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A tale of China's two great cities

The rivalry between Beijing, the national capital, and Shanghai, the financial capital, has been going on for decades. The dynamic is a powerful undercurrent in Chinese politics and culture.

October 04, 2010|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

To the Shanghainese, the Beijingers — and all northerners, for that matter — are peasants.

"They smell like garlic," said restaurateur Xu, voicing a popular refrain. "We Shanghai people keep ourselves and our homes very clean. We are more refined. We drink coffee. They only drink tea."

Strands of the personal and the political, often hard to separate, are intertwined in the resentment felt by Shanghainese. Beijing at once embodies northern culture and symbolizes the central government. After the communist victory in 1949, Shanghai's cultural predominance was eclipsed by Beijing's. The city remained, however, the financial capital. Through the 1980s, it paid a staggering share of China's total tax revenue, by some estimates, 70%.

Although former Chinese President Jiang Zemin served as Shanghai's mayor and party secretary, the influence of the so-called Shanghai clique has been eclipsed since Hu Jintao became president in 2003. Then Chen Liangyu, a later Shanghai party secretary, was ousted on corruption charges and replaced on the Politburo by Xi Jinping, the current favorite to succeed Hu as president.

Although Shanghai, with more than 19 million people, remains China's largest city in terms of population, businessman Lu doesn't see it regaining its edge over Beijing.

"Shanghai has become a really beautiful city again with the expo, but the center of power is Beijing," Lu said. "You drive up and down the ring roads of Beijing and you see the headquarters of the companies — Petrochina, China Mobile.... It is the nature of this form of government."

Researcher Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing Bureau and Times staff writer Mark Magnier contributed to this report.

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