China Business

Shanghai Versus Beijing

Apple vs Proview trademark dispute

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 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 A tale of China’s two great cities: The rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai. 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.

Shanghai versus Beijing. What do you think? Which city is best for which sort of foreign business? Why did you establish your business in Shanghai, as opposed to Beijing, and vice-versa? Let us know.

34 responses to “Shanghai Versus Beijing”

  1. Interesting article, but it overplays Shanghaiese notions of exclusiveness. Moreover, Shanghai dialect is not incomprehensible to all “outsiders”, as it bears many similarities to Suzhouhua, and (from what I understand) a couple of other close-by regional dialects. And for all the talk about Shanghainese being so hostile to outsiders, I think a lot of that gets fueled by internet postings; if not for internet blather it’d be even more hot air.
    Like most geographic stereotypes, it’s more as a way to establish identity than anything substantial and real. I’d compare it to college sports rivalries in the US – more mature than high school rivalries but still a lot of trash-talking, a lot of it alcohol fueled. There is something silly about it, just as it’s stupid to hear New Yorkers complain about the “bridge and tunnel crowd” and such when their city is downriver for every ambitious (even slightly and temporarily) transitory artist/actor/yoga instructor from the midwest, mid-Atlantic, Boricua, Haiti, etc.

  2. Yeah yeah. New York vs. Washington. Mumbai vs. Delhi. London vs. Frankfurt. And Shanghai people, while locals have their own dialect, many are migrant workers and speak putonghua. Plus Beijing people have their dialects too, you can even tell which villages. Its a nonsensical arguement that doesn’t go anywhere other than indicate tribalism, and much of that is evolving away now. The business answer is of course “both” and not either / or. As for being “Shanghai’d” – its nothing to do with business. It was a term coined by the British Navy when they went looked for recruits and kidnapped the drunk and the incarcerated to man merchant and naval vessels.

  3. Interesting article, but it overplays Shanghaiese notions of exclusiveness. Moreover, Shanghai dialect is not incomprehensible to all “outsiders”, as it bears many similarities to Suzhouhua, and (from what I understand) a couple of other close-by regional dialects. And for all the talk about Shanghainese being so hostile to outsiders, I think a lot of that gets fueled by internet postings; if not for internet blather it’d be even more hot air.
    Like most geographic stereotypes, it’s more as a way to establish identity than anything substantial and real. I’d compare it to college sports rivalries in the US – more mature than high school rivalries but still a lot of trash-talking, a lot of it alcohol fueled. There is something silly about it, just as it’s stupid to hear New Yorkers complain about the “bridge and tunnel crowd” and such when their city is downriver for every ambitious (even slightly and temporarily) transitory artist/actor/yoga instructor from the midwest, mid-Atlantic, Boricua, Haiti, etc.

  4. Yeah yeah. New York vs. Washington. Mumbai vs. Delhi. London vs. Frankfurt. And Shanghai people, while locals have their own dialect, many are migrant workers and speak putonghua. Plus Beijing people have their dialects too, you can even tell which villages. Its a nonsensical arguement that doesn’t go anywhere other than indicate tribalism, and much of that is evolving away now. The business answer is of course “both” and not either / or. As for being “Shanghai’d” – its nothing to do with business. It was a term coined by the British Navy when they went looked for recruits and kidnapped the drunk and the incarcerated to man merchant and naval vessels.

  5. Shanghai in the 4th and 3rd tones in the name of the famous city.
    Shanghai in the first and fourth tones means to be injured.
    Trad. Simp. Pinyin English
    傷害 伤害 shāng hài injure; harm
    上海 Shàng hǎi Shanghai

  6. @Cathy – if you read your wiki article YOU posted you’ll see it was EXACTLY what I was referring too. Shanghai’ed is an archaic term evolved from British Navy. Although a lot of foreign investors lured in on the promise of cheap labor (ha ha ha) tax incentives (ha ha ha) and even free trade zones (ha ha ha) may well think it appropriate. The comparison with Bejing also is inappropriate. If you want to compare Shanghai with anywhere, think Liverpool, Amsterdam, or closer to home, Bombay in India. Beijing is inland, doesn’t have a port, is next to a desert and was originally built by Mongolians.

