The 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress just ended in Beijing today. Last week, I was in Beijing when it was still in session and definitely noticed a lot more government cars (black Audi A6's) and BMWs (non-government party members?). There has been a bit of a change in the party leadership in a realignment heading into the 2012 selection of a new president. Most notably the vice-president, Zeng Qinghong, has stepped down and the new Shanghai party boss, Xi Jinping, has been elected to the central committee.
I'm not expert in Chinese politics, but here is a brief backgrounder on Shanghai and its relations with the central government, which is of course based in Beijing. Shanghai (and East China) has always played a small role in defying the Communist party. The Nationalist government was based in Nanjing - just an hour's train ride away from Shanghai. Not until Jiang Zemin came to power in 1993 did Shanghai receive a little more attention from the national government. Notice the correlation between Jiang's promotion to head the country and Shanghai's recent rise to wealth and power.
Hu Jintao, who is of course not from Shanghai, is still trying to rid Jiang's influence from the party leadership and has been trying to get rid of people still loyal to Jiang. Chen Liangyu, the former party boss in Shanghai, did a good job in continuing Shanghai's economic development. In fact, he did "too good" of a job. The economy was overheating, driving real estate values and inflation up. Good for Chen, who was enriching himself with side deals, and good for the city, which was becoming a booming global center for commerce. But it was bad for Hu, since Chen defied central party leadership and allowed Shanghai to outshine Beijing. So, long story short, Chen was arrested for corruption and graft. Experts say that he is indeed guilty, but major party members participate in similarly illegal activities. It is only his disfavor with Hu that lead to his demise.
My Chinese tutor told me an interesting story about when she worked at the local newspaper a few years ago when Chen was arrested. Party officials came in and deleted all official photos of Chen. A coworker had given recorded speeches mentioning Chen and how the newspaper was doing great in following his guidance. The speeches were edited on tape to remove all references to Chen.
Living in Shanghai, it's sometimes easy to forget that China is still a totalitarian state. But it's times like these, when China tries to show it's "openness" and "democratic" ways that it really shows how far away it is from a truly free country.