Writing the first draft of history of China's miracle
As a journalist, the privilege of covering many historic events firsthand is indeed rewarding, and there has probably been no better time to be a journalist if it is about "firsts" and "mosts". Most of which are associated with China's reform and opening-up.
For example, I was there on Aug 8, 1988, when Shanghai leased its, indeed China's, first piece of land through international tender. The No 26 plot in southwest Shanghai's Hongqiao area ushered in a land and housing reform in China in the following decades.
As a result, the average living space per person in Shanghai, which was a mere 6.6 square meters in the early 1990s, shot up to 36.7 square meters in 2017, higher than in Hong Kong and other major Asian cities.
I was also there when the Shanghai Stock Exchange, then known as Shanghai Securities Exchange, held its opening ceremony on Dec 19, 1990.
As Maurice Greenberg, former AIG chairman and CEO, was awarded the China Reform Friendship Medal on Tuesday, it occurred to me that I had interviewed him a couple of times in Shanghai back in the early 1990s before AIA, AIG's subsidiary in Asia, became one of the first foreign insurance companies to open a branch in China. It was a sentimental moment because AIG was founded in Shanghai, not New York City, in 1919.
In mid-1992, Yaohan International, a Japanese retailer, became the first foreign retailer to operate a joint venture in China. I still remember the big front page headline for my story in the tabloid Shanghai Star, a China Daily newspaper. It read: First off the Shelf.
I remember taking a stroll in the car lanes before Nanpu Bridge opened to traffic in late 1991. It meant so much to Shanghai residents because it was the first bridge across the Huangpu River in the city center. Now there are a dozen bridges across and more than a dozen tunnels under the river.
The speed of change in Shanghai has been truly amazing. From the opening of its first subway line in 1993, Shanghai now boasts 644 kilometers of subway lines, the longest in the world, longer that other global cities such as New York City, Paris, London and Moscow.
Of all the "firsts and mosts" I witnessed firsthand in my hometown Shanghai, nothing compares with the launch of Pudong New Area, whose futuristic skyline today has been featured in Hollywood blockbusters such as the 2006 spy thriller Mission: Impossible III, the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall, and 2009 science fiction Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
However, Pudong, which is now a synonym for China's modernity, was mostly farmland less than three decades ago. And as young boys, my friends and I used to go to Pudong by ferry to catch crickets since cricket fighting was a favorite pastime in those days.
I was there at the Shanghai Volkswagen on April 18, 1990, when then premier Li Peng announced the central government's decision to develop Pudong New Area. While that story became front page lead in China Daily the following day, I had no idea at all of what Pudong would look like 28 years later. I guess that might also be true for then mayor Zhu Rongji, who later became premier of China.
The optimism, the eagerness to learn from the outside world, to reform and to open up, and a can-do attitude has been everywhere in Shanghai and China for most of the past decades. That is a trait that should never be lost.
The author is chief of China Daily EU Bureau based in Brussels.