A tale of two cities in China

Growing up watching Friends and Sex and the City, I was in shock when I first came to the US.

Growing up watching Friends and Sex and the City, I was in shock when I first came to the US.

I started attending Rutgers University and, a few weeks later, I noticed something bizarre: why does every single person have a car here? A few months later, I got my answer: It's called the suburbs of America.

This is probably the biggest difference between China and the US. As famous as the American suburban culture is, Chinese suburbs never became a viable area of living.

The top 10 metropolitan areas in China contain 35% of the total population, while the top 10 metropolitan areas in the US account for about 22% of the total population, according to the 2010 censuses of the US and China. Among the top 100 most populous cities in the world, the US contributes 9, while China occupies 18 seats out of the 100.

This national emphasis on city culture provided an implied guideline for the development of the PR industry in China. Multinational firms and corporations have followed this guideline well by setting up headquarters and outposts in cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing. However, it is even more significant to understand the dynamics and futures of these cities.

Hong Kong is the home to the Asia-Pacific headquarters of many international corporations that connect the West and the Greater Chinese/Asian market. Shanghai has long been the gateway to Mainland China, thanks to Deng Xiaoping's policies in 1979.

Beijing, on the other hand, has been a head-scratcher for most Western investors. As the political center and seat of government, Beijing has a much more restrictive business environment when compared to Shanghai. David Brain, President and CEO of Edelman Asia-Pacific, says that, “traditionally Beijing has been the hub for influencer marketing and public affairs, while Shanghai has been the center for consumer marketing opportunities. Doing business in Beijing is often about getting things done locally within China, while in Shanghai it's more about providing an open face to global markets and commerce.”

The cities have had such roles for the past decade or two, but these long-standing dynamics of Chinese metropolises have been shifting in recent years.

So what do these shifts in the dynamics of the cities mean for the PR industry? Hong Kong was the perfect island between China and the rest of the world when the West was starting to explore Mainland China, and China was starting to explore the world of capitalism. As time goes by, the Mainland has grown substantially to have a grip on global business. Hong Kong will become a secondary stop in the future on the modern Silk Road.

Nevertheless, the most significant dynamism is between Beijing and Shanghai. These two cities have had an unspoken rivalry for decades, with Shanghai traditionally being more dominant in terms of business. But this rivalry is also changing.

If Shanghai is the illegitimate son of the King who became the richest merchant in the Kingdom, historically it could never fight with the crown prince of the capital Beijing. But since the former Chairman of the Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, a native of Shanghai, retired in 2002, the second city has lost a strong supporter.

Since then, the Chinese government has been immensely encouraging to the commercial development of Beijing with fiscal policies and media promotions. Beijing is the undisputed heart of the country because it is the seat of government in such a politics-oriented country; it has the top universities and talent; large, unsaturated market potential; and the connection to the entire Mainland China, if one can grab it.

This shift in business dynamics is noteworthy for the PR industry. As David Brain says, “Increasingly, the PR business in China has become about engaging its rapidly developing second, third and even fourth-tier cities.” But in order to engage these cities, PR firms must build a strong base in the capital and make Beijing their first priority.

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