What Makes a Great Chinese City?

There seems to be an intense amount of recent media interest in ranking and assessing what makes for a great city. Foreign Policy’s terrific Global Cities Issue (with Christina Larson’s fine profile of Chongqing, Chicago on the Yangtze) is the first to come to mind, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Newsweek’s desperate (and pathetic) but still very much related The World’s Best Countries list. Of course, for my American readers, the “best places” phenomenon isn’t new: Best American Cities issues are a veritable cottage industry in American magazine publishing (for example … for Artists! for Working Mothers! for Living). In any case, who doesn’t take an interest in where their city ranks in the eyes of others?

And, if you live in China, this is doubly the case. As anyone who has spent any time in China learns quite quickly, the opinions of foreigners, especially in regard to the development of the country and its cities, is important – and often more important – than the opinion of Chinese folks. To my way of thinking, this isn’t always a good thing: many Chinese, and many Chinese cities, are often too quick to develop in a manner that they think will impress foreigners, rather than in a manner that will impress much less increase the happiness of their own citizens (thus the destruction of old neighborhoods in favor of high-rise downtowns … meant to impress foreigners). So I was more than a little interested when, late last week, I received an invitation to attend the launch press conference for the first “Chinese Cities’ International Image Survey,” held this afternoon (and not yet posted to the web).

Sponsored and conducted by the Gallup Organization, in collaboration with Fudan University, the Chinese Mayors Association, and Oriental Outlook Weekly (which will publish it on September 2) the survey seeks to assess not what Chinese people think of their cities, but rather what foreigners think of their cities. Specifically, 7,980 foreigners on six continents in one-hundred countries (not including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau), who have spent at least one month in China, were asked to give a 1 – 10 ranking on twelve criteria as applied to thirty short-listed Chinese cities (whittled down from an original list of 260). Not an easy task: Wu Tao, the Chief Consultant for Gallup in China, pointed out that – in the case of some cities – only thirty foreign respondents out of 7,980 had heard of, much less had enough information on, some of the cities in question. Continue reading