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Beijing should not be ranked 8

Updated: 2011-08-22 14:55

By William Daniel Garst (chinadaily.com.cn)

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I have always found it hard to take so-called "livability" or "quality of life" rankings of cities very seriously. For example, the latest ranking of this kind from FORBES magazine puts Pittsburgh, PA as the No. 1 City in the US. Not even Seattle, long a byword for livability, let alone other great American metropolises like New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, were among the top ten cities on this list.

And so it is with China as well. The recent China City Life Quality Index issued by the Social Sciences Institute of Economics and Capital University of Economics and Business, which was based on residents' opinions and hard data, like income per capita, ranked Beijing No. 8 in China. The capital came in below not only Shanghai and Guangzhou, but second tier cities such as Hohhot and Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, as well.

I will readily concede that Beijing has its share of problems. Skyrocketing real estate prices have now made housing here, in relation to residents' income, more expensive than any other city on the planet. Beijing also faces a serious and worsening water shortage. And, yes, it has the infamous Great Wall of Traffic.

But housing affordability is also a problem in Guangzhou and Shanghai. And while the latter city can get chilly during the winter, unlike Beijing, its apartments lack heat, so people there freeze inside their homes three months out of the year. Residents of Beijing, on the other hand, stay toasty warm through most of the cold weather. Finally, thanks to its Hebei province location, Shijiazhuang faces an even worse water crisis than Beijing and its air quality is not much better than that of the capital.

Moreover, both Shijiazhuang and its greener Inner Mongolian counterpart, Hohhot, do not come close to matching Beijing's work opportunities. Young people leave, rather than move to these cities, in favor of places like Beijing when searching for good employment prospects.

To be sure, Beijing does not match Guangzhou and Shanghai as a business center. However, it does not lag too far behind those metropolises in this respect and also boasts a burgeoning high tech sector that is largely absent in Guangzhou. And Beijing beats both Shanghai and Gunagzhou when it comes to work opportunities outside of business, especially in education, media, foundations and other non-governmental organizations.

These opportunities stem from the fact that Beijing is China's main media, cultural and educational center, as well as its political capital. Indeed, no other city in the Middle Kingdom matches Beijing as a higher education powerhouse: three of the top five Chinese universities, Renmin (Renmin University of China), Beida (Peking University), and Tsinghua (Tsinghua University), are located here. Shanghai boasts just one top five ranked university, Fudan, while Guangzhou is home to none of them.

Beijing's brainpower is complemented by an embarrassment of cultural riches. These include its numerous first-class museums, a plethora of performing arts events and festivals. The latter extend beyond the performing arts, to book fairs and literary festivals. And the capital is not only home to the liveliest avant-garde art and independent music scene in China, but has also emerged as an independent fashion design center. None of the other cities on the China City Life Quality Index come close to matching it in these areas.

Moreover, Beijing is unique among major Chinese cities in showcasing both old and new China. The former can be seen not just in the capital's numerous historical landmarks, but in its still considerable extant Hutong neighborhoods. And one can take in the New China by going to Guaomao; indeed, strolling down the Dongdaqiao Lu to the Jianguo Dajie makes me feel like I'm in mid-town Manhattan.

And is if all of this was not enough, the capital is not wanting when it comes to green space. Many of its parks have lovely spring blooms and fall color, and while they can get a little crowded at such times, one can always find quiet seclusion on the back paths of my favorite Beijing green oasis, the large Forest Park. Finally, excellent day hiking combining natural beauty and history beckon on the Great Wall just outside of the capital.

For me at least, these features easily make Beijing the No. 1 Chinese metropolis with respect to quality of life. But the city can take a bit of solace in its No. 8 ranking; unlike four, eight at least is a lucky number in China.

The author is an American corporate trainer in China.


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