Beijing: Capital of the World?

The Economist’s wonders whether, were the host city for the UN headquarters to be chosen today, a Chinese city might win out.

When politicians were debating where to put the headquarters of the new United Nations in war-torn 1946, one place stood out as a potential unofficial capital of the world. New York (pictured above) was then the world’s biggest city, with 12m people. It was the largest and most influential metropolis in the richest, most successful economy. It was a hotbed of ideas about how to make cities better. It was a cultural magnet, home of skyscrapers and abstract expressionists, bebop and jazz ….

Six decades later, the cold-war order is gone; America’s economic dominance is under challenge from China and others; the UN is in need of an overhaul. Over the years, there have been many proposals to uproot the general assembly, recently by Russia to move it to St Petersburg (2001), by Canada to Montreal (2007), by Singapore (2008) and Dubai (2010) to those city-states. So it is not a stretch to imagine the UN might move. And it is not a stretch to ask the bigger question, what might be the world’s next unofficial capital?

According to the author’s points-based system, Shanghai narrowly beats out Beijing, scoring more highly on wealth, culture and cosmopolitanism. (London scrapes past New York into the top slot.) But The Economist’s Beijing bureau chief James Miles argues, reluctantly, for the capital:

Sadly, the answer has to be Beijing. Sadly because it is a city neither of physical charm (except in the few remaining neighbourhoods of imperial-era alleyways), nor of great culture (few are in awe of Beijing’s museums, theatre or music), nor even of breathable air (the Olympic games in 2008 marked a rare smog-free period). Its politics win few admirers. Citizens enjoy far more freedom than they did 30 years ago, but not to oppose the Communist Party. Beijing is not even especially welcoming to outsiders ….

Beijing cannot exert power globally in the way that Washington can. It lacks the military muscle and soft power of America (though it is spending huge sums on building up both). But unlike America, which has quite a few enemies, there is hardly a country in the world that does not want to court Beijing. Even countries that are suspicious of it (America included) treat it with wary respect, if not outright fawning. Washington radiates power, whether hard or soft, in huge doses. But in parts of the world resistance is strong too: try expressing admiration for America in Pyongyang. The power that emanates from Beijing is weaker but more pervasive. Some ridicule American culture; few dare ridicule China’s.

Washington bureau chief Peter David, on the other hand, dismisses all other cities’ claims:

Numerous irrelevancies can be advanced on behalf of rival cities. Paris is more beautiful, London more cosmopolitan, Beijing more commercial. But only Washington has a serious claim to be the capital of the whole wide world ….

China snaps at America’s heels, and yet it is the grey men in the grey Treasury Building here who still run the world’s biggest economy.

Meanwhile, a new liveability ranking by The Economist Intelligence Unit found Vancouver slipping behind Melbourne and Vienna at the top of the chart, while Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai occupied the number 31, 72 and 79 slots respectively.


What’s the Capital of the World? – More Intelligent Life
Beijing, Capital of the World – More Intelligent Life
Washington, Capital of the World – More Intelligent Life
Melbourne judged world’s most liveable city – The Age


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