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In Shanghai, communism is giving way to commerce

SHANGHAI, China - The official history is, of course, false. At the gray stone building where the Chinese Communist Party was founded nearly 90 years ago, a life-size wax diorama shows one delegate towering over the rest: Mao Tse-tung.

SHANGHAI, China - The official history is, of course, false.

At the gray stone building where the Chinese Communist Party was founded nearly 90 years ago, a life-size wax diorama shows one delegate towering over the rest: Mao Tse-tung.

He's the only figure who stands fully upright, set in the center of the group.

But in fact, at that secret meeting in July 1921, Mao was just one of several competitors for power, his future ascension unknown and uncertain.

It's a subtle rewrite of the past in a city that is energetically writing its future - and doing so in ways that Mao never would have accepted.

Today, the Museum of the First National Congress of the Communist Party has been encircled by the nightclubs, restaurants, and boutiques of the Xintiandi entertainment district. The ruling party's hallowed hall sits like an antique in a thriving capitalist enclave, located at the center of the most Westernized city in China.

China strives to promote "Red Tourism," but here it's the color, lights, and music of Xintiandi, which means "New Heaven and Earth," that draw visitors.

"People in Shanghai hardly pay attention to these historical sites," said Zhang Kun, a former public schoolteacher who came here from Shandong province. "People value money more than anything else in Shanghai. Maybe it's like this all over the world. Maybe because we just started to have money in the past decades."

Still, she said, it's ironic that the communist memorial, once bordered by a humble vegetable field, would be at "the center of Xintiandi, the very heart of the 'decadent capitalistic lifestyle.' "

Today, huge tracts of Shanghai are being torn down and rebuilt in preparation for the 2010 World Expo, an event of monumental importance to city leaders and to China. If the 2008 Olympics was the nation's coming out, then the Expo is the after-party.

Thousands of buildings are going up, and hundreds of roads being laid down, as Shanghai prepares to welcome an estimated 70 million visitors. The six-month Expo opens May 1 and is expected to cost $4.2 billion.

On the west shore of the Huangpu River, the world-famous Bund is a construction zone, its turn-of-the-century, colonial-era banks and hotels marked by yellow tape and choking dust. The plan is to turn Zhongshan Road into a tunnel, diverting traffic underground and creating space to expand the riverside pedestrian walkway.

Elsewhere, builders are rushing to finish the U.S. pavilion. And everywhere, visitors see the smiling, wide-eyed image of Haibao, the Expo mascot.


Some pre-Expo tourists find their way to the First Congress Museum, paying three yuan, about 45 cents, to enter. Its displays include artifacts of the city's hated, concession-era history, stretching from the mid-1800s into the 1940s, when foreign powers ruled part of China.

The reception hall features a giant Chinese flag and arrangements of red and yellow flowers.

But outside the museum stand monuments not to communism, but to commerce. French, Italian, and Thai restaurants; coffee shops; trendy clothing stores; and tableware emporiums beckon to customers with money to spend.

Shanghai artists have turned Mao's legacy on its head, embracing a movement known as "McStruggle," which infuses revolutionary images with new, winking meaning.

One print shows a typical Cultural Revolution scene of peasants with arms raised. But instead of waving Little Red Books, they're waving iPods.

A quiet power

The Longhua Cemetery of Revolutionary Martyrs is defined by the odd, blue-glass pyramid at its center and the bad, Soviet-style sculpture on its edges.

The grounds lack the sweep of the world's great burial grounds, possessing neither the majesty of Arlington National Cemetery nor the formality of the American Cemetery at Normandy. Yet Longhua holds a quiet power.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the Nationalists and Communists fought for control of China - and the Communists were the good guys, or at least not yet the bad guys they would become - Longhua was a name that inspired fear.

Longhua was where Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang government imprisoned, tortured, and executed hundreds of Communists, along with students, intellectuals, and trade-union members. As late as the 1950s, archaeologists were unearthing skeletons bound in chains.

During World War II, the occupying Japanese army turned Longhua into an internment camp for foreigners. The cruelties of the camp were vividly portrayed in Empire of the Sun, the book by J.G. Ballard that was the source of the 1987 Steven Spielberg movie.

No sign of the camp remains. But the concrete prison buildings that once held suspected Communists, six to a cell, have been rebuilt. Damp, wide tunnels lead to an execution ground, now a peaceful green marked by a brook and a small stone pagoda.

Not many come to explore the fate of those who were brought here.

Colette Plum, a China specialist in the Widener University history department, offered an explanation: As ideology has become less relevant in modern China, the places that constitute the party's holy ground are likewise becoming less important - in some cases rapidly so.

"It's not that history's irrelevant, but it's definitely selective," she said. "And Communist Party history is much less useful to the party now."

Zhang Kun, the former teacher, remembers visiting the Longhua cemetery on a grade-school class trip. It didn't make much of an impression. And she wouldn't go now.

"Few people would voluntarily visit any of these sites unless they have personal reasons to do so," she said. "Tourists from other parts of China may go, but most of them are there probably because it's a special activity organized by the party branch."

On the east shore of the Huangpu River, opposite the Bund, skyscrapers reach toward heaven.

The 101-story Shanghai World Financial Center is the second-tallest building in the world, the Jin Mao building the fifth-tallest. The futuristic Oriental Pearl Tower is a skyline centerpiece and a setting for Hollywood movies, such as Mission: Impossible III.

"China is going to be just fine, commercially and economically, and Shanghai is going to be just fine, with or without the Expo," Plum said. "But it certainly gives China another opportunity, post-Olympics, to show who China is in the present-day world, and also to showcase the city of Shanghai."

Less than 20 years ago, the Pudong business district was mostly rice fields. Now, glass-and-steel monuments soar above the biggest city in China, home to 19 million, the national center of finance and trade.

Mao had a house in Shanghai. So did his right-hand man, Chou En-lai. Today, both historic homes are maintained as museums, monuments to Communist faith, as the crush of capitalism moves forward.

"As for incongruities, there is no lack of them in China," said Gu Zhengyang, a Shanghai-based journalist. "Although there is still official ideology and indoctrination, market forces are taking over."