  7. Shanghai in the 4th and 3rd tones in the name of the famous city.
    Shanghai in the first and fourth tones means to be injured.
    Trad. Simp. Pinyin English
    傷害 伤害 shāng hài injure; harm
    上海 Shàng hǎi Shanghai

  8. This rivalry shows that China is just like anywhere else – petty tribalism is the order of the day. And how enjoyably normal it is.
    The “China Derby” between Shenhua and Guoan in the much maligned domestic football league is probably the most public forum for expression of this rivalry. It’s definately worth checking out this fixture if you want to improve your mandarin cursing ability. http://wildeastfootball.net/?tag=china-derby

  9. @Cathy – if you read your wiki article YOU posted you’ll see it was EXACTLY what I was referring too. Shanghai’ed is an archaic term evolved from British Navy. Although a lot of foreign investors lured in on the promise of cheap labor (ha ha ha) tax incentives (ha ha ha) and even free trade zones (ha ha ha) may well think it appropriate. The comparison with Bejing also is inappropriate. If you want to compare Shanghai with anywhere, think Liverpool, Amsterdam, or closer to home, Bombay in India. Beijing is inland, doesn’t have a port, is next to a desert and was originally built by Mongolians.

  10. This rivalry shows that China is just like anywhere else – petty tribalism is the order of the day. And how enjoyably normal it is.
    The “China Derby” between Shenhua and Guoan in the much maligned domestic football league is probably the most public forum for expression of this rivalry. It’s definately worth checking out this fixture if you want to improve your mandarin cursing ability. http://wildeastfootball.net/?tag=china-derby

  11. I, like Wild East football, enjoy the football (soccer) rivalry between fans in the two cities, and expats absolutely love to talk about the rivalry between the cities (typically as a feature article when they have nothing to write about and are desperate to create a story), but for the L.A. Times to say there is a real “rivalry” between the cities is stupid. Shanghainese hate everyone not from Shanghai, whether they are from Beijing, Nanjing, or Seattle. At the same time, Beijingers don’t exactly have a lot of love for non-Beijingers, though tend to be slightly more accepting of outsiders. It’s a joke, especially in light of the nationalist spirit and unity that swept up China after 5/12 and also the torch relay debacle, to say that the majority of Shanghainese weren’t cheering during the Beijing Olympics.
    I love the comment about how in Shanghai people stand in line for the bus, wish they’d understand the “first allow people to get off, then get on” concept in the subway, which Beijingers have understood for years.

  12. I, like Wild East football, enjoy the football (soccer) rivalry between fans in the two cities, and expats absolutely love to talk about the rivalry between the cities (typically as a feature article when they have nothing to write about and are desperate to create a story), but for the L.A. Times to say there is a real “rivalry” between the cities is stupid. Shanghainese hate everyone not from Shanghai, whether they are from Beijing, Nanjing, or Seattle. At the same time, Beijingers don’t exactly have a lot of love for non-Beijingers, though tend to be slightly more accepting of outsiders. It’s a joke, especially in light of the nationalist spirit and unity that swept up China after 5/12 and also the torch relay debacle, to say that the majority of Shanghainese weren’t cheering during the Beijing Olympics.
    I love the comment about how in Shanghai people stand in line for the bus, wish they’d understand the “first allow people to get off, then get on” concept in the subway, which Beijingers have understood for years.

  13. Accurate or exaggeration, misogyny or mythology, amused Beijingers refer to professional young men in Shanghai these days as “trees,” as they essentially exist to hold the shopping bags (on their trunks or arms) for their spendthrift girlfriends! The reputation of Shanghai men extends to picking out their girlfriends’ clothes in the morning, and cooking breakfasts and dinners.

  14. Accurate or exaggeration, misogyny or mythology, amused Beijingers refer to professional young men in Shanghai these days as “trees,” as they essentially exist to hold the shopping bags (on their trunks or arms) for their spendthrift girlfriends! The reputation of Shanghai men extends to picking out their girlfriends’ clothes in the morning, and cooking breakfasts and dinners.

