In just a few centuries, Shànghǎi went from being an insignificant walled town south of the mouth of the Yangzi River to becoming China’s leading and wealthiest metropolis. A dizzying swirl of opium, trade, foreign control, vice, glamour, glitz, rebellion, restoration and money, Shànghǎi’s story is a rags-to-riches saga of decadence, exploitation and, ultimately, achievement.

Shanghai’s Marshy Roots

Up until around the 7th century AD, Shànghǎi was little more than marshland. At that time, the area was known as Shēn (申), after Chunshen Jun, 春申君, a local nobleman from the 3rd century BC; or Hù (沪), after a type of bamboo fishing trap used by fishers. The character (沪) still identifies the city today – on car number plates, for example – while the city’s main football team is known as Shanghai Shenhua (上海申花).

The earliest mention of the name Shànghǎi appears in the 11th century AD and refers to the small settlement that sprang up at the confluence of the Shànghǎi River (long since vanished) and the Huángpǔ River (黄浦江; Huángpǔ Jiāng). Upgraded from village status to market town in 1074, Shànghǎi became a city in 1297 after establishing itself as the major port in the area.

By the late 17th century Shànghǎi supported a population of 50,000, sustained on cotton production, fishing and, thanks to its excellent location at the head of the Yangzi River (长江; Cháng Jiāng), trade in silk and tea.

It All Started with Opium

During the early years of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the British East India Company and its later incarnations were trading in the only port open to the West: Canton (now Guǎngzhōu; 广州), south of Shànghǎi. British purchases of tea, silk and porcelain outweighed Chinese purchases of wool and spices, so by the late 18th century the British had decided to balance the books by slipping into India to swap (at a profit) silver for opium with which to purchase Chinese goods. The British passion for tea was increasingly matched by China’s craving for opium (鸦片; yāpiàn), the drug that would virtually single-handedly create latter-day Shànghǎi and earn the city its bipolar reputation as the splendid ‘Paris of the East’ and the infamous ‘Whore of the Orient’.

From a mercantile point of view, the trade in opium – known as ‘foreign mud’ in China – was an astonishing success, rapidly worming its way into every nook and cranny of Chinese society. Highly addictive and widely available thanks to the prolific efforts of British traders, the drug – smoked via a pipe – quickly became the drug of choice for all sections of the Chinese public, from the lowliest upwards. Jardine & Matheson’s highly lucrative trade empire was founded on the opium business.

Opium became the driving force behind Shànghǎi’s unstoppable rise and its descent into debauchery; it brought wealth to Shànghǎi’s affluent taipans (powerful foreign businesspeople) and lucrative hongs (business houses) and fed the city's piercing inequalities. The city became a wanton netherworld of prostitution and vice, violent criminal gangs and corrupt police forces beneath a cartographic constitution of foreign concessions, settlements and Chinese districts.

The Opium War between Great Britain and China was similarly fought in the drug’s name and as a pretext to extract the concessions that British opium traders sought from China. The Treaty of Nanking that concluded the First Opium War in 1842 was Shànghǎi’s moment of reckoning: its signing spelled the death of old Shànghǎi and the birth of the wild, lawless and spectacularly prosperous endeavour that would rise up over the Huángpǔ River.

The Illegitimate Birth of Shanghai

The Treaty of Nanking in 1842 stipulated, among other things: peace between China and Britain; security and protection of British persons and property; the opening of Canton, Fúzhōu, Xiàmén, Níngbō and Shànghǎi, as well as residence for foreigners and consulates in those cities (for the purpose of trade); fair import and export tariffs; the possession of Hong Kong; and an indemnity of US$18 million. Ironically enough, the trade of opium, legal or otherwise, never entered into the treaty.

Following Great Britain’s lead, other countries were inspired to join in, including the US and France. In 1843 the first British consul moved into a local house in the Old Town, signalling a foreign presence in the city that would last for the next 100 years.

Of the five port cities in China, Shànghǎi was the most prosperous due to its superb geographical location, capital edge and marginal interference from the Chinese government. Trade and businesses boomed, and by 1850 the foreign settlements housed more than 100 merchants, missionaries and physicians, three-quarters of them British. In 1844, 44 foreign ships made regular trade with China. By 1849, 133 ships lined the shores and by 1855, 437 foreign ships clogged the ports.

