The PR agency’s ‘Engaging Cities’ report examined eight cities across the region (Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo), taking into account 16 so-called "soft power" attributes. Conducted in partnership with KRC Research, it canvassed nearly 4,150 people online.
Hong Kong and Shanghai have long been unofficial rivals, with both vying for status as regional financial hubs and citizens of each city touting their home's respective advantages.
Hong Kong is still regarded as Asia’s financial centre, with 54 per cent of respondents defining it as such. But it performed well in other less obvious areas too.
For example, the city is seen as having major influence over regional culinary trends: 44 per cent rated it highly for its level of food and dining experiences, as opposed to 31 per cent for Shanghai. Tokyo leads in terms of cuisine, with 49 per cent highlighting this attribute.
Somewhat surprisingly, respondents also noted Hong Kong for innovation in retail and in its neighbourhoods (37 per cent). That is despite the city coming in for frequent criticism for its high rents and prioritising the interests of property and real estate owners over other business owners. There is change on that front: both consumption and retail rents are currently in decline, largely as a result of slowing economic growth on the Chinese mainland.
At the same time, Hong Kong is still seen as a “tourism magnet” (53 per cent), compared with 32 per cent for Shanghai (one of the lowest rankings in the survey).
Shanghai did outperform Hong Kong in some areas: it is better regarded for its contribution to art and literature (21 per cent versus 16 per cent), for example. But it is not well regarded for areas such as media (21 per cent versus 30 per cent).
Both cities could certainly improve in terms of softer attributes. Tokyo, for example, beats both as a city that others want to emulate (44 per cent). Analysis within the study suggests that Hong Kong should embark on a “charm offensive” that plays down aspects such as its high-priced real estate and instead celebrates the “raw entrepreneurship of its people and the rich and dynamic diversity of its many districts”.
In Shanghai’s case, Weber Shandwick recommends that the city “showcase housing affordability, health, education and, more broadly, the quality of life it offers to its residents”. The analysis concludes by suggesting that “Shanghai is on the cusp of becoming a soft power beacon for other cities in China”.
Ian Rumsby, Weber Shandwick's regional chief strategy officer, said that Hong Kong benefited from having built up a stronger identity than Shanghai over a period of time including prior to its handover from Britain to China in 1997.
He added that people tended to have a heightened awareness of Hong Kong's different neighbourhoods, which was important for a city in establishing a strong identity.
"There are elements of that in Shanghai, but I don't think either city has reached the stage of cities like Tokyo or London—very large, highly regarded, complex cities that are known and respected for different neighbourhoods in their own right," Rumsby said.
Strong neighbourhood identities have the effect of attracting a more diverse group of people, he added—in particular creative classes, which play an important role in helping cities "tackle the issues associated with urbanisation". He said Shanghai was making good progress in this respect, but that its reputation had not yet caught up.
However, Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research, who is based in Shanghai, was sceptical of the city's potential as a soft power leader and disputed that it offered a high standard of living to the average resident.
Rein noted that Shanghai remained probably the world's "most exciting place for business". But he also pointed out that skyrocketing rents and severe pollution meant that quality of life was "getting worse in a distressing way".
"It's very difficult to raise a family here unless you are very wealthy," he said, adding that particularly professionals in the creative industries, who do not necessarily draw high earnings, were starting to reassess their priorities and consider relocating.
"Shanghai is clearly losing its appeal for the business community," Rein said. "You can build museums and fix the infrastructure, but that's not enough to create a world-class city. You have to create a liveable city."