Shanghai, a Star in Eclipse

The Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, foreground, gleams against the city's spectacular skyline. Residents tend to dismiss Beijing as uncultured, despite its current dominance.
The Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, foreground, gleams against the city's spectacular skyline. Residents tend to dismiss Beijing as uncultured, despite its current dominance. (Pr Newswire)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 13, 2008

SHANGHAI -- On the traffic-clogged flyover leading from Hongqiao Airport into the frenzy of downtown Shanghai stands a large billboard reading, "Welcome to stylish Shanghai."

This is China's most fashion-conscious metropolis, its most dynamic business center and the Chinese city most open to foreigners. Shanghai is home to the country's most spectacular skyline, its most exquisite cuisine and, Beijing chauvinists would say, a lot of snobs.

One thing Shanghai is not, however, is the site of the 2008 Olympic Games. That would be Beijing, whose residents are reveling in a role that, beginning Aug. 8, will make their city an international star Shanghai can only envy.

In this chapter of the long rivalry between China's two most influential cities, Beijing is the clear winner. For two weeks in August, it will fill the world's TV screens and attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, while Shanghai languishes with the consolation prizes of a few Olympic soccer games and the prospect of hosting the World Expo in 2010.

For all their bravado, Shanghai's 20 million people know it's true: They have missed out. Nevertheless, they cling to the belief that, compared with their own polished and cosmopolitan selves, Beijingers are like country cousins -- warmhearted, perhaps, but bumptious, ill-mannered and prone to drinking too much rice wine in their dusty hutongs.

"Shanghai has always been a more cultured city than Beijing," said Wang Huijiu, 41, who runs a small antiques shop just off the Bund, the avenue running alongside the Huangpu River where European banks built their elegant Asian headquarters before World War II. "The British came here. The French came here. They all left their imprints. And so Shanghai is more open than Beijing. Beijing people are a little crude."

Like everything else in China, the competition for primacy between Shanghai and Beijing has been going on for a long time. More than folklore, it is a product of China's history, its political system and the regional personalities of its 1.3 billion inhabitants. In the rivalry lies a struggle that, despite the reforms of the past three decades, is still undecided.

The traits that Shanghai people vaunt -- business acumen, savoir-faire, the embrace of things foreign -- are not those in which Beijingers have traditionally taken pride. The capital's residents know their city is at once the seat of an ancient empire, the heart of officially sanctioned culture and, particularly since Communist Party rule began in 1949, the source of unquestionable power radiating out across the country.

In that light, Shanghai people have a simple explanation for why the Olympics are being held in Beijing. It is the capital, the place where the party has its headquarters and President Hu Jintao, the party leader, has his office. End of discussion.

"I think it's fair to have the Olympics in Beijing, because it's the capital," said Shao Youzhen, a 54-year-old retiree. She added, only a little snidely, "I'm sure the Olympics will bring Beijing more glory."

Foreign Flavor

Lin Dongfu, a Shanghai TV talk-show host who doubles as a jazz club impresario, recalled once visiting a friend in Beijing and instinctively opening a car door for the friend's girlfriend. The woman turned to her boyfriend, Lin said, and asked him why he was never that polite.

"Ah, he's from Shanghai," the friend said, dismissing the gesture as unworthy of further discussion in Beijing.

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