Foreigners were divided into three concessions. The original British Concession was north of Bubbling Well Rd (now West Nanjing Rd). The American Concession began life in Hóngkǒu District after Bishop William Boone had set up a mission there. These two concessions later joined to form one large area known as the International Settlement. The French, meanwhile, set up their own settlement south of the British one and to the west of the Old Town, in an area that is still referred to by English speakers as the French Concession.

From regulation to sanitation, everything in Shànghǎi was vested in the foreign oligarchies of the Municipal Council and the Conseil d’Administration Municipale, a pattern that was to last as long as the settlements. It was not until the early 1920s that Chinese and Japanese residents (eventually the two largest groups in the settlements) were allowed even limited representation on the council.

From the start, Shànghǎi’s raison d’être was trade. Silks, tea and porcelain were still sailing to the West, and 30,000 chests of opium were being delivered into China annually. Soon great Hong Kong trading houses such as Butterfield & Swire and Jardine & Matheson set up shop, and trade in opium, silk and tea gradually shifted to textiles, real estate, banking, insurance and shipping. Banks in particular boomed; soon all of China’s loans, debts and indemnity payments were funnelled through Shànghǎi. Buying and selling was handled by Chinese middlemen, known as compradors (from the Portuguese), from Canton and Níngbō, who formed a rare link between the Chinese and foreign worlds. The city attracted immigrants and entrepreneurs from across China, and overseas capital and expertise pooled in the burgeoning metropolis.

Foreign ideas were similarly imported. By the 1880s, huge numbers of proselytising American Protestants were 'saving souls' in Shànghǎi, while the erudite Jesuits oversaw a flourishing settlement in Xújiāhuì (徐家汇), known locally as Siccawei (or Zikawei).

Gradually sedan chairs and single-wheeled carts gave way to rickshaws and carriages, the former imported from Japan in 1874. Shànghǎi lurched into the modern age with gaslights (1865), electricity (1882), motorcars (1895), a cinema and an electric tram (1908), and its first bus (1922).

The Manchu in Běijīng gave only cursory glances to the growth of Shànghǎi as all eyes focused on the continued survival of the Qing dynasty, under threat from a barrage of insurgencies that arose from within the rapidly radicalising confines of the Middle Kingdom.

Rebellious Youth

Wreathed in opium, sucked dry by local militia, crippled by taxes, bullied by foreign interests and increasingly exposed to Western ideas, Shànghǎi’s population was stirring, and anti-Manchu rebellions began to erupt. The first major rebellion to have an impact on Shànghǎi was the Taiping (太平 – literally, ‘Supreme Peace’), led by the Hakka visionary Hong Xiuquan. The uprising, which led to 20 million deaths, went down as the bloodiest in human history.

Hong claimed to have ascended to heaven and received a new set of internal organs by a golden-bearded Jehovah, which he used to battle the evil spirits of the world with his elder brother Jesus Christ. Hong’s distorted Christian ideology dates from his contact with Christian missionaries in Canton and an identification of his surname (洪; Hóng, meaning ‘flood’) with the Old Testament deluge. Believing himself chosen, Hong saw the Manchu as devils to be exterminated and set about recruiting converts to establish a Heavenly Kingdom in China. The rebels burst out of Jīntián village in Guǎngxī (广西) in 1851, swept through Guìzhōu (贵州) and succeeded in taking Nánjīng (南京) three years later, where they established their Heavenly Capital (天京; Tiānjīng).

With the Taiping-inspired Small Swords Society entrenched in the Old Town and fearing the seizure of Shànghǎi, the foreign residents organised the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, a force that would repeatedly protect the interests of foreigners in Shànghǎi.

The Taiping threatened again in 1860 but were beaten back by the mercenary armies of Frederick Townsend Ward, an American adventurer hired by the Qing government who was eventually killed in Sōngjiāng in 1862. British and Qing forces joined to defeat the rebels, the Europeans preferring to deal with a corrupt and weak Qing government than with a powerful, united China governed by the Taiping. The Taiping originally banked on the support of the Western powers, but Westerners were ultimately repelled by Hong’s heretical concoction.

As rebellions ravaged the countryside, hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the safety of Shànghǎi’s concessions, setting up home alongside the foreigners and sparking a real-estate boom that spurred on Shànghǎi’s rapid urbanisation and made the fortunes of many of Shànghǎi’s entrepreneurs.

