SHANGHAI, China — When President Obama lands tonight in China's largest city, Shanghai, he'll find many of its 20 million people intrigued by him and welcoming, but hardly deferential, and some openly skeptical of his promises of change.
Obama will find a futuristic skyline of orbs, skyscrapers, flashing neon and curling overpasses. If he gets outside his protective security bubble, he'll see streams of fresh-smelling cars of the newly affluent, grimy noodle shops selling 50-cent soups and chicken feet, fusion bars and multinational corporate headquarters. He'll also be watched by educated Chinese increasingly confident about their prospects if they stay in China, and less convinced that America's where it's at.
In this, the mainland's most Western-minded and economically dynamic center, where Obama will deliver remarks on Monday before moving on to Beijing, many Shanghainese see the global balance of power shifting: China is ascending, while America may have peaked.
"The U.S. is a very big and strong country, military-wise, economy-wise. It's still important," said Zhou Jun, 38, who runs a garment business in Shanghai. "But compared to before, China has a lot more influence on the world."
In this nation of 1.3 billion people — a billion more than in the U.S. —there's a deep gulf between the haves and have-nots. Hundreds of millions of poor Chinese worry about illness, about how they'll survive the early snow, how they'll make ends meet. For many younger people in Shanghai, however, the standard of living is quickly improving.
Today versus a decade or two ago, Zhou said, "I make more money. My home is a lot bigger. Everybody's homes are getting bigger."
There's populist support for the American and Chinese governments working together to contain North Korea, clean the environment and save the world economy.
There's also mistrust.
On pollution and consumer safety, several Chinese asked: Doesn't American demand for cheap goods drive manufacturing? Don't Americans worry less when it's someone else's dirty air and water?
Many Chinese like seeing Americans doing business here. While Obama talks about supporting free trade, however, they see his tariffs on Chinese tires as evidence that he'll usher in more protectionism if his political base demands it. Never mind the current trade imbalance that tilts a huge surplus China's way.
"He talks really nice, saying stuff about how he's going to change everything... but on the other hand bashing Chinese trade," said Wang Guanjun, 50. Wang's an information technology consultant from Sichuan province who was visiting Super Brand Mall in Pudong, Shanghai's modern half on the east side of the Huangpu River.
"China is a partner with the U.S. If we compromise, it's good for both countries. If America still doesn't want to do free trade, China is still going to become stronger," Wang said.
Yang Pei Ming, managing director of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, which specializes in Chinese art from the Maoist period of 1949-79, said that many Chinese view Obama's arrival with a Chinese mix of superstition and pragmatism: "They hope he will bring good luck and stocks will go up."