By Gerhard Schneibel

When Pace Academy students go to Tufts University in Boston on April 2 for a simulated international policy debate hosted by the university’s Institute for Global Leadership, they will be armed with firsthand knowledge about Shanghai gained during a 10-day trip in January.

The students will be asked to debate the implication of “megacities” on modern existence. Shanghai has a population of more than 20 million.

The students from the Buckhead private school traveled to China with students from the Columbia Grammar School in New York. Both schools have had policy simulation programs for more than 14 years.

Helen Smith, who teaches history and political science at Pace, said the schools were chosen as part of a pilot program to see whether on-site study tours would benefit high school students interested in policy debate. The students conducted research on international programs and policies, met with Chinese leaders and people, and observed Shanghai’s public programs in action.

“We were interested simply in: What you do with this many people?” Smith said. “How do you build? How do you transport them to where they need to be? One of the ongoing problems is gentrification, because everyone wants to live in the center, and so more and more of the old areas have been bulldozed down to build high-rises.”

European colonists built many old areas of Shanghai, she said.

“The Europeans divided up the city forcefully. … Now the West in many ways depends on China, and so China is inviting the world to come back in a way,” she said. “That was one of the ironies that we kept discussing. We asked ourselves, ‘What does the future hold?’ ”

A major issue in Shanghai is the “floating population,” which is similar to the issue of illegal immigration in the United States. Chinese citizens are required to apply for residence permits and aren’t allowed to move freely from one city to another. Some do, however, in search of work and at the expense of health care and civil rights.

“They’re not building barriers because often their labor is really needed,” Smith said.

Junior Jarrett Bowie had just finished a semester-long class in Chinese history when he went on the trip.

“We had talked several times about how China never had a democratic society and how that makes it different from the Western countries,” he said. “One of the perceptions we had was that everybody would be rigidly Communist, but they were a lot more American than we thought. Yes, they were different from us, but it wasn’t as dramatic as we thought.”

Pace Academy seniors Alex Dancu, Jill Millkey and Virginia McNally, junior Adam Chaikof, sophomore Kate Hornor, and freshmen Matthew Mattia and Alexandra Sugarman also went on the trip.

Bowie said trip will help them debate about megacities at Tufts because now they can “talk about them from a more personal standpoint instead of going online and doing research but not knowing the city firsthand,” he said.

Shanghai faces with high levels of poverty and an aging population.

“There aren’t a ton of young people, and that can be a problem when most of the population reaches an age when they can’t really work anymore. You have to think about what’s going to happen, who is going to be there and who is going to work,” Bowie said. “Shanghai is a wealthy city, but it’s not at the same level of quality of life as New York or Tokyo is. It’s different. It’s growing very fast, but in that growing process they’re trying to become a city of the rich, and you have wonder, ‘What does that leave for the peasants?’ ”