  15. The main difference is that Beijing is a communist shithole with too many police, a cold-war mentality, no freedom of speech and unbreathable air… while Shanghai is a modern asian city, ala Seoul, Tokyo or Hong Kong. The fact that they’re in the same country is astounding. I make my home in one of them; you couldn’t pay me enough to live in the other.
    Though I’ll admit- the food is better in Beijing, and the dialect more comprehensible…

  16. The main difference is that Beijing is a communist shithole with too many police, a cold-war mentality, no freedom of speech and unbreathable air… while Shanghai is a modern asian city, ala Seoul, Tokyo or Hong Kong. The fact that they’re in the same country is astounding. I make my home in one of them; you couldn’t pay me enough to live in the other.
    Though I’ll admit- the food is better in Beijing, and the dialect more comprehensible…

  17. Okay, so that’s a little harsh on Beijing. If you’re setting up anything involved in heavy infrastructure- and where government contacts and contracts will be essential- that’s where you want to be. Otherwise, you’re probably better off in the south… though Shanghai is a tough place for a small businessman these days, with outrageous rents and competition for competent employees. Second/Third-tier cities on the southern coast seem like more interesting possibilities. Xiamen? Shantou? Ningbo? Wenzhou? Hangzhou? Fuzhou? Yiwu?

  18. Okay, so that’s a little harsh on Beijing. If you’re setting up anything involved in heavy infrastructure- and where government contacts and contracts will be essential- that’s where you want to be. Otherwise, you’re probably better off in the south… though Shanghai is a tough place for a small businessman these days, with outrageous rents and competition for competent employees. Second/Third-tier cities on the southern coast seem like more interesting possibilities. Xiamen? Shantou? Ningbo? Wenzhou? Hangzhou? Fuzhou? Yiwu?

  19. @Nicholas M: The fact that Shanghai is in China is fairly astounding. It bears almost no resemblance to anywhere else in the country.
    As far as ease of business, Guangzhou, Dongguan, and Shenzhen get my vote over either city. As long as you can pay to play, no one cares about your politics or nationality.

  20. @Richard: Shanghai isn’t really like anywhere. I’d call it halfway between Hong Kong and a southern boomtown (Shenzhen, Xiamen, Hangzhou, Wenzhou, the like), but that still doesn’t do it justice.
    Shanghai is problematic for business, though, unless you’re really well funded or really well connected- or both. If you’re a representative office for a multinational corporation, great, or have a high-end luxury startup (or, really, any kind of service industry requiring a developed legal and financial infrastructure and access to the “right” kind of customers). If I was in the market to develop an experimental widget or any other kind of blue-water whim, though, Guangdong or Zhejiang seem like better bets. I’d add Xiamen, Yiwu, Ningbo and Hangzhou to your list; all of them are pretty developed as far as necessary infrastructure goes these days.

  21. @Nicholas M: The fact that Shanghai is in China is fairly astounding. It bears almost no resemblance to anywhere else in the country.
    As far as ease of business, Guangzhou, Dongguan, and Shenzhen get my vote over either city. As long as you can pay to play, no one cares about your politics or nationality.

  22. @Richard: Shanghai isn’t really like anywhere. I’d call it halfway between Hong Kong and a southern boomtown (Shenzhen, Xiamen, Hangzhou, Wenzhou, the like), but that still doesn’t do it justice.
    Shanghai is problematic for business, though, unless you’re really well funded or really well connected- or both. If you’re a representative office for a multinational corporation, great, or have a high-end luxury startup (or, really, any kind of service industry requiring a developed legal and financial infrastructure and access to the “right” kind of customers). If I was in the market to develop an experimental widget or any other kind of blue-water whim, though, Guangdong or Zhejiang seem like better bets. I’d add Xiamen, Yiwu, Ningbo and Hangzhou to your list; all of them are pretty developed as far as necessary infrastructure goes these days.

  23. Beijing’s problem is that there’s a general lack of centralization; there are local malls specializing in particular goods, but there’s a lack of stores for specialist goods like say, in New York.
    Combined with the general pedestrian hostility of the city; it’s sort of like living in a bunch of adjacent villages; you’d rather shop in the neighborhood than go to where the shopping is good, simply because it’s such a hassle to get from one place to the other.
    Still remember my first 2 hour traffic jam for a trip that usually takes 30 minutes.

  24. Beijing’s problem is that there’s a general lack of centralization; there are local malls specializing in particular goods, but there’s a lack of stores for specialist goods like say, in New York.
    Combined with the general pedestrian hostility of the city; it’s sort of like living in a bunch of adjacent villages; you’d rather shop in the neighborhood than go to where the shopping is good, simply because it’s such a hassle to get from one place to the other.
    Still remember my first 2 hour traffic jam for a trip that usually takes 30 minutes.

