China Leadership Monitor

Reclaiming the “Head of the Dragon”: Shanghai as China’s Center for International Finance and Shipping

Friday, May 8, 2009

Throughout the 1990s, China’s official media referred to Shanghai as the “head of the dragon.” The metaphor symbolized Shanghai’s pivotal role in leading the Yangtze River Delta, the Yangtze River basin, and more broadly, China, into the 21st century through rapid economic growth and dynamic integration into the global economy. This official expression, however, has become less commonly used ever since Jiang Zemin, who advanced his career primarily in Shanghai, retired from his post as secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party in 2002. Since then, a more balanced regional development strategy, favored by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, has placed other major cities, especially Chongqing and Tianjin, on the fast track of economic development. Both the central government’s macroeconomic control policy for most of this decade and the purge of former Shanghai Party chief Chen Liangyu in 2006 seemed to undermine Shanghai’s predominance in the nation’s economic and political arenas. In March 2009, in the wake of the ongoing global financial crisis, the Chinese central government took another drastic turn and endorsed a blueprint to designate Shanghai as a “global financial and shipping center by 2020.” Once again, Shanghai has had a set of favorable policies bestowed upon it by those in power. This essay examines the economic motivations, policy initiatives, political backgrounds, and international implications of this new phase of development for China’s pace-setting metropolis.