Shanghai doesn’t get the chance to host many global events, so it’s understandable that city officials are quite excited about a major upcoming conference that will see attendance by the likes of President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But that said, the massive security drive now underway is getting a bit out of control, literally reaching new heights with word that kite flying will be banned as part of the safety effort during the event.
The forum and overblown security effort shine a spotlight on Shanghai’s own insecurity as it looks for a place on the global stage of major world cities. The city may be China’s financial center and has little difficulty attracting domestic and even global media attention for big financial news. But politics and cultural news are quite a different story, and the city needs to become more comfortable at hosting such events, and also to make people feel a bit more welcome when they attend.
Instead, visitors to this upcoming forum and others unlucky enough to come to Shanghai at the time might feel more like they’re in a city under lockdown or facing an imminent invasion.
The event’s unwieldy name provides the first clues that Shanghai isn’t very skilled at hosting this kind of major forum, which perhaps explains the city’s nervousness and exaggerated security effort. I’ll end the suspense right now and reveal that name, which is the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, or CICA. Of course I’m also exaggerating just a bit here, since the event has been held 3 times already starting in 2002 and its name certainly wasn’t Shanghai’s idea.
I first learned about CICA around a month ago, when a group of my students at the university where I teach told me they would have to miss 3 weeks of class to work as “volunteers” at the event. That seemed a bit excessive for an event that was only set to run for 2 days, and after some discussion we finally agreed they would only miss class on the days of the actual event.
As CICA has drawn closer I’ve had some more time to investigate, and discovered that it really is a global-scale conference including attendance not only by Xi and Putin, but also Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and also UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Apart from those A-list names, other major attendees are mostly from developing countries across Asia, including Afghanistan, Cambodia and India, to name just a few.
Before I begin my thoughts on the city’s overinflated security effort, I should point out that concerns aren’t completely unfounded due to the recent series of terrorist attacks around China. Those include attacks in Kunming and Xinjiang that left dozens of people dead and wounded, and the most recent attack at a train station in Guangzhou.
I first learned of Shanghai’s massive security effort a few weeks ago when an acquaintance who works in the public security bureau said that he and his colleagues would be working overtime from the May 1 holiday all the way through the conference, which will take place on May 20-21. As the event has drawn closer, it’s hard to miss the increasing numbers of police and other security personnel on the streets and in local shopping malls. Even security checkers at the city’s subway stations, who are usually quite docile, have become far more aggressive over the last week.
To drive home the point, TV and newspaper headlines have also featured numerous reports on all the extra security measures being taken. I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the extra security, but thought things had gone too far when I read that the flying of kites, model planes and use of other airborne objects would also be banned during the summit. That measure conjured up images worthy of a James Bond movie, where an evil villain attaches a lethal weapon to an innocent object like a kite and then uses the device to assassinate a world leader.
Some may argue that I don’t appreciate the city’s efforts to keep Shanghai safe for ordinary people like myself, and I’ll admit I deliberately avoid places like Beijing when big events like the Summer Olympics took place there in 2008.
But at the same time, I really do think Shanghai needs to become just a bit more relaxed and subtle about its efforts if it really wants to become a major global hub not only for finance but also political and cultural events. The current massive security effort may reassure some city residents and visitors who might worry about a terrorist attack during the upcoming event. But such a strong show of force also sends a signal of fear and intimidation, which will hardly come as a welcome sign to the many out-of-town visitors who will come to Shanghai to attend CICA.