Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Chicago(s) of China

Posted By on 08.17.10 at 11:32 AM

Chongqing, China
  • RAY DEVLIN @ FLICKR.COM
  • Chongqing, China
The magazine Foreign Policy has just released its 2010 "Global Cities Index," a ranking of 65 world cities based on "how much sway a city has over what happens beyond its own borders—its influence on and integration with global markets, culture, and innovation." Chicago's number six on the list.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Chicago-based global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney took part in compiling the rankings, which might have helped us out a bit. According to Foreign Policy, the rankings are based on "definitive sources" such as "business activity" (cupcake trucks, tamale guys), "human capital and information exchange" (your guess is as good as mine), and "cultural experience and political engagement" (music festivals, the Blago trial). Also, things like embassies and museums counted.

At number 65 is Chongqing, China, which is the subject of an article accompanying the list. The author, Christina Larson, calls Chongqing the "Chicago on the Yangtze." I've read the article and can't find the connection. Can you?

Other than the fact that Chongqing officials "now like to brag" that their city is the Chicago of China, and that their local Communist Party boss, Bo Xilai, is like a "celebrity mayor" of sorts, the article presents no obvious similarities between the two places. Chongqing's population is 32 million; ours is just under three million. Chongqing's skyline has jillions of tall buildings; we've got our fair share of skyscrapers, but nothing approaching Chongqing’s concrete horizon. Chongqing continues to build communist-style housing developments; Chicago is tearing them down.

Chongqing is mountainous, and its main body of water, the Yangtze, looks like a river of Yoo Hoo. Chicago has no mountains, and its water is blue (and green, on Saint Patrick's Day). In Chongqing, people play badminton in the public areas; Chicagoans play public cornhole.

Where’s the connection? Let's go to Google. Three years ago, the Wall Street Journal compared Chicago to Chongqing and provided some useful insight: “Chongqing is “an industrial gateway that opens the country to its vast, rural heartland”; its “warp-speed industrialization and drive toward modernization” makes it not so much like today’s Chicago as that of the 19th century—broad shoulders, The Jungle, and all that. It’s a “hub” connecting urban and rural, like Chicago before suburban sprawl.

But Chongqing is not the only “Chicago of China,” or even the first. Back in 1918, the writer Walter Weyl laid that handle on the city of Hankow. Time carried it into the 1930s and still used it 30 years later—though now suddenly Hankow was, along with Wuchang and Hanyang, part of a bigger metropolis called Wuhan. Hankow’s role as the “transportation hub” of China made it Chicago-y.

In more recent times the city of Zhengzhou has expressed its desire to be China’s "Chicago of the East," as well as the "Chicago of China" straight-up. It will take any Chicagoness it can get, apparently. (Maybe it would settle for "the Aurora of China"?) For the past few years, Zhengzhou has been competing with Chongqing for the right to the title in a kind of “crane-off,” in which the cities try to out-construction each other. Sounds capitalistic!

And then there’s Shanghai, which also wants to be the Chinese Chicago. Get in line.

With all of these fake Chinese Chicagos, how can anyone use the phrase “the Chicago of China” with any confidence or authority? Fact is, nobody can. But if you’re going to go ahead and use it anyway, maybe try to marshal some sort of perfunctory support for it. (Looking at you, Foreign Policy.)

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