Most of the Chinese population is exceedingly poor, trapped in the continental inlands with minimal ability to interact with other Chinese, much less the wider world. Chinese coastal cities are a world apart. The few northern coastal cities – most notably Tianjin – are tightly in Beijing’s political orbit. The sandbar-strewn, muddy northern coast inhibited trade right up until the last quarter of the 20th century. Southern cities such as Hong Kong and Fujian, in contrast, back up to rough and often-mountainous terrain, making these cities far more likely to interact with foreign powers than their own people. Such splits have served to keep China from forming a unified government for nearly all of its history, and condemned it to be the last major world power to industrialize.
The exception to these rules is mighty Shanghai. It is the only Chinese port city that sits on the bank of a navigable river. The Yangtze is China’s only passable river of any length, and it is massive – allowing vessels to penetrate nearly 2,000 miles into the Chinese interior. This accessibility makes Shanghai the only city in China that is both internationalized and unmistakably Chinese. It also means it is the only Chinese city that has a legacy of tapping both interior China as well as the wider world for everything from labor to raw materials for more than the past few decades. Shanghai has been China’s window on the world for well more than a millennia.
As the Chinese system cracks apart under strategic, demographic and financial pressure, Shanghai will re-emerge as the premier Chinese economic city. Locations in the south – with Hong Kong being the most notable – certainly will still interface with the wider world, but only Shanghai will be able to do so from a position of strength.
For more, see Chapter 14 of The Accidental Superpower.