under pressure, recently due to Xinjiang and other matters).

It’s a sign of the times that the Museum of Art Pudong is backed by Lujiazui Group (陆家嘴集团), a State-owned development company. It does seem as if there is a shift from the private to the State in museum development, even in Shanghai. It is too early to tell whether the international and risky spirit that infuses the private museums will be maintained in this new State era.

Government involvement in education and in the major institutions of the national culture is taken for granted across the world – even if the particular character of the Chinese government’s involvement has ‘Chinese characteristics’.
What is less common is that a government nudges workaday property developers to provide a cultural offer together with its usual retail one – sometimes a museum; at other times a cluster of creative businesses. The State owns the land which allows it to determine the conditions under which it is sold.
Even without the government nudge, shopping malls and their developers have been embracing culture to improve the shopping experience – and entice visitors to their malls, away from online shopping opportunities. Covid has only made the plight of malls more perilous.A successful exception to the malls-in-crisis rule is Shanghai’s TX Huaihai which opened during Covid, had 5m visitors in 2020 and whose Hong Kong owner Shui On Land(瑞安房地产) also developed the successful Shanghai quarter of Xintiandi. The elements in TX Huaihai are remarkably various – a museum, Cc Art Museum where artists such Anish Kapoor and Zeng Fanzhi have shown; a top floor nightclub with an immersive environment designed by the omnipresent doyen of immersive experiences, the Japanese company TeamLab. So far so commonplace in Asia, perhaps, where Japanese shopping malls for a long time have shown art.But what is distinctive about this mall is that alongside Nike and Adidas, 50% of the retail space is given to pop up shops where local designers can showcase their talent.
In a mall focused on the Millennials and Generation Z and in a city famous for its fashion, it makes sense that the mall should be fashion heavy – integrated with interior design and art. Most important, the pop ups do not have to pay rent, only a percentage of sales to the developers.We write this from London where the city government is trying to work out how to reanimate empty department stores which now punctuate Oxford Street.
The success of TX Huahai is a reminder that at their best Shanghai’s commercial enterprises can develop innovative cultural initiatives. Can State-driven initiatives be so successful?
We shall see.
Additional research: Gao Jingyi

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