China Business

Beijing v. Shanghai

Picture from City Weekend.

Way back in 2010, we did a post comparing Beijing and Shanghai. That post took the rivalry pretty seriously:

The Beijing-Shanghai rivalry fascinates me. Not because it is so unusual, but because it is so pronounced and because it matters.

Beijing is the seat of government, yet it is also China’s art, media and tech city. Shanghai is the city of business and finance, yet it is both historically, and today, generally the most open to foreigners. Food-wise, most would give Beijing the nod, but I love Shanghai food and consider it a very sophisticated, subtle, and underrated cuisine. One of the biggest differences between Beijing and Shanghai is language. “Shanghai people” have their own dialect that is pretty much incomprehensible to outsiders and they do seem to love using it for that very reason. Shanghai is considered snobbier.

The Los Angeles Times has a fun and interesting story on this long-time rivalry. The article is entitled, A tale of China’s two great cities: The rivalry between Beijing, the national capital, and Shanghai, the financial capital, has been going on for decades. The dynamic is a powerful undercurrent in Chinese politics and culture. It deems Shanghai more fashionable, more for women and more cosmopolitan than Beijing. But Beijing holds the power. These paragraphs sum up the stereotypes I must often hear from the Chinese themselves:

Shanghai men are reputed to be vicious in business — hence the term shanghaied — but wimps at home. “At home, they do the dishes, take out the trash and give their wife/mistress a neck rub after the hard day she put in shopping,” wrote one blogger on a site called China Forum.

To the Shanghainese, the Beijingers — and all northerners, for that matter — are peasants.

“They smell like garlic,” said restaurateur Xu, voicing a popular refrain. “We Shanghai people keep ourselves and our homes very clean. We are more refined. We drink coffee. They only drink tea.”

In the legal arena, Shanghai stands somewhat alone in that Shanghai lawyers generally do not play well outside Shanghai, and vice-versa. This is less true of Beijing.

Back then, it seemed anyone who was anyone was either in one or the other city, or at least contemplating moving to one or the other. That was right at the height of when so many foreign companies believed they had to “get into China” or at the bare minimum, “start doing business with China,” even if they knew little to nothing about how to navigate China.

I thought back to this old post today when reading, Despite Shallow Reputation, Expats Love Shanghai More Than Beijing, [link no longer exists] which has this to say about Shanghai:

Yes it’s shallow, the expats don’t speak Chinese, and it’s not the “real China”, but expats in a new poll say it’s the best place in the country to live.

Nearly nine out of every 10 expats already there say they like the city, which is the highest satisfaction rating pollsters found. Eighty-six percent of the 237 expats interviewed said they liked the city, with 46 percent saying they’d even like to settle down there.

So what makes Shanghai so special? Expats say job availability and the “diverse cultural environment” are the main attractions. On the other hand, the respondents said traffic congestion and bad-mannered locals were the things they had problems with.

So which do you prefer to visit? Which is better for business? For Tech? For Media? What about the people makes them different? Most importantly, where would you rather live and why? Someone who lives in Shanghai and frequently travels to Beijing told me the other day that “way more” expats are leaving Beijing than are leaving Shanghai. Is that true?

7 responses to “Beijing v. Shanghai”

  1. Very interesting piece. My first trip to China was in 2001 and we visited both cities. I was immediately struck by the differences between the two; much like my home state of Texas. Shanghai was like Houston; bristling with growth and business enthusiasm. Beijing was like; bureaucratic and run by accountants.

  2. Shanghai hands down. Not even close. Let me count the ways:
    1) Less pollution (no ‘yellow rain’).
    2) More open-minded.
    3) Not nearly so political.
    4) Only marginally less real history than Beijing if that, especially given how much of the ‘old’ stuff you see in Beijing was basically rebuilt over the last ~30 years or so.
    5) Less foreigner-hatred. We’re yet to see the kind of senseless stabbings in Shanghai that have occurred in Beijing (especially today’s senseless killing of a Chinese woman and the stabbing of her French husband that was apparently motivated by anti-foreigner sentiment). Walking around Beijing I’ve been told to “Go $%^& you mother, $%^&ing foreigner”, but I’ve never heard anything like that in Shanghai.
    6) More real, modern culture. Screen out the mawkish, faux-ancient stuff in Beijing and its not nearly the cultural centre it pretends to be.
    In fact, why is Beijing even the comparator for Shanghai here? Shenzhen and the rest of the PRD is probably a better city to do business than BJ, being close to a major manufacturing hub and with good logistical connections, with the added bonus of being close to HK and Macau.

    • I agree with you on almost every point but let me tell you after two decades in Shanghai they say a lot of anti foreign stuff too but they say it in Shanghai dialect….I’ve called people out many times in Shanghainese for saying derogatory things to my face because they thought I couldn’t understand but yes…100% better than BJ.
      Also my lawyer had a close Japanese friend that was stabbed to death in a western salad/sandwich shop in Xujiahui for being Japanese so that happens in Shanghai too.

  3. I’m quite happy the foreigners in Shanghai are happy there. This means they’ll stay there and not vex the rest of us. Some of the whiniest laowai I ever met were moaning about how all they wanted to do was to get back to Shanghai where the living was easy and they didn’t have to eat Chinese food.

  4. We spent 6 years in Beijing and moved last year to Shanghai because of the air pollution as our two daughters became really sick there (one had two pneumonia in a row and couldn’t recover because of the bad air quality). We loved Beijing and had many journalist friends so we often received good insights into politics (and heard great stories). We will always love Beijing.
    Shanghai is nice. We live in the French concession and it’s lovely. It’s more expensive than Beijing but way more international.
    Anyway life is what you make it and the friends you (are willing to) make.

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