As imperial control loosened, the encroaching Western powers moved in to pick off China’s colonial ‘possessions’ in Indochina and Korea. National humiliation and a growing xenophobia – partly generated by a distrust of Christian missionaries and their activities – spawned the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion, championed in its later stages by the empress dowager, Cixi.

The Boxers were quelled by Western and Japanese troops – who went on to sack Běijīng’s Summer Palace – in 1900, but not before the legation quarter in the capital had been devastated. Empress Cixi and her entourage fled to Xī’ān (西安), but returned to Běijīng to face massive indemnities strapped onto the Qing government by the foreign powers.

The weakened state of the country, the death of the empress dowager and the legion of conspiring secret societies marked the end of the tottering Qing dynasty. Shànghǎi renounced the Qing by declaring independence on the wave of public revolt that swept China in 1911, and all men were instructed to shear off their queues (long pigtails that symbolised subjection to Manchu authority). But despite the momentous end to China’s final dynasty – one that had ruled China for almost 250 years – insular Shànghǎi carried out business as usual, relatively unaffected by the fall of the Qing or the upheavals of WWI. As the rest of China descended into a bedlam of fighting warlords and was plunged into darkness, Shànghǎi emerged as a modern industrial city.

‘Paris of the East’ Reaches Its Peak

By the first decade of the 20th century, Shànghǎi’s population had swelled to one million. As the most elite and cosmopolitan of China’s cities, Shànghǎi ensnared capitalists and intellectuals alike, with literature and cinema thriving in the ferment as Chinese intellectuals began to ponder the fate of a modern China.

The foreigners had effectively plucked out prime locations and, using their ever-increasing wealth – the fruits of cheap labour -– they established exclusive communities designed after their own countries and dovetailing with their requirements. Vice and crime continued to flourish, assisted by the absence of a paramount police force. The multiple jurisdictions, each representing the laws of the various settlements and the Chinese city, meant that criminals could simply move from one area to another to elude arrest.

Exploited in workhouse conditions, crippled by hunger and poverty, sold into slavery and excluded from the city’s high life created by the foreigners, the poor of Shànghǎi developed an appetite for resistance. Intellectuals and students, provoked by the startling inequalities between rich and poor, were perfect receptacles for the many outside influences circulating in the concessions. The Communist Manifesto was translated into Chinese and swiftly caught on among secret societies.

In light of the intense dislike that many Chinese felt for foreigners, it may seem ironic that fundamental ideals stemmed from overseas inspirations. Shànghǎi, with its vast proletariat (30,000 textile workers alone) and student population, had become the communists’ hope for revolution, and the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, where Mao Zedong was present, was held in July 1921 in a French Concession house. Elsewhere, political violence was growing.

In May 1925 resentment spilled over when a Chinese worker was killed in a clash with a Japanese mill manager. In the ensuing demonstrations the British opened fire and 12 Chinese were killed. In protest, 150,000 workers went on strike, which was later seen as a defining moment marking the decline of Western prestige and power.

Strikes and a curfew paralysed the city as the Kuomintang under Chiang Kaishek (with the help of communist supporters under Zhou Enlai) wrested Shànghǎi from the Chinese warlord Sun Chaofang.

Kaishek’s aim was not focused on the settlements or even the warlords, but rather his erstwhile allies the communists, whom he then betrayed in an act of breathtaking perfidy. Backed by Shànghǎi bankers and armed by Shànghǎi’s top gangster Du Yuesheng, Chiang Kaishek armed gangsters, suited them up in Kuomintang uniforms and launched a surprise attack on the striking workers’ militia. Du’s machine guns were turned on 100,000 workers taking to the streets, killing as many as 5000. In the ensuing period, known as the White Terror, 12,000 communists were executed in three weeks. Zhou Enlai and other communists fled to Wǔhàn (武汉), leaving Shànghǎi in the hands of the warlords, the wealthy and the Kuomintang.

Nestled away safely in a world of selectively structured law and merciless capitalism, by the 1930s Shànghǎi had reached its economic zenith and was soon to begin its fatal downwards slide. Shànghǎi had become a modern city replete with art deco cinemas and apartment blocks, the hottest bands and the latest fashions – a place of great energy where two cultures met. Chinese magazines carried ads for Quaker Oats, Colgate and Kodak, while Chinese girls, dressed in traditional qípáo (cheongsam; Chinese-style dresses), advertised American cigarettes. Shànghǎi’s modernity was symbolised by the Bund, Shànghǎi’s Wall Street, a place of feverish trading and an unabashed playground for Western business sophisticates. To this day the bombastic strip alongside the Huángpǔ River remains the city’s most eloquent reminder that modern Shànghǎi is a very foreign invention.

