Although lists of the most liveable cities have a long history in some other countries, they are a new thing in China. At a forum on town planning held in Beijing this month, the capital's International Institute for Urban Development released its 2005 'Rankings for Quality of Life in Chinese Cities'.
The institute claims that its chart is the first such one compiled in the country, and hopes its annual reviews will serve as the benchmark for assessing China's urban centres.
The report took the 100 largest mainland cities in terms of economic output, and ranked them according to overall performance in 12 categories such as living environment, social security and per capita income. Scores were reached through consideration of a mixture of factors; some are objective (government spending in a given area), and others less so (the opinions of experts; an internet survey).
Beijing came fourth overall, with Shanghai third and Guangzhou ninth. The capital was the only city in northern China to make it into the top 10. It should be no surprise that the city housing the people who largely control the spending of China's tax money should rank highly. Indeed, Beijing was No1 in more categories than any other city, namely: consumer infrastructure, education, health services, life expectancy, culture and leisure, and employment opportunity.
Overall, however, the capital's score was pulled down by a less glittering performance in other areas, most notably the quality of accommodation, where it came in 83rd. According to the institute, housing in Beijing is the most expensive in the mainland, making for smaller apartments and more cramped living conditions. Public safety - measured in rate of deaths from 'abnormal causes' - was also a factor. Beijing's dangerous roads lowered it to 60th in the category.
More significant than any individual ranking, however, is the survey itself, which suggests China is now looking beyond the growth of gross national product as a measure of success. Institute director Lian Yuming said that was the intention. 'By means of this report we wanted to propose a future standard or ideal for urban development - that of quality of life for common citizens' he says.
Recent newspaper reports about the survey belaboured the point that economic output is not everything, almost as if this would never occur to mainlanders choking in the pollution of the country's big cities. Nevertheless, the time for such a novel way of thinking may still yet come in China. Measured in terms of average income, the city that ranked No 1 overall in the survey was also the richest: Shenzhen.