Tech-happy Shanghai, the most wired city in China, has a problem: wires. Telephone wires. Fiber-optic wires. Electrical wires. Wires no one can seem to identify. Black wires. Blue wires. Magenta wires. They’re everywhere, and they’re gumming up the works.

On sections of Beijing Road, you can barely see the sky. On Tibet Road, they dangle in garden-hose rolls and knots intricate enough to confound a Boy Scout. Over on Hefei Street, one enterprising apartment dweller even used them to hang-dry selected cuts of meat.

“Shanghai has a long history of development, and it wasn’t all consistent. It would have been a lot easier if it was,” says Gong Jiehua, who oversees the Shanghai Roads and Pipelines Office. Then he sighs loudly.

So China is doing what China usually does when confronted with such dilemmas, be they economic, political or technological: It’s mounting a campaign, asking the masses for help — and unrepentantly yanking down wayward wires as it goes.

It’s not an easy task. Companies, hospitals, schools, utilities — all have erected their own lines. As of earlier this year, Shanghai had 12,500 kilometres of above-ground wires within its outer-ring road.

It had 5,900 kilometres inside the inner-ring road.

“Look at all these cables. It doesn’t make our city look good. A modern city needs to be attractive, too,” says Wang Guojian, a bus driver who sometimes wonders why more wire-powered cable cars don’t crash in the thickets of cables.

The wire jungle is also partially responsible for a ban on kites in Shanghai’s 125 parks; too much tangling.

The government’s $1.45 billion (U.S.) solution, instituted in 1999, will bury 30 per cent of the wire network by 2005 and 70 per cent by 2010. The city has established no-wire zones, and more than 700 miles have been buried, according to Zhou Jun, a city engineer on the project.

Such burials are four times more expensive than they should be, city officials say, because they require costly efforts to protect historical sites in a city that once had major Jewish, German and British populations.

History, of course, isn’t on the minds of many Shanghainese these days. It’s difficult to think of any city that modernized faster than Shanghai. Even Tokyo took a generation to become the high-tech metropolis it is today.

The late leader Deng Xiaoping had much to do with it. The earliest days of his economic reforms, the late 1970s and early 1980s, were notable for their a vigorous campaign to promote the “Four Modernizations” — agriculture, military, industry and science-technology.

Shanghai took the final one to heart, and today the city is the poster child of Chinese technology, a benchmark for the rest of the country.

The progress is no accident, but rather the result of policy. No other Chinese city can match the investment — human, financial and educational — in Shanghai’s tech ascendance.

It has five of China’s top seven universities. It aggressively courts investment by IBM, Intel and other foreign companies by using tax breaks and, like Singapore, bureaucratic fast-tracking.

The city has spent heavily on broadband Internet and other infrastructure, runs its own high-tech venture capital fund and offers incentives to lure entrepreneurs from elsewhere in China.

Shanghai’s recent urban development, like China’s itself, is nevertheless characterized by a sometimes astonishing lack of planning — a problem hardly surprising for a land whose east-coast cities have done a century’s worth of modernization in barely two decades.

It happened like this: People put up wires, and nobody noticed. Then people put up more wires. By the time folks figured out that cables were strung 30-deep over some intersections, those wires were the arteries and veins that carried Shanghai’s lifeblood.

Wires are just one urban challenge. Bedeviled by ballooning rat populations, Shanghai has turned not to poison but to rodent contraceptives. And the municipal government is considering limits on new skyscrapers; tall buildings, it seems, have helped make the city sink an inch a year.

Under the new wire regulations, people who want to lay wiring must apply for underground space and register their intentions — a daunting effort in cataloging that, officials hope, will allow the city to prevent such problems in the future.

Unidentified wires already in the sky are being targeted, too. Only 15 firms are licensed to string wires in Shanghai; others are illegal. So the city is placing public notices in newspapers, describing the various mystery cables and giving their owners 90 days to come forward.

“No one responds, we cut them,” says Li Zhenjun, who oversees the regulatory efforts. “We can’t just have people putting up wires at their leisure.”

The situation is slowly improving, and people are noticing. Qian Tubiao, a clerk at the Xinwang Pavilion Restaurant in a neighbourhood undergoing underground wire embedding, says the project is inconvenient for the moment but useful in the long run.

“Dust and noise and traffic jams from morning to night,” he grumbles, then allows: “In the bigger scheme of things, yes — this will make our city feel more like a world-class place.”

That’s Gong’s attitude exactly. His face furrows as he peers out of his office window — and down onto thickets of wires below.

“Modernization is imperative,” he says, “but this isn’t.”
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