The ‘Paris of the East’ and ‘Whore of the Orient’ became an increasingly exotic port of call. Flush with foreign cash and requiring neither visa nor passport for entrance, Shànghǎi became home to the movers and the shakers, the down-and-out and on-the-run. It offered a place of refuge and a fresh start, and rejected no one. Everyone who came to Shànghǎi, it was said, had something to hide. The city had become three times as crowded as London, and the cosmopolitan mix of people was unequalled anywhere in the world.

The Death of Old Shanghai

Following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, with anti-Japanese sentiment inflamed and Chinese nationalistic fervour on the rise, the Japanese seized the opportunity to protect their interests. Warships brought in tens of thousands of Japanese troops, who proceeded to take on and defeat the Chinese 19th Route army in Zháběi (闸北). The Japanese conducted an aerial bombing campaign against the district, levelling most of its buildings.

After Japan’s full-scale invasion of China in 1937, Chiang Kaishek took a rare stand in Shànghǎi – and the city bled for it. The Japanese lost 40,000 men, the Chinese anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000.

The International Settlement was not immune to the fighting, and after Chinese aircraft accidentally bombed the Bund and Nanjing Rd, most foreign residents reacted not by fighting, as perhaps they would have done for a colony, but by evacuation. Four million Chinese refugees were not so lucky.

After intense house-to-house fighting, the Japanese invaders finally subdued Shànghǎi in November 1937, allowing their soldiers to proceed to Sūzhōu before advancing on Nánjīng for their infamous occupation of the city. Under Japanese rule the easy glamour of Shànghǎi’s heyday was replaced by a dark cloud of political assassinations, abductions, gunrunning and fear. Espionage by the Japanese, the nationalists, the British and the Americans for wartime information was rife. The rich were abducted and fleeced. Japanese racketeers set up opium halls in the so-called Badlands in the western outskirts of the city, and violent gangs ran rabid.

By December 1941 the hostilities between Japan and the allied powers had intensified abroad, giving the Japanese incentive to take over the foreign settlements in Shànghǎi. Suspect foreigners were taken off for interrogation and torture in notorious prisons such as the Bridgehouse, where JB Powell, editor of the China Weekly Review, lost all his toes to gangrene. Prisoners were forced to sit for hours in the cold, with heads lowered, facing Tokyo.

The British and American troops had abandoned Shànghǎi in 1942 to concentrate their energies elsewhere, and the British and American governments, unable to overtake the Japanese, signed over their rights of the foreign settlements to Chiang Kaishek in Chóngqìng in 1943, bringing to a close a century of foreign influence.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a few foreigners, released from their internment, tried to sweep out their Tudor-style homes and carry on as before, but priorities and politics had shifted. The gangs, conmen, dignitaries, merchants and anyone else who could had already made their escape to Hong Kong. Those who remained had to cope with biting inflation of 1100%.

By 1948 the Kuomintang was on the edge of defeat in their civil war with the communists, and hundreds of thousands of Kuomintang troops changed sides to join Mao Zedong’s forces. In May, Chen Yi led the Red Army troops into Shànghǎi, and by October all the major cities in southern China had fallen to the communists.

In Běijīng on 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, announced that the Chinese people had stood up, and proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chiang Kaishek then fled to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), taking with him China’s gold reserves and the remains of his air force and navy, to set up the Republic of China (ROC), naming his new capital Taipei (台北, Táiběi).

The People’s Republic

The birth of the PRC marked the end of 105 years of ‘the paradise for adventurers’. The PRC dried up 200,000 opium addicts; shut down Shànghǎi’s infamous brothels and ‘re-educated’ 30,000 prostitutes; eradicated the slums; slowed inflation; and eliminated child labour – no easy task. The state took over Shànghǎi’s faltering businesses; the racecourse became the obligatory People’s Park; and Shànghǎi fell uniformly into step with the rest of China. Under Běijīng’s stern hand, the decadence disappeared and the splendour similarly faded.

Yet the communists, essentially a peasant regime, remained suspicious of Shànghǎi. The group lacked the experience necessary to run a big city and they resented Shànghǎi’s former leadership, which they always regarded as a den of foreign-imperialist-inspired iniquity, a constant reminder of national humiliation, and the former headquarters of the Kuomintang.

Perhaps because of this, Shànghǎi, in its determination to prove communist loyalty, became a hotbed of political extremism and played a major role in the Cultural Revolution, the decade of political turmoil that lasted from 1966 to 1976 (although its most ferocious period ended in 1969). Sidelined in Běijīng, it was to Shànghǎi that Mao turned in an attempt to reinvigorate the revolution and claw his way back into power. For most of a decade the city was the power base of the prime movers of the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four: Wang Hongwen; Yao Wenyuan (editor of Shanghai Liberation Army Daily); Zhang Chunqiao (Shànghǎi’s director of propaganda); and Jiang Qing, wife of Mao (and failed Shànghǎi movie actress, formerly known as Lan Ping, who used her position to exact revenge on former colleagues at Shànghǎi Film Studios).

Encouraged by Mao, a rally of one million Red Guards marched through People’s Square, a force of anarchy that resulted in the ousting of the mayor. Competing Red Guards tried to outdo each other in revolutionary fervour – Shanghainese who had any contacts with foreigners were criticised, forced to wear dunce caps, denounced and sometimes killed.

As the Cultural Revolution unfolded, between 1966 and 1970 one million of Shànghǎi’s youth were sent to the countryside. Shànghǎi’s industries closed; the Bund was renamed Revolution Blvd; and the road opposite the closed Soviet consulate became Anti-Revisionist St. At one point there was even a plan to change the (revolutionary) red of the city’s traffic lights to mean ‘go’.

In the revolutionary chaos and in a bid to destroy the ‘four olds’ (old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking), Chinese religion was devastated. Temples were destroyed or converted to factories; priests were conscripted to make umbrellas; monks were sent to labour in the countryside, where they often perished; and believers were prohibited from worship. Amid all the chaos, Shànghǎi’s concession architecture stood largely preserved, its wealthy occupants merely fading memories of a vanished era.

In 1976, after the death of Mao, the Gang of Four was overthrown and imprisoned. Accused of everything from forging Mao’s statements to hindering earthquake relief efforts, the gang’s members were arrested on 6 October 1976 and tried in 1980. Jiang Qing remained unrepentant, hurling abuse at her judges and holding famously to the line that she ‘was Chairman Mao’s dog – whoever he told me to bite, I bit’. Jiang Qing’s death sentence was commuted and she lived under house arrest until 1991, when she committed suicide by hanging.

When the Cultural Revolution lost steam, pragmatists such as Zhou Enlai began to look for ways to restore normalcy. In 1972 US president Richard Nixon signed the Shanghai Communiqué at the Jinjiang Hotel. The agreement provided a foundation for increased trade between the US and China, and marked a turning point in China’s foreign relations. With the doors of China finally reopened to the West in 1979, and with Deng Xiaoping at the helm, China set a course of pragmatic reforms towards economic reconstruction, which would result in consistently strong annual growth rates.

In communist China, however, the rush of economic reform generated very little in the way of political reform. Corruption and inflation led to widespread social unrest, which in 1989 resulted in the demonstrations in Běijīng’s Tiān’ānmén Sq.

The demonstrations overtaking the capital spread to Shànghǎi. In the days leading up to 4 June 1989 tens of thousands of students – holding banners demanding, among other things, democracy and freedom – marched from their universities to People’s Square. Hundreds went on hunger strike. Workers joined students to bring chaos to the city by instigating roadblocks across more than 100 Shànghǎi streets. But city mayor Zhu Rongji was praised for his handling of events. In contrast to leaders in Běijīng, he didn’t take a heavy-handed approach. According to Lynn T White, author of Unstately Power (1999), the only serious incident during the unrest was on 6 June when a train outside Shànghǎi Railway Station ran into demonstrators who were trying to block it. Eight people were killed and 30 were injured.

The Nineties & Noughties

In 1990 the central government began pouring money into Shànghǎi, beginning the city’s stunning turnaround. The process was unparalleled in scale and audacity. By the mid-1990s more than a quarter (some sources say half) of the world’s high-rise cranes were slowly circling above town. A huge proportion of the world’s concrete was funnelled into Shànghǎi as China sucked up a staggering 50% of world production.

Towering over Lùjiāzuǐ, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower was completed in 1994, establishing an architectural template for Pǔdōng that survives today. What followed was a roll-call of skyscraper heavyweights: the Jīnmào Tower (1999), Tomorrow Square (2003), Shimao International Plaza (2005) and the Shànghǎi World Financial Center (2008). Shànghǎi’s vertical transformation mirrored its growing stature as an international city.

Before the 1990s were spent, the city had already built two metro lines, a light-railway system, a US$2 billion international airport in Pǔdōng, a US$2 billion elevated highway, several convention centres, two giant bridges, several underground tunnels and a whole new city (Pǔdōng).

Always a byword for excess, Shànghǎi had effortlessly outstripped every other city in China by the dawn of the new millennium, bar southern rival Hong Kong. Obsessively comparing itself to Hong Kong, the Huángpǔ River city closed the gap on the ex-British territory with breathtaking rapidity during the noughties. The Chinese government deliberately sought to make Shànghǎi the financial centre of Asia, replacing Hong Kong as China’s frontier of the future, swinging the spotlight of attention from the ex-colony on to a home-grown success story.

Served by two airports and the world’s first Maglev train, Shànghǎi began to command some of the most dizzying salaries in China, with per capita incomes around four times the national average. The metro system was massively expanded, and is, to date, the world’s second longest (running to 14 lines) at 538km in length. Pǔdōng was built from the soles up, forging mainland China’s most electrifying skyline. Skyscraping residential towers sprouted across the city while car ownership trebled in the five years from 2007. Swelling numbers of residents dwelled in gated villa communities, rewarding themselves with a desirable middle-class standard of living.

Feeding much of this growth was a vast, multimillion-strong army of cheap labour and migrant workers from rural areas. The Bund was redesigned and spruced up while other areas – the Old Town, for example – underwent irreversible overdevelopment.

Despite draconian property taxes designed to hit speculators and purchasers of second flats, Shànghǎi property prices went through the roof in the noughties. The authorities were determined to tame the market to avoid a long-term Japanese-style stagnation, but prices continued to soar, bringing untold wealth to homeowners and speculators alike.

The Recent Past

After the global financial crisis of 2007 to 2008, the Chinese government's huge fiscal packages, loosening of credit and increased investment in infrastructure protected China and Shànghǎi from economic vicissitudes abroad. The Shànghǎi Tower began construction in November 2008, its concrete form quickly beginning to rise above the sky-high buildings of Pǔdōng.

Some pundits, however, began to see Shànghǎi, and China, at a fork in the road. The formula that served China so well for so long – a cheap workforce, hefty stimulus packages, high investment, endless property price increases and round-the-clock construction – could not go on forever. The Chinese economy continued to grow at a healthy rate, but at a slower clip, growing at 7.8% in 2012, compared to 10.4% in 2010. The breakneck growth patterns of the noughties were clearly unsustainable and a reorientation of the economy became imperative.

The task of the Chinese leadership demanded a more pressing focus on balancing the economy away from its export and high-investment model, rooting out corruption and narrowing the chasm dividing low-wage earners from the wealthy elites. The issue of migrant workers' rights in Shànghǎi and other cities became paramount, as workers sought to bring their rights (education for their children and access to healthcare) closer to native Shanghainese. Meanwhile, atmospheric pollution in Shànghǎi began to occasionally mirror the caustic air of the nation's capital, Běijīng. In December 2013, schoolchildren citywide were ordered indoors and construction was halted as the air quality reached dangerous levels. The burning of coal, car exhaust fumes, factory pollution and weather patterns that confined the smog within the city were all blamed.

Through a bold anticorruption agenda, the new leadership under Xi Jinping appeared determined to seize the nettle, while recognising that the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy depended heavily on economic growth. Keeping the economy on track while directing it towards increased domestic consumption (and matching the growing expectations of a Chinese middle class pushing for a fairer society), further rooting out corruption, attempting to tame the rampant property market (as apartment prices put home ownership beyond the reach of most) and cleaning up urban air quality became urgent priorities. This new focus and commitment, however, coincided with a period of increased friction with Japan and Vietnam over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, a situation that increasingly threatened to lead to maritime conflict.