‘The British boss is gone and will never return’: Communist takeovers of British companies in Shanghai (1949–1954)

In May 1949 the Chinese Communist Party seized Shanghai. Rather than being elated at the prospect of harnessing the economic power of China’s largest city to complete the revolution, the Communists approached it cautiously. How would the Chinese Communist Party set about transforming this free-wheeling port city with a ‘semi-colonial’ past into an orderly and socialist city? How would it balance ideology and pragmatism in reshaping Shanghai? This paper uses the takeover of two British companies as case studies to explore these issues at the ground level. It is argued that the means by which these companies were transformed tell us much about the Party and its state-building policies. When cadres entered foreign companies, their priority was not radical change and anti-imperialism, but rather fostering a sense of stability and unity to avoid disrupting production. Their gradual approach was due in large part to the Party’s awareness of its own limited skills, resources and manpower, but also to its leaders and cadres recognizing that before they could remake Shanghai anew they had first to deal with the material and human legacies of the past.