  25. As Shanghainese, I won’t even consider Beijing a rivalry. The only reason Beijing can match Shanghai in some aspects is because it is the capital and that gives Beijing a build-in advantage that none other city can even imagine. When Beijing was short of confectionery factories, it moved those in Shanghai to its surrounding places with no respect to Shanghai consumers demand; when Beijing wanted to build the capital for culture, it moved dozens of universities in other provinces to the city with no respect to the education rights of people in those provinces; when Beijing wanted Olympics, it was the whole country to foot the bill (Shanghai bore the cost of Expo alone, in contrast); ever wonder why Beijing public transpotation charges only one thirds the fare of those in Shanghai? The question should be like this, if Beijing was not the capital, could it still imagine to possibly match Shanghai?
    Traditionally, we view HK, a rivalry. HK was merely a shadow of Shanghai before 1949 and now the other way around. The connection between these two cities and their people is much closer.

  26. I’m HK local resident.
    In the Sinosphere, the rivalries are Beijing vs Shanghai, Shanghai vs Hong Kong, Hong Kong vs Singapore. The Beijing vs Shanghai is a cultural one which makes the rivalry actually very interesting. The latter two are pretty much economical ones. The rivalry of Shanghai vs Hong Kong is mentioned so often when comparing the development of industries, especially the financial industry (and port facilities too). Obviously there is large competition between Shanghai and Hong Kong. Competition between Hong Kong and Singapore is intense too. I was told that over the years the whole nation of Singapore, from the top to bottom, had only one mission: to surpass Hong Kong. I still remember the Singapore government gave huge scholarships to lure the no.1 in my class to move to Singapore when I was Secondary 1. Besides the economy and fighting for professionals, the Hong Kong vs Singapore rivalry also reflects on the way of governance: laissez-faire vs parental control.

  27. I’m HK local resident.
    In the Sinosphere, the rivalries are Beijing vs Shanghai, Shanghai vs Hong Kong, Hong Kong vs Singapore. The Beijing vs Shanghai is a cultural one which makes the rivalry actually very interesting. The latter two are pretty much economical ones. The rivalry of Shanghai vs Hong Kong is mentioned so often when comparing the development of industries, especially the financial industry (and port facilities too). Obviously there is large competition between Shanghai and Hong Kong. Competition between Hong Kong and Singapore is intense too. I was told that over the years the whole nation of Singapore, from the top to bottom, had only one mission: to surpass Hong Kong. I still remember the Singapore government gave huge scholarships to lure the no.1 in my class to move to Singapore when I was Secondary 1. Besides the economy and fighting for professionals, the Hong Kong vs Singapore rivalry also reflects on the way of governance: laissez-faire vs parental control.

  28. “Beijing is a communist shithole with too many police, a cold-war mentality, no freedom of speech and unbreathable air”
    This can be applied to ALL cities in China. All unlivable shitholes.
    It’s just depressing to go there, even for an hour.
    Perhaps my most dreaded business/travel destination, in the same league as India, the Philippines…

  29. As Shanghainese, I won’t even consider Beijing a rivalry. The only reason Beijing can match Shanghai in some aspects is because it is the capital and that gives Beijing a build-in advantage that none other city can even imagine. When Beijing was short of confectionery factories, it moved those in Shanghai to its surrounding places with no respect to Shanghai consumers demand; when Beijing wanted to build the capital for culture, it moved dozens of universities in other provinces to the city with no respect to the education rights of people in those provinces; when Beijing wanted Olympics, it was the whole country to foot the bill (Shanghai bore the cost of Expo alone, in contrast); ever wonder why Beijing public transpotation charges only one thirds the fare of those in Shanghai? The question should be like this, if Beijing was not the capital, could it still imagine to possibly match Shanghai?
    Traditionally, we view HK, a rivalry. HK was merely a shadow of Shanghai before 1949 and now the other way around. The connection between these two cities and their people is much closer.

  30. “Beijing is a communist shithole with too many police, a cold-war mentality, no freedom of speech and unbreathable air”
    This can be applied to ALL cities in China. All unlivable shitholes.
    It’s just depressing to go there, even for an hour.
    Perhaps my most dreaded business/travel destination, in the same league as India, the Philippines…

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