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.

Meng Jian, the director of Fudan University’s International PR Center, explained the survey’s purpose this way: “Too many Chinese cities are focused on hard criteria, and not their personalities. But great cities aren’t remembered for their hard criteria, they’re remembered for their personalities. And too many of our cities are losing their personalities.” This might not sound interesting to those who don’t live in China’s increasingly cookie cutter metropolises, but for those who have – and for those of us who have watched those metropolises destroy their historic, urban cores in favor of bland high-rises – this is nothing short of a revelation. So, rather than be subjected to another rundown of urban rankings based upon economic figures like per capita GDP, this survey looks to rank (on a 1-10 scale) more qualitative facets of Chinese urban life:

  1. Urban environment
  2. Quality of the residents
  3. Safety
  4. Transit convenience
  5. City character
  6. How much a respondent would want to a) live there; b) travel there
  7. Urban culture
  8. Value for investment
  9. Future development potential
  10. Degree of internationalization
  11. Level of trust between residents
  12. Government efficiency
  13. Overall impression
  14. Comprehensive competitiveness

[Alas, I may have missed one or two here … get the full run-down in the September 2 issue of the magazine.]

These questions strike me as fascinating on a number of levels, not least of which is that they reveal some of the concerns that Chinese have about their cities, and foreigners – or, at least, Westerners – don’t have about theirs. Specifically, questions one and eleven, related to the quality of residents and the trust between them, strikes me as a particularly Chinese. Put differently (and Detroit aside), I don’t think I’ve ever heard Westerners, at least, evaluate a city on whether or not the people trust each other, much less as to whether or not they are of high quality (yes, high-quality work force, but that’s not what’s meant when Chinese people discuss whether a person is of quality).

But whatever. The respondents answered the questions, and the ultimate rankings are interesting, if not entirely surprising:

  1. Shanghai
  2. Beijing
  3. Chengdu
  4. Nanjing
  5. Hangzhou
  6. Ningbo
  7. Xi’an
  8. Changsha
  9. Kunming
  10. Changchun

As already noted, many of the thirty cities in the survey were recognized by far fewer than 1% of the respondents. So, in that sense, it’s probably not surprising that China’s two best known cities are at the top of the list. On the other hand, I think it’s notable that – for a survey that focuses on foreigners who’ve spent at least one month in China – no cities in Guangdong, China’s manufacturing center, made the top. Surely, a significant percentage of business visitors over the last decade have visited the region. With that in mind, how could dusty interior cities like Changsha and Xi’an have made more favorable impressions than thriving Guangzhou and Shenzhen? Or, for that matter, how on Earth did backwater Ningbo out-poll cosmopolitan Suzhou? Such are city rankings!

So what to make of these rankings? I must admit, I expected the elaborate press conference to trumpet the results as a sign that the ten top-ranked Chinese cities had arrived as Global Cities. But, in fact, the results were used for the exact opposite. Gallup’s Wu Wang Chengyuan, Chairman of the Chinese Mayor’s Association, concluded that he’s “still finding the image of China lacking behind what we expect.” And Fudan’s Meng noted that, despite the fact that “Shanghai rated best among Chinese cities, it’s still far below other Asian cities.” It’s both a humble and a bit insecure response to a complicated data set. But it’s also not surprising. For as long as I’ve been living here, a week has rarely passed where a Chinese friend hasn’t asked me to compare Shanghai (or other cities) with those back home in the United States. This survey, then, is the first and (so far) only effort to standardize that insecure question into something that can measured. And next year, and the year after, it will be repeated, into perpetuity or – at least – until everyone is satisfied that China’s cities have truly arrived as global.


A final thought: wouldn’t it be wonderful and interesting if Gallup teamed up with an American university and news magazine to poll 8000 Chinese on what they think of thirty American cities? Surely, somebody must be willing to pony up the money for such a project?


  1. Your Guangdong point is well-noted, and I wonder what percentage of those well-liked cities are migrants. I think that would fall under quality of residents, do you think?

  2. I’m not sure if you were being facetious about conducting the survey on Chinese views of US cities. It’d be ironic and amusing, but I think the response from all sides would be “who cares?” It would be like applying Richard Florida’s creative class criteria to Chinese cities, which I would enjoy seeing done but would tell us as much as the Gallup poll you cite in the article did.

  3. I think that the “trust” issue comes up in US surveys that ask about the “friendliness” of the residents.

    I also found your point interesting about Chinese concern about how the their cities are viewed by foreigners. I think that a young America, especially in its greatest building eras, also looked to Europe to see if we measured up.

  4. Cities are “remembered for their personalities.” True, and the 20-odd 2nd, 3rd and 4th tier Chinese cities I’ve visited have no personality, one distinguishable from the next only by its airport code on the boarding pass.

  5. You’d know better than I do, but when I was in Shanghai, it seemed like the Westerners liked the old buildings more than the high rises.

    This made me think of the time, many years ago, that my aunt appeared on Nightline, defending her hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Rand McNally had ranked it the worst city in America, for very understandable reasons. She eventually moved to Little Rock, which is much nicer.

  6. Is the destruction of old neighborhoods for highrises really “meant to impress foreigners.” Possibly a secondary consideration, but what about making a lot of money for developers and crooked politicians?

    Also Changsha, Changchun, Xi’an above Qingdao, Dalian, Xiamen?? Who are these foreigners?

  7. Luke – Of course there are reasons for urban redevelopment beyond merely impressing foreigners! That noted, Shanghai and other Chinese cities made a concerted effort, early in their economic redevelopment, to put up modern-looking highrises with the express purpose of attracting and impressing foreign investors. To this day, you’d be hard pressed to find an official Shanghai city tour that goes through old neighborhoods rather than the high-end redevelopments. In any case, point taken.

    And great call on Qingdao, especially. What the hell?

  8. No way. Luke is right, where the heck are Qingdao and Dalian? Pretty much every foreigner (mostly Americans) loves those two cities. Seriously, who were these people?

  9. Well they’re right about one thing – Shanghai is still far behind other Asian cities. I think part of the issue is the gov’t belief that they can engineer outcomes, i.e. we build a bunch of skyscrapers and shopping centers, looks good right? There! You have a modern, world class city! Real “global” cities are a result of a historic confluence of factors, for example HK and Singapore being part of the British Empire, or Taiwan (Taipei) being colonized and modernized by Japan.
    China is seen as the bung-hole of Asia for a reason. (Outside of the Chinese reality distortion field anyway). Its cities are by and large crap, some horribly polluted. Aside from a couple coastal cities, it remains laughably insular and backwards. I mean I’ve been in a lot of 3rd world countries where the populace is more sophisticated. It’s a cultural problem, not an infrastructure problem, and no amount of shiny new buildings can make the tiger change its stripes.

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