Gongyi Xintiandi, the birthplace of so many Shanghai social enterprises, was also partially responsible for inspiring John’s Little Green Book.
One of the first articles we ever ran was on Gongyi. Five years on, I thought there’d be no better way to spend a sunny autumn afternoon than revisiting where all this began.
Oftentimes in China great ideas go unnourished. The latest tech hub or restaurant row might be filled to the brim one day and closed down the next. Shelf lives in China are painfully short, even for the best of ideas. Turning the corner onto Puyi Road, I half anticipated the whole place would have suffered a similar fate. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even though it was late Saturday afternoon, doors were open and activities ongoing. A group of old women were learning how to check their heartbeats. There was a lecture on classic Chinese art. Kids were belting out tunes from the second story veranda. The place felt, well, alive. The last time I was here construction was still ongoing.
Why this place is so important is because Gongyi Xintiandi is a central part of China’s social entrepreneurial boom. Its entire existence is a call to action for Shanghai’s non-profit sector to up their game, market, and scale. The US$55 million hub was a massive investment at a time where the city was still concerned with economic growth, a time before Xi Jinping’s very public pronouncements of China’s leadership on sustainability. Today, the national government is investing huge sums into entrepreneurship. In Shenzhen, for example, a US$23 million start-up hub broke ground this year. I can’t help but wonder, though, whether any of this type of funding is making its way here. The paint is a little worse for wear after only a few years, and some of the businesses could use a bit of a marketing makeover. While foreign social enterprises in China often tap into global sources of capital, the organizations at Gongyi are primarily Chinese. Who’s helping them survive? Critically, how are people learning about the great things going on here? This seems like the perfect place for the oft foreign delegation to visit on their tours of Shanghai. It could also serve as an example to aspiring provincial governments throughout the country.
For now, though, I’m content with knowing Gongyi Xintiandi is not only surviving but thriving. Most offices have been taken up by social enterprises. There has yet to be a sell out of space to the highest bidder, a great indication that they’ve kept to their original mission. What I’d love to see is a higher level of interest and investment from the local government and potentially outside foundations. That way the good work going on in this 100-year-old venue will last for another century.