China’s is an ancient civilization that goes back thousands of years. From the beginnings of its recorded history around 1700 B.C. until the mid-1970s, the Chinese people had never known freedom in any true sense of the word. Autocratic emperors gave way to equally autocratic nationalists, who in turn gave way to totalitarian communism in the person of the late Mao Zedong. Mao’s death in 1976, however, presented an opportunity for his successor as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng Xiaping, to initiate a process of modernization that would result in dramatic transformations in China driven by levels of economic development unseen in the country’s history.
Deng’s economic policies were firmly rooted in his belief that China was being left behind in the family of nations, with its stagnant economy and hundreds of millions of illiterate, destitute peasants presaging an unstable future. Whereas Mao had adhered to extremely orthodox interpretations of Marxism-Leninism, Deng appreciated that the levels of technological sophistication and economic development prevalent in the West represented a challenge to China’s agrarian past, and that the only way to make his huge country economically and politically competitive would be to adopt economic policies previously anathema to Communist Party orthodoxy. Towards that end, he initiated a policy of economic development that borrowed liberally from the West. As he was quoted as stating,
“We mustn't fear to adopt the advanced management methods applied in capitalist countries (...) The very essence of socialism is the liberation and development of the productive systems (...) Socialism and market economy are not incompatible (...) We should be concerned about right-wing deviations, but most of all, we must be concerned about left-wing deviations.”
While much of the economic growth associated with Deng’s adoption of capitalist principles was subsequently concentrated in southern China, where modern manufacturing facilities sprouted like weeds to supply Western consumer markets, its financial capital took root in Shanghai. Beijing may be ancient capital of China, but it is Shanghai where the process of westernization has most firmly taken hold. China’s financial services industry is, far more than the factories that line the southern coast, that country’s most prominent manifestation of capitalist principles and Western influences. The mammoth construction cranes that became a prominent feature of Shanghai’s skyline represented a level of economic development unprecedented not just in Chinese history but in world history. Shanghai’s towering office buildings and apartment complexes rival those seen anywhere in the West, and the city has clearly taken on cultural characteristics more consistent with New York than with Beijing.
The process of westernization has fundamentally transformed Shanghai. The evidence is apparent in the city’s burgeoning skyline and in its restaurants, bars and discos. That westernization was responsible for Shanghai's transformation can be surmised by another quote from Deng regarding the dispatch of thousands of Chinese students to Western universities:
"When our thousands of Chinese students abroad return home, you will see how China will transform itself."