Spat between Beijing and Shanghai, China’s two great cities, and beyond

October 18, 2010Jing Gao3 Comments, , , , , , , ,

The Los Angeles Times takes a look at the ongoing rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai:

“They stand like this,” says the 56-year-old restaurateur, hands on hips, adding a scowl to her performance. “They’re sooo annoying. Just because they come from the capital, they act like they’re running the country.”

The antipathy is mutual. “Shanghai people are selfish,” retorts Ge Ding, a 28-year-old Beijing-born teacher who moved to Shanghai for work in 2001. “Even the people my age, all they talk about are material things, their clothes, the stock market. All they care for is themselves and money.”

The trash talk between the natives of Beijing and Shanghai has been going on for decades, with the rest of China ducking the crossfire.

In China, it is the great rivalry, similar in some ways to New York versus Los Angeles. The dynamic is a powerful undercurrent in Chinese politics and culture.

Jing Gao: This is an interesting observation: Beijing and Shanghai are always vying for world’s attention and the place of  number one metropolis of China.

I kept nodding while reading about the stereotypes of the two cities in many regards: 1, Beijingers and Shanghainese are very critical of and sarcastic about each other, especially in online chatrooms and blogsphere; 2, Shanghai is a female city whereas Beijing is male; 3, the rivalry expands far beyond opinion among the public and into political cliques and economic competitions.

However, the story seems to have made a minor mistake saying “the rest of China ducking the crossfire;” on the contrary, the rest of China is more than happy to engage in trash talks about either or both, or, for those who come from a second- or third-tier city, another city in the proximity.

Shanghainese, for sure, do not like Beijing for its deep bureaucratic root and possible threaten to Shanghai’s business activities.

But, Shanghainese have left a general impression that they do not like anyone from places other than Shanghai. There is a lingo in the dialect that literally means “people from the countryside,” and it is said that older generations of Shanghainese apply this phrase to most visitors.

That’s probably why Shanghainese become the easy target of rest of China’s anger. There is an element of truth in the statement that Shanghainese are materialistic and on high horses, merely as a natural result of disparity in living standards between Shanghai and any other city. But envy, inferiority complex and oversensitiveness of the rest of the population can also lead to the plausible impression. Of course, Shanghainese these days are making a good effort to clean the already tainted reputation and convince the entire China that the city welcomes, and is proud of immigrants who help build the city to today’s glory.

Beijing, on the other hand, does become synonymous with red tape, intricate human network and authority that can’t be challenged. Chinese hold an ingrained belief that “money can drive a ghost to mill;”   in Beijing, money alone just can’t get its way; power trumps it. Though Beijing and Shanghai, both as international metropolises, are land of opportunities for people in the rest of China, Shanghai is ideal for self-made men from scratch, and Beijing is less so, because people believe it is harder to climb the social ladder there if you don’t have connections.

However, the rest of China do not frown upon Beijingers as much as they do to Shanghainese, maybe owing to the fact that the majority of Beijing’s population is still grass roots and in a way victims of the bureaucracy that the city is steeped in.

People who come to either city to have their dreams come true do at times feel excluded or hindered, not by locals, but by the government policies. Hukou, or residential register, is extremely hard to come by in these two cities. Until you get one, you are always a “temporary resident”, and are disadvantaged by lack of it when it comes to health insurance, job advancement and public education of the offspring. Some of the routes to obtaining one include, becoming a public servant or an employee of a state-owned enterprise and investing several hundreds of thousands of yuan. People joked that obtaining hukou in shanghai and beijing is even harder than getting a green card in the U.S., in the sense that you only need to be married to a U.S. citizen for two years to be eligible for a green card, but you have to stay married to a Beijing-hukou holder above the age of 45 for ten years to get Beijing hukou, whereas being a spouse of a Shanghai-hukou holder never guarantees you one, no matter for how long.

While we keep pitting Beijing and Shanghai against each other, do not forget that such rivalry exists between a number of pairs, for example, Chengdu and Chongqing (in Southwest China), Qingdao and Jinan (on the east coast), Dalian and Shenyang (in Northwest China), Shenzhen and Guangzhou (in South China). The competition range from argument in the chatrooms about which one of the pair is more beautiful, to fight for a bigger share of appropriation of funds.

Such a sense of pride for hometowns partly stems from the collectivist frame of mind that Chinese government has been indoctrinating the population with.  We were taught in the elementary school that we should be proud of the group we are in. It is the group, not a particular individual, and never you alone, that makes us strong.

It also stems from China’s sense of place. Hukou system, ancestral home, hometown, birthplace…a myriad of things are associated with one’s identity. Even though this has changed a lot in recent decades, Chinese are still immobile compared with other peoples, and are emotionally attached to their ancestral home and their hometown, where they deem as their root, and the place who makes who they are. For an American who moves quite often throughout his life, his birthplace and hometown might mean less to him. But for a Chinese who has lived in no more than three cities, he thinks his effort to defend his hometown is worth it.

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3 comments to “Spat between Beijing and Shanghai, China’s two great cities, and beyond”

  1. Cleo | December 24, 2010 | Permalink Reply

    I have never experienced arrogance from a Beijinger though I think they really stand out as special. I think that they are such good quality that they don't have to be arrogant about them. I think they are down to earth and cool. And the girls look like spears.

  2. Breana Kirschenmann | July 29, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    I’m going to tell all my collegues about this cool site because I like it . In my opinion I think it’s quite different & just a tiny bit quirky, which in my opinion is refreshing. I’ll mark it as a favourite. It’s a shame most blogs aren’t like this one?

  3. [...] York versus Los Angeles. The dynamic is a powerful undercurrent in Chinese politics and culture. Spat between Beijing and Shanghai, China Reply With Quote + Reply to [...]

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