Nothing prepares a visitor, returning to China after 27 years, for modern Shanghai. A city of 17 million people, soon expected to swell to 20 million, with miles and miles of elevated, multilevel freeways and hundreds of high-rise office and apartment towers soaring to 80 stories, it bears no resemblance to the dusty, backward-looking city I last saw in 1977.
What fuels modern Shanghai is the new economy of coastal China, teeming with energy and enterprise and growing at a pace that threatens to exhaust supplies of electricity, oil and other basic commodities.
The great question about this explosive growth is whether its dynamism can be contained for long within the one-party system the Communist leaders in Beijing require.
One answer -- and a hopeful one -- can be found in Sun Chao, the mayor and chief administrator of Xuhui District, a part of central Shanghai encompassing the beautiful, old, tree-lined French Concession and now home to more than 1 million people.
Sun is 48 -- one of many new-generation leaders one meets running governments, universities and businesses. A professor of law (and alumnus of Georgetown University) who returned to China in 1991, he was recruited for his job 14 months ago after serving as an expert adviser to the People's Congress, the legislative branch of the district government.
He has set about systematically introducing the classic elements of America's Progressive-era reform to the governing of his city-within-a-city. He has a fortunate environment. The area is prosperous; the average income is $10,000 a year -- 10 times the national median -- and the economy has been growing 30 percent a year for the past three years.
Near where we met for lunch stand an 80,000-seat soccer stadium and a 39,000-seat basketball arena, with luxury hotels and apartment buildings around them. The local high school, the mayor said, is the best in the city and was the training ground for NBA star Yao Ming.
But the area has its challenges. Poverty remains, especially among the migrants from rural areas who come hoping for work but lacking skills. Sun has expanded training programs for them, but also provides jobs for the unemployed -- "simple tasks they can do."
China was grappling with the SARS epidemic when he took office, and it quickly became apparent that people had no idea what steps to take to protect themselves. "So I published all the rules and regulations" the health authorities had issued but not publicized. That set a useful precedent, and Sun persuaded the local legislators that all the rules on the books should be set forth, so people could read them and react.
Transparency, the key goal for Western investors seeking to do business in China, became the keynote of Sun's approach to government -- and of the fight against the corruption that always runs rampant in boom times. Last year, he watched as one of his deputies, a 35-year-old man, went to jail for accepting bribes. "Now," he said, "we publish all the regulations for awarding [city] contracts, so the people can tell us when they have not been followed."
It has not been easy to persuade veteran bureaucrats or legislators to accept the new openness, he said. "I said to them, 'It's the people's government. Anybody has the right to know what we are doing.' " But when he proposed opening the debates of the People's Congress to spectators, many members were appalled. "I said, 'This [government] is not your personal property,' " and eventually the change was accepted. "Now people in other districts [of Shanghai] are saying, 'They do this in Xuhui; why not here?' "
How far can these reforms go? Sun said he has a way to go to transform his bureaucracy. "I want no paper; I want e-mails for greater efficiency, but they are resistant." He has arranged with Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (a friend of Sun's Chinese-born wife, who went to law school in Madison) to send 20 top administrators to Wisconsin for a month at the university and another month of working in state government.
While he has a large degree of autonomy in running his district, he said he is careful to follow national policies, including the one-child limit on family size. He shares power with the Communist Party secretary, who is in the next office. "I keep him informed of everything we do, as I do with all the people," Sun said.
While he was recruited as mayor by the legislators (with the implicit approval of the party secretary), the members of the People's Congress are elected directly by residents, he said.
"Are there contests?" I asked. "Do they campaign against each other?"
"In China," Sun said with a disarming smile, "we emphasize harmony."
In other words, it's not time for representative government yet.