Thursday, October 19, 2017


Last week I finally visited Shanghai.

Although this may seem surprising for an old China hand like me, I actually hadn't been to Shanghai for years, and was quite unfamiliar with the city. The high-speed trains which travel from Beijing to Shanghai in around five hours at a whopping 300 km/h make the journey relatively convenient and hassle-free, but I still hadn't had the incentive to go down there. This year a friend's relocation to Shanghai finally gave me the excuse I needed to go and take a better look at Mainland China's other metropolis.

This particular friend had been gushing to me for ages about how Shanghai beats Beijing as a place to live in every respect, not just because of the better air, but also in terms of the general quality of life. In his view the city is easier to get around, less congested, more sophisticated and international, has a more law-abiding and civilized society and feels less like a police state.

This is a view of life in Shanghai that I have heard repeated by a lot of other expats in China. People from Shanghai and the surroundings often tell me pretty much the same thing, complaining about the haphazard way in which things are done in Beijing, and the lack of sophistication of the Northern Chinese. Chinese from other parts of China, on the other hand, will often tell you that the Shanghainese look down upon Chinese from other areas and are unfriendly towards them. This is one of those "facts" that everyone in China thinks they know: the Shanghainese despise 外地人 (Chinese from other provinces) and "worship" foreigners and foreign culture. Beijingers do not stand accused of being unfriendly towards other Chinese nearly as much as the Shanghainese do.

After having stayed in Shanghai for four days, I can see where my friend's enthusiasm for the city is coming from. Shanghai is indeed a considerably easier place to live than Beijing, that much is obvious. Part of it is just to do with better urban planning: while the city is also enormous (in fact it has slightly more people than Beijing), the center is less spread out and objectively easier to get around. Traffic is not nearly as bad as it is in Beijing, and if you live somewhere in Pudong (the more residential district on the East side of the river) you can expect to ride a taxi to the French concession, where most of the action takes place at night, in a reasonable amount of time, like 20 or 30 minutes, without encountering dreadful congestion of the kind that makes getting around Beijing such a nightmare at times.

While Shanghai essentially looks like other Chinese cities, everything feels a little cleaner, neater and better organized than it does in Beijing. The difference would probably not be noticeable to a foreign tourist, but to those who live in China it is quite obvious. Even the touristy shopping district of Tianzifang manages to be far nicer and have a better atmosphere than Beijing's equivalent, Nanluoguxiang.

What is also striking is that Shanghai has a much higher proportion of foreign residents than Beijing. You simply see more of them on the streets, and in the French Concession especially the proportion of non-Chinese faces is far higher than what you find in Sanlitun or Gulou. I think the difference would not have been that noticeable say 5 or 10 years ago, but in the meantime there has been quite an exodus of foreigners from Beijing. The pollution has driven a lot of them out, and the increasing hostility towards foreigners on the part of the authorities has worked to drive out a few more.

Not that these problems don't exist in Shanghai. Air pollution is still bad enough, as I could see when I went up to the 92nd floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center and looked out at the horizon across the river like all the tourists do. While the view was impressive, visibility was not clear enough for me to see all the way to the edge of the city. And while the police may not be making a point of raiding expat bars, visa regulations are obviously just as tight as they are elsewhere in the country, and the general system you are dealing with remains the same. As a matter of fact, statistics show that the number of foreigners is dropping in Shanghai too, but it still remains a lot higher than in Beijing (about 250,000, compared to 100,000 for Beijing).

If there is one area where Beijing beats Shanghai, it is probably in the variety and number of interesting people one can meet there. Beijing is China's cultural and political center, and as such it has a lively intellectual scene, both within the Chinese and foreign communities. Foreigners who live in Beijing are more likely to speak Chinese and have a genuine interest in China, while more conventional types would probably not be able to put up with living there (or else work in an embassy). Writers, NGO staff, artists and people in similar lines of work abound. I have a feeling that the social scene in Shanghai would be a lot more shallow, although I have not really been there long enough to experience it for myself. On the other hand, with Beijing getting no easier to live in, and Shanghai remaining China's main window to the outside world, even Beijing's foreign intellectual circles might gradually start to relocate down south.

The view of Shanghai from the top of the World Financial Center