Page last updated at 10:52 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 11:52 UK

Shanghai: China's capitalist showpiece

By Katie Hunt
Business reporter, BBC News

Shanghai's Pudong district at night

Just over 10 years ago, Shanghai's Pudong district, home to the soaring skyscrapers that make up the city's financial district, was a swathe of farmland.

Today, its skyline ranks with New York and Hong Kong as one of the world's most striking urban vistas.

Home to the country's main stock exchange and the world's largest port, Shanghai has been at the heart of China's transformation from an isolated Maoist regime into an economic powerhouse.

The city is China's richest and the Shanghaiese have embraced their new-found wealth and economic freedom with vigour.

Home ownership, non-existent 10 years ago, is now commonplace. Gridlocked streets are testament to a growing passion for cars.

Newly built shopping malls house the hippest designer clothes and small fortunes have been made in a frenzy of "chao gu" or stir-frying stocks - Chinese slang for playing the stock market.

Boom times

The city is no stranger to boom times.

Shanghai was a thriving centre of international commerce in the 1930s, when parts of the city were under foreign control - the result of unequal treaties negotiated in the wake of the Opium Wars.

China torch map
Use the map to see the full Olympic torch relay route or read about some of the key cities:

Things changed when the Communists took power and many of Shanghai's industrialists fled to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

There are some fears that a post-Olympic economic slowdown and the recent slide in the city's stock market could puncture the city's current good fortune.

Fund manager Chris Ruffle, who first lived in the city in the early 1980s and has witnessed much of Shanghai's recent transformation, reckons such fears are overstated.

"It could be a challenge economically later in the year. But this will be because of the global slowdown."

The city grapples with other challenges.

While many of Shanghai's residents enjoy the high life, others are being left behind.

Chinese flag outside Shanghai's stock exchange

Shanghai is a magnet for migrant workers, who do all kinds of work that more affluent city dwellers shun, but they lack many basic rights, while their families have poor access to healthcare and education.

Like other Chinese cities, Shanghai spends many days of the year cloaked in smog from the coal-fired power plants and factories in Yangtze River Delta.

The city has begun to tackle some of the environmental problems that could threaten its future growth.

A major project is underway on Chongming island, about an hour away from Shanghai, to build the world's first eco-city, Dongtan.

But some view Dongtan as a Potemkin village designed to deflect criticism away from policies that inflict environmental damage.

Political capital

Long-regarded as China's commercial capital, Shanghai has also played a key role in the country's political history.

China's Communist Party was founded there in 1921 and the city's development really took off when Jiang Zemin, a former Shanghai mayor, came to power.

Shanghai (archive image)
Shanghai's leaders have enormous ambitions for the city

Under China's current leadership, there have been concerns that Shanghai's star could fade. The city's Communist Party boss was jailed for 18 years for taking bribes in April.

Premier Wen Jiabao is a native of the northern city of Tianjin. Some new economic policies, such as allowing Chinese to buy overseas stocks, have been piloted there.

However, Shanghai party chief Xi Jinping was tipped as a potential successor to China's current generation of leaders at last year's party congress, suggesting the city still punches its weight on the political scene.

Sour grapes

Shanghai plays only a small role in the 2008 Olympics, hosting nine preliminary football matches, but officials are keen for the city to make an impact.

"Preliminary matches often make the first impression on the world," Qiu Weichang, deputy director of the Shanghai Sport Bureau told the Beijing Review.

The city is also recruiting 40 "Olympic misses" to present medals in Beijing, but the strict requirements on height, age and facial features have generated controversy.

There has also been some grousing that the money Bejing is spending on the Olympics could be put to better use elsewhere.

Shanghai will host the 2010 World Expo, in what has been described as a sop by Beijing to placate its showy southern neighbour.

But this is mostly just regional sour grapes. Most signs are that Shanghai-ers are as proud as their Northern cousins to be taking part in the country's coming-out party.

The torch arrives in Shanghai on 22 May.

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