April 13, 2017 8:19 pm JST

Chinese cities lag in livability rankings

Shanghai, Beijing outside global top 100 due to polluted air, corruption

JENNIFER LO, Nikkei staff writer

HONG KONG -- Despite their rapid economic growth, mainland Chinese cities are still much less livable than their developed peers in Asia-Pacific, the latest survey by U.K.-based consultancy ECA International shows.

None of the major Chinese metropolises made it into the world's top 100 most livable cities due to choking air and socio-political tensions, according to an annual poll that measured quality of living for Asian expatriates in 470 locations worldwide.

Shanghai ranked highest on the mainland at 107th globally, up three notches from last year. The financial hub was at 23rd place in the region, putting it on a similar par with Southeast Asian neighbors like Bangkok but lagging behind developed locations in Japan and Australia.

Beijing climbed two spots to reach 121th globally, with the eastern city of Suzhou at 125th and Guangzhou in southern China at 130th.

Mainland cities are "reaching a plateau" in terms of livability despite their marginal improvement in the rankings, said Lee Quane, ECA's regional director for Asia, on Wednesday. "They made the easy gains and it's very difficult for them to improve further without any structural changes."

Quane said that air pollution, which is closely linked with China's economic development, will not have a quick cure and that social-political tension associated with corruption is still prevalent, and protests are on the rise.

There might be more types of goods and services available in Chinese cities, but food scandals, from fake eggs to rice made from plastic pellets, are posing health risks for expatriates. "While the healthcare infrastructure in Shanghai and Beijing is better than developing locations such as New Delhi and Jakarta, it's still inferior to what we see in Hong Kong and Singapore," Quane said.

Hong Kong continues to be the most livable city in greater China although living conditions have deteriorated. The former British colony ranked 15th regionally but fell one spot to 29th worldwide this year, significantly down from its highest global ranking at 8th in 2010.

Worsening air quality was mostly to blame for its lower rankings, in addition to social instability as reflected in protests such as the 79-day "Umbrella Movement" that paralyzed parts of its financial center in 2014.

Describing Hong Kong as a "first-world city with third-world air quality," Quana said the territory would "at best" keep its position in the mid-20s unless there is huge improvement in air quality.

Hong Kong's environmental department indicated earlier that over 80% of its high pollution days were caused by pollutants brought in by tropical cyclones and air moving from the heavily industrialized Pearl River Delta region in southern China.

Singapore top

Singapore, which is often regarded as a rival to Hong Kong, maintained its top position in Asia and globally for the 16th year, said ECA. The city-state beat Australian cities Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney into a tied second place for the region, with Osaka in Japan coming in fifth.

The reasons that saw Singapore outperforming regional rivals were lower crime rates, better healthcare and fewer socio-political tensions. However, its gap with other locations has reduced owing to "elevated levels of pollution" caused by seasonal haze from forest fires in neighboring Indonesia.

Still, Singapore is unlikely to lose its status in the near future, and neither will Hong Kong in the greater China region, according to ECA. Quane noted a "significant gap" between Hong Kong and its Chinese peers in terms of transport and healthcare infrastructures.

"I don't see Shanghai is going to solve its air pollution issue quicker than Hong Kong does," he said. "I don't see that Shanghai will catch up with Hong Kong in the short- and medium- term, definitely not within the next five years."

The same survey showed that Afghan cities Kandahar and Lashkar Gah were globally the hardest locations in which to adapt to living and working. London and New York lie outside the global top 35 for Asian expats due to their higher crime rates and longer commuting distances.

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