Know Your Cities!

By James Long

If you are looking to relocate to Asia, particularly China, it goes without saying that you really need to do your research. Not necessarily just about the city you are planning to live in but also about the region you are planning to work in.

Take China for example. There are over 160 cities with more than 1 million people. For those of you reading in the UK, that’s 160 cities the same size or bigger than Birmingham. In the US that’s 160 cities the same size or bigger than Detroit. In the UK there are 3 cities with more than 1 million people and 10 in the US. And most of these are MUCH bigger than their Western counterparts. In China there are 12 cities alone with populations of more than 5 million people! If you’re looking at an Administrative Area (equivalent to a “Greater Manchester” type area) then the biggest in China has more than 32,000,000 inhabitants – and I would bet that not many of you could guess which area that was…Chongqing!

There are these vast cities which outsiders have rarely heard of which are developing at a pace not seen in the West since the industrial revolution. Ask someone to name 5 big US cities and most people will do so with no problem. Do the same with China and most people can get to 3, maybe 4 but not often more than that. What’s more, they’re only going to continue to grow and develop over the coming decades.

Why is all this important? Well if you are coming to China you will probably be based in either Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. These are large, well developed and Westernised cities. They are relatively easy to move and settle into and their skylines, infrastructure and buildings are similar to other cities around the world. The pace of growth in these cities is good but has been slowing. As such, most companies based in these hubs are now focusing on developing projects in other cities in China, the so called second and third tier cities. Developers, architects, engineering firms and many other construction related companies are all pushing hard to win contracts and projects in places such as Tianjin, Shenyang, Wuhan, Dalian…the list is almost endless. These companies need their staff to travel to these unusual sounding cities, to understand what is being planned and to try to help them take advantage of the staggering potential.

Take Shenzhen as an example. Now known globally for being the manufacturing hub for pretty much anything, it’s population has swelled from a few thousand inhabitants in 1978 (see fig. 1) to more than 14 million in 2008 (see fig. 2)! There is one factory that employs more than 400,000 people alone, or the population of Bristol in the UK or Minneapolis in the US!


Fig 1. Shenzhen 1978 -  credit to:


Fig 2. Shenzhen 2008 -  credit to:

But what of all these numbers and facts? What does it all mean to those thinking of making the move to China? Well it’s about being informed and prepared, much more so than you would need to be almost anywhere else. It’s about realising that a client meeting in Chengdu will be vastly different to a client meeting in Xiamen. It’s about understanding what the different cities and people want from their buildings and infrastructure. True, most big cities want large scale retail malls, but does the average non-Chinese candidate realise why a mall in Shenyang will be very different to a mall in Chonqing*? It’s about understanding that this is a country with a way of doing business that is alien to most Westerners. A lot of companies have come to China and failed, simply because they haven’t understood the vast differences that exist between cities located geographically very close together. Some cities plan to be cultural hubs, others manufacturing centres. Each city has it’s own ambitions, government institutes and local businesses and taking the time to look outside of the big three (Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong) can make all the difference both for your company in China and for you personally and professionally.

I’ll leave you with two examples I have personally experienced which I think highlight what I’ve been describing. The first is about a candidate I placed who was relocating over from the UK to work with a company in Shanghai. He stepped off the plane on the Sunday only to step onto another plane on the Monday to fly to Chongqing (he hadn’t heard of it either) to meet a client. In that meeting the client said very little and smoked, my candidate said very little and smiled. At the end they shook hands and the client was satisfied with the person that had been appointed to his project and has since done a great deal of work with him, all from sitting down and just quietly sounding him out.

The second is from a meeting with a client of mine in Shenzhen. Whilst in his office on the 30th floor of one of the many towers, he took me to his office window and pointed at the skyline and asked “James, do you know what we need to do here in China in the next decade? We need to build a new United States.” When I asked what he meant by this he explained:

“Do you realise that more than 300 million people, the same number of people as in the US, will move from the countryside to cities in the next 10-15 years? That’s people that need housing, infrastructure, hospitals, schools, shops…and most of these people will be based in cities you probably haven’t even heard of.”

I thought about this for a few seconds and I admitted that I did not realise this, not even close. But I have since started to learn about my Xi’an’s, my Nanjing’s, my Qingdao’s and my Hangzhou’s. For anyone thinking about the move over I’d highly recommend you do the same!

PS. From now on I will post one interesting fact each week about a city in China.

* I’ll give you a clue, it’s to do with the vast differences in their climates


One Response to Know Your Cities!

  1. Pingback: Normal posts will resume next week… « Ellicott Long's Blog

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