SHANGHAI, CHINA — Whether the mayor of freewheeling Shanghai is fielding critical questions from constituents on call-in radio programs, joining with workers in weekly round-table talks, or discussing politics with university students, he seems more the Western democrat than the Chinese Communist.
Actually meeting with urbane Mayor Xu Kuangdi is like taking a great leap into 21st-century China - into an alternative future where the world's last Communist-run giant has finally evolved into a democracy.
"I like democracy," says Mr. Xu during an interview that seemed to belie the fact it took place in a city hall built by the Communist Party. He explains that Chinese democracy "must be built step by step over the next decades," quickly adding that it will not be a clone of the American system.
"We don't want to have a country where a few billionaires have a monopoly on politics, and a handful of the very rich control the newspapers," Xu deadpans in a tone bordering on the humorous.
Xu is a populist in a system traditionally ruled by authoritarians. He is a forward-looking globalist in a land that for millennia cut itself off from the world and the forces of change.
This reputed rising star in China's political firmament is as comfortable talking about Mozart as markets, about Scandinavian history as the age of the Internet.
Xu casually shifts from fluent English to Chinese and back again as he unfolds details of his life as a visiting scholar in Britain, an aeronautics engineer in Sweden, a Shanghai university vice president, and then mayor.
Perhaps Xu's many metamorphoses are what make him so difficult to pin down as a Communist leader or even as a politician.
And Xu's unorthodox maxims, combined with his lively sense of humor, make the task even harder.
"Sometimes you can't believe politicians' speeches," Xu says with a trace of a smile, without clarifying whether he is talking about power-holders in the capitalist West or here in socialist China.
During Xu's joint appearance with President Clinton on a Shanghai radio call-in show in June, the two leaders seemed to compete as populists, as visionaries, and as would-be friends reaching out to the other side of the Pacific.
When Mr. Clinton offered to step up educational exchanges and Internet ties, Xu welcomed the idea and followed it with a pledge to his constituency.
"We have to get everyone connected - connected to the Information superhighway," Xu said. In a line that could have come from one of Clinton's campaign speeches, the mayor added: "I think that's very important - the best investment you can make is to improve the life and education and information situation for the people."
When asked to mark a scorecard for Clinton's remarks, Wu Guolan, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, says: "He is a great leader and a man of the people."
Asked about Mayor Xu, Ms. Wu replies identically.
Face time with students
Despite his rushed schedule, Xu still tutors graduate students at Shanghai University. "Some students take my classes so they can ask about social or political problems," he says.
Many of China's educated elites have been alienated from their Communist leaders since troops opened fire on young pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989. But Xu calls his seminars here an ongoing dialogue with the students.
Xu's rise is part of a fundamental changing of the guard in the Chinese leadership.
When Mao Zedong and his fellow revolutionaries founded the People's Republic in 1949, they lived and ruled by the maxim: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."
Yet there are growing signs that, as the battlefield generation of rulers shuffles off the political stage, a new technocratic leadership is charting out a post-revolutionary future.
"When communist China was created, it was led by military strategists like Mao who knew only how to use force to destroy the old order," says a visiting American professor in Beijing. "But now a generation of engineer-leaders is rebuilding Chinese society from the ashes of revolution." Xu, who is part of the latter generation, says he holds town hall-style meetings one afternoon each week with "workers, peasants, college professors, and students to hear their opinions about the way of life in the city."
Xu would win hands down if he faced a free and fair election tomorrow, according to an informal survey of store clerks, taxi drivers, students, and yuppies in Shanghai.
"Just look around at how rich and free Shanghai is," says a shop clerk in a Shanghai mall. He points to gleaming skyscrapers that house everything from multinational banks to American boutiques to Japanese karaokes. "Xu Kuangdi has helped transform Shanghai," the clerk says, "and he is the most popular figure in the city."
The closest thing to New York in China
In recent years, countless blocks of the city's 1920s-era tenements have been demolished to make way for high-rises. So many cranes and wrecking balls are operating that Shanghai seems under attack by a giant mechanical army.
A burgeoning "cafe society," along with the city's rapidly expanding commercial and cultural districts, is restoring Shanghai's pre-communist image as the "Paris of the East."
Shanghai seems so free and open that only the occasional arrest of a dissident reminds one that the central government still deploys its thought police to stand sentinel over the streets of the city.
Xu says Americans' perception of China as a totalitarian police state is wrong.
"When Westerners think of socialism, they think of Stalin," explains the mayor. "Our dream of socialism is a system that is fair and improves the lives of the people. The Soviet Union didn't fulfill those promises and therefore fell."
While distancing himself from Stalin, Xu seems to freeze in horror when he is compared to Communist reformers.
"When [Premier] Zhu Rongji visited the US, some newspapers there called him China's Gorbachev, and that brought him under great pressure when he returned to China," Xu explains.
In China, where Gorbachev is denounced as the great traitor of socialism, being likened to the head of the former USSR is akin to political suicide.
Nor does Xu welcome comparisons with the head of the US.
"Please don't compare me with an American leader, - I don't need that kind of pressure," Xu says in trying to avert being praised in an American newspaper.
While Xu downplays his credentials as a man of the people, there are widening rumors here that the Communist Party hopes to change its image dating from the 1989 crackdown by recruiting popular figures like the mayor into its upper ranks.
In the last decade, former Shanghai Mayor Jiang Zemin has been elevated to China's president, and ex-Mayor Zhu Rongji to its premier.
So many city politicians have been recruited into the central government that it almost seems there is an underground tunnel leading from Shanghai's city hall to Zhongnanhai, the party's headquarters in Beijing.
Yet Xu insists he is unqualified to join the party's all-powerful Politburo as he metamorphoses back into an academic.
"I'm still a professor," he says. "I lack experience in politics."