I’m clearing immigration at Shanghai Pudong airport, having flown to China for the first time since 1997. I’m at the back of the queue, in every respect. As a writer on business, admitting that I haven’t visited the world’s fastest-growing big economy for more than 15 years is like confessing that I’m unfamiliar with any management thinking since Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (not, to be frank, that much has been added to that particular pile of wisdom since the 6th century BC). I have a panicky feeling that all tickets to the biggest festival of capitalism have already been sold, not helped by the fact that everyone else in my slow-moving line is flaunting their local knowledge. “I’m in IVF,” declares one British business traveller, cheerfully: “Yes, I know – with 1.3bn people, you’d have thought they didn’t want any more – but they do!”
Being first in line gets you places. Last time I was here my Chinese-speaking guide was James Harding, then the FT’s youthful Shanghai correspondent, who went on to become a youthful editor of the Times, before earlier this month being named the youthful BBC director of news. He managed to reserve for me a room in the Xing Guo hotel’s No. 1 villa – originally built for the taipan of the Butterfield & Swire trading house by Clough Williams-Ellis, also the architect of the Italianate Welsh village of Portmeirion. Not any old room either – allegedly the one in which Mao Zedong himself stayed.
This time, it’s beyond the reach of a mere journalist – Radisson, which owns the hotel now, says the villa can only be rented by groups – but I’m comfortable in another hotel in the old French concession district, surrounded by the trappings of modern Shanghai: westernised sandwich bars, luxury retail stores and a thriving trade in knock-off editions of business books, from Freakonomics to the Steve Jobs biography. I wonder whether this may end up being the last place where publishers of print editions, even pirated print editions, will find a market.
China’s economic growth can be measured in cars and the obsession is infectious. I encounter one western executive who gets together with other expats and some local businessmen at weekends to race Chinese-made Geely Pandas round rented tracks, with the refreshments provided by a fellow petrol-head who owns an Italian restaurant. But the real insight comes from a visit to the auto show – Shanghai’s 15th; my first. More than 20m vehicles will be bought in China in 2013 (General Motors has just sold its millionth of the year) and the show is correspondingly and exhaustingly huge. More than 100 brands, many unknown outside China, are on display, and, for what is billed as a press day, the crowd is surprisingly large and diverse. A western company rep tells me stacks of passes were stolen from vendors’ stands the night before – one sign of pent-up consumer demand, I suppose.
At any rate, it is hard to move round the luxury car pavilion – one of 13 devoted to carmakers – where guests, freeloaders, and possibly even a few journalists, are holding cameras and smartphones aloft for the unveiling of a special-edition Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse. The vehicle has just set a 408.84kph record for an open-top car – on a German circuit but, significantly, with a Chinese entrepreneur at the wheel.
The price is about the only vital statistic not on display: it’s about £2m. But why not dream? And, if you can afford it, why wait? Chinese buyers of high-end cars are on average about 10 years younger than their counterparts elsewhere. On a stroll down the Huaihai Road I see a brand-new Bentley being delivered outside Cartier. It is dark blue – surprisingly modest for a city where I’ve also spotted a lime-green Porsche and a top-of-the-range Mercedes in matte powder-puff pink. If the catalogues and showrooms of the world start catering to Chinese preferences, the taste-buds of old Europe are in for a shock.
The contrast between Shanghai and Madrid – where I spent the week before flying here – could not be more striking. But Spanish enterprise is alive in China. Sore-footed from a day at the auto show, I’m taken by a Spanish friend to La Pedrera, a new restaurant just off the historic Bund, for a “feria de abril” – an evening of sangria and dancing. If there is more work in Shanghai than Seville for “Los Antonios”, the flamenco duo providing the evening’s entertainment, then Spain is in more trouble than I fear. The food and show are good but the crowd is small and subdued by Spanish standards.
Not so at our next stop, M1NT, where we’ve used expat guanxi to get in. We’re 24 floors up a skyscraper, in a nightclub with a shark tank and a panorama of the sprawling, garishly lit Pudong district. It seems about as exclusive as press day at the auto show but, packed in at the bar or in the roped-off reserved seating, there are probably a few potential owners of one of the eight limited-edition Bugattis. Much of Pudong wasn’t built last time I was here and many of M1NT’s 2013 Chinese customers were just children. Now, like everybody in Shanghai, it seems, they have an eye for the main chance. My Spanish friend shouts at me above the deafening beat: “Muchas chinas a la caza!” – lots of Chinese girls out hunting.
There are more traditional ways to find a spouse, as we discover in People’s Park, near the Shanghai Museum, where parents of some of those unattached Chinese girls are advertising their daughters’ – and sons’ – virtues in the city’s marriage market. It’s like a motor show for matchmakers but with far more at stake. Anxious mothers and fathers display the age, earnings, and career prospects of their offspring on rows of printed posters, pegged to the fences like a giant, open-air lonely hearts page, or on individual handwritten A4 notices, attached to umbrellas opened on the ground. “What is all this?” one puzzled tourist asks me. “Is it about real estate?” Well, yes, in a way, it is.
I’m about to leave when an extremely elderly Chinese man and his son stop me. They’ve just come from the “English corner”, where Shanghai residents of all ages gather to practise English with each other at weekends. Delighted to find a native Englishman to rehearse with, they chat for a few minutes. The father speaks slowly, with a strong accent, but his grammar is perfect: “I received a good foundation from a missionary school here,” he explains. Seventy or 80 years on, it is simplistic to say everything will turn out rosy for him and his children and grandchildren – inequality, pollution and corruption cast a long shadow here. But Shanghai feels like a city of opportunity again. As for me, I’ll fly home and join the queue waiting for Europe’s next turn to come around.
Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor