As Shanghai re-emerges from a Covid-19 outbreak and three years of restrictions that hampered travel and trade, the financial hub is doing so without much evidence of what made it China’s most cosmopolitan city: foreign visitors.
Before the pandemic, its iconic Bund was usually thronged with foreign travellers and business delegations. But on a recent blustery February day the tourists marvelling at the colonial architecture and soaring buildings were all from mainland China.
The revival of China’s biggest and most international city will be a test of the country’s engagement with the outside world, as policymakers embark on a reopening years later than western counterparts. Shanghai was among the cities most afflicted by the government’s zero-Covid policy, enduring a draconian two-month lockdown in 2022 that strangled the economy.
Last month, the city’s mayor Gong Zheng told reporters that foreign investment last year reached a record $23.5bn, which he argued “shows Shanghai is still one of the most attractive places for foreign investment in the world”.
But after the uncertainty of navigating the zero-Covid regime, international business remains reluctant about an immediate return in force, as it continues to face visa delays and other frustrations. One exporter suggested some businesses still harboured doubts about travelling to the country, given its recent Covid wave.
“Shanghai has a window of opportunity to rebuild the trust eroded over the past three years,” said Bettina Schön-Behanzin, chair of the Shanghai chapter of the European Chamber of Commerce in China, calling on the city’s government to take “tangible steps to build a business environment that is transparent and predictable”.
While domestic trade has taken off in the wake of Beijing scrapping pandemic restrictions late last year, Shanghai’s full global reintegration lags behind.
Last month, the city welcomed just 180,000 international air arrivals, compared with 2.7mn in January 2019, according to data from the airport authority. Foreign tourists are also not yet permitted to enter China.
Shanghai will be a crucial engine for reviving robust growth across China as consumption drags with the delayed reopening. The city contributes more to China’s economy than any other, but in 2022, its output declined 0.2 per cent, compared with a 3 per cent rise nationally. Exports, which buoyed the economy through much of the pandemic, have also been declining amid an uncertain global economic picture.
Shanghai’s former Chinese Communist chief Li Qiang, the official responsible for overseeing Shanghai’s lockdown, is set to be named China’s premier at the National People’s Congress, making him the number two official to President Xi Jinping, with responsibility for the national economy.
Observers expect international business to begin to return in earnest from March, when Apple chief executive Tim Cook is expected to visit China. After three years of isolation, Shanghai is eager to court foreign business. But many have a litany of gripes, including the difficulty of enticing staff to relocate from overseas after witnessing the hardships of lockdowns.
“It’s about trying to convince European and American CEOs that China is still investable,” said one attendee at a recent private event in Shanghai for international business leaders.
The Shanghai chapter of the European Chamber of Commerce in China this month made a series of recommendations to the local government, including fewer barriers to market access. Its position paper was deleted on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform, shortly after publication.
“The European consumer is a massive job creation force in the Chinese economy,” said Jörg Wuttke, president of the chamber. “But the open accessible market for us is very small. In 2021, EU companies sold 23 per cent more into Switzerland than into China.”
Yang Jianwen, an economist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said property and consumption were the “two biggest issues” China needed to solve. Shanghai was well placed to tackle both, he said, adding that the city’s real estate market was “not under great pressure”.
Across Shanghai, the visible signs of China’s apparatus to deal with Covid are disappearing. Mobile booths, where the city’s 26mn residents underwent compulsory PCR tests almost daily, are being listed for sale on Xianyu, a second-hand shopping app. Queues are again forming outside restaurants, and face masks, ubiquitous in December and January as the virus again swept through the city, have almost disappeared from its streets.
“It’s more bustling than I imagined,” said Zhang Yang, a university student in the nearby city of Hangzhou, who was visiting Shanghai for the first time with two friends. Only one of the trio was wearing a mask, but she said it was because she was not wearing any make-up.
Shanghai Metro data showed an uptick in daily passengers in February to 9.5mn, closing in on pre-pandemic levels of more than 10mn.
“The virus has died down, the children can go to school and we can travel,” said Zhang Baolian, a 70-year-old former electrical worker, who was visiting a bakery on Nanjing Road, the city’s most famous shopping street. “There’s nothing to be afraid of now.”
There have been nascent signs of returning business activity. Canadian coffee group Tim Hortons has partnered with Popeyes to relaunch the American fried chicken brand in China.
Lei, a 37-year old Shanghai resident, plans to open a restaurant in March and rented his shop at the peak of the outbreak late last year. He says rents for similar shops have now increased 30 per cent. In a group on WeChat, he saw a villa on a popular road rented out within an hour of it being listed this week. “Although the city has not fully recovered, the queues for restaurants are back,” he said.
A few doors down from a Popeyes location in central Shanghai last week, a long lunchtime line had formed outside Guang Ming Cun, a restaurant renowned for its local fare and popular with the city’s elderly.
“This is my first time queueing like this in three years,” said Ma, 80, a retiree who was wearing a mask. “The queue will be about half an hour,” he added. “It used to be longer”.