• Fri
  • Oct 24, 2014
  • Updated: 3:31pm
Mr. Shangkong
PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 8:20am

Shanghai lacks self-confidence in how it restricts news of Taiwan bookstore

By restricting news of the opening of an iconic Taiwanese bookstore in Shanghai Tower, how does the city expect to compete with Hong Kong?


George Chen is the financial editor and columnist at the South China Morning Post. George has covered China's financial industry and economic reforms since 2002. George is the author of Foreign Banks in China. He muses about the interplay between Shanghai and Hong Kong in Mr. Shangkong columns every Monday in print and online. Follow George on Twitter: @george_chen

I like Taipei. The city may not be as modern and fashionable as Hong Kong or Shanghai, but it has something that the other two cities may have already lost. The thing is called culture.

My friend Yan Fei, who has written two books about Hong Kong, once described today's Hong Kong as a big shopping mall. "The whole city is like a shopping mall. Wherever you go, it's all about brands and money," he said.

Then he asked me how I felt about my hometown Shanghai? Well, I think the city has been like a vast construction site for years, and one of many "next to-be-completed" big projects is the record-breaking 632-metre Shanghai Tower.

Last week, the Shanghai Tower, which is set to become the new icon for the city when it opens by 2015, caught my attention with good and bad news. The good news is the tower will get a special tenant - Taiwan's bookstore chain Eslite, already a cultural icon of the self-ruling island. Surprise?

The bad news followed within 24 hours, when the propaganda department of the Shanghai government quietly told senior editors of the city's major media outlets through short messages that nothing about Eslite's store in Shanghai should be reported.

Responding to news of the order, Eslite executives in Taipei said they would definitely obey mainland laws when launching the Shanghai branch, which clearly suggests that some books won't be on the shelves of Eslite's Shanghai branch when it opens in 2015.

Some media critics joked about Eslite's plan to open its Shanghai branch. "No surprise. Eslite Bookstore in Shanghai will be like just another Xinhua Bookstore in China," noted one commentator on Sina Weibo.

Xinhua Bookstore is the mainland's largest state-owned bookstore chain where you will only find local or foreign books approved for sale by the government. You won't find books about dissident Wang Dan or spiritual leader Dalai Lama in a Xinhua store and I am sure you won't find them in an Eslite store in Shanghai either.

To this day Hong Kong bookstores are still free to sell books of their choice, which is why many mainland travellers now consider Eslite's Hong Kong branch in Causeway Bay a must-go place to buy some "forbidden books".

That is how Hong Kong can still make a difference today for the rest of China.

Shanghai is also keen to make a difference, ranging from its strong ambition to beat Hong Kong as one of the world's three most important financial centre cities by 2020; The other two being New York and London.

A Shanghai government official said to me during a recent chat about the growing competition between Shanghai and Hong Kong: "What competition? Competition with Hong Kong? Of course not. We consider New York and London as competitors for Shanghai on the same level. Hong Kong won't be on the same level."

If Shanghai does not have the self-confidence to handle the news about Eslite's Shanghai branch, how can it be confident enough to compete with New York and London? Judging from the blackout ordered on Eslite, what Shanghai lacks today is not a bookstore (or money of course) but self-confidence.


George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong


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This article is now closed to comments

As long as china restricts information and maintains their "great firewall", china...and specifically shanghai, will remain a non competing third rate city. Wow...big high rises and fancy, useless maglev trains...it all means nothing.
Other than that, Mr Chen again falls back to his old obsession of Hong Kong and Shanghai competing in a zero-sum game of who is bigger (Shanghai of course, by over three times), better, taller, faster, hipper, sexier etc. It is not a race, Mr Chen.

And even if it were a race, illusions of grandeur notwithstanding, Shanghai is nowhere near London or New York as a city, nor as a financial centre. In the March 2013 Global Financial Centres Index, Hong Kong ranked 3rd, after London and New York.

Shanghai ranked 24th, just behind sandbox Dubai, albeit ahead of Melbourne (well done...). So let's revisit in 15 years? Or 25? To begin with, the mainland will have to float its currency and open up its capital account. Minor details huh.

Next up, the EIU's Liveability Index, where Hong Kong takes the (already shameful) 29th spot. Shanghai comes in at number 71.

The Chicago Council's Global Cities Index then. Hong Kong: #5. Shanghai #21, barely ahead of Buenos Aires.

Need I go on? Hong Kong is a top tier world city/financial centre. We can quibble over how it compares with Singapore or Tokyo. But Shanghai is at best a second rate city from a global perspective. More like third tier really. Compete with London or New York? I don't think there is much to compete about (location matters, you know), but even if there were: maybe in 25 years. Big maybe.

When government officials make claims, journalists should challenge and test them, not suck it up and repeat them.


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