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Brandopolises

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Dalian... One of China's most upbeat cities

I looked at the headline again.  What do they mean by “Chinese Brand City” I asked myself?  Has Dalian been awarded the title of the number one city brand in China, or is Dalian the number one city for Chinese brands?  The answer, according to the 12th August China Daily article, written by Guo Changdong and Ren Ruqin, is the former – Dalian has won the accolade of number one city brand in China. 

  The article states: “The committee [made up of representatives from the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade and the Brand China Industry Union] praised Dalian’s efforts in promoting itself and building a culture with romantic and trendy characteristics. Dalian has done much work in industrial restructuring, and forming a liveable city environment. The rapid economic development helps Dalian to build its brand image.”  

  Well there’s a lucky bounce, I thought to myself, as Dalian is my final port of call on a nine day tour that has included six Chinese cities.  A great opportunity, then, to compare and contrast Dalian’s development with that of Shenzhen, Shantou, Xiamen, Guangzhou, and Nanjing (from where I had flown).  As well as the 6-city development differences I am also keen to see if I can spot any changes since my last visit here in 2007. My first impressions, I have to say, were not positive.

  Maybe I am staying in the ‘wrong’ part of town this time – in the far east of Zhongshan Road, the main thoroughfare that dissects the older part of the city.  Or maybe it was a bad day in terms of pollution or humidity. Or perhaps I was suffering from travel fatigue. Whatever it was, my three mile walk down the entire length of Zhongshan Road left me thinking that central Dalian was looking… well… more than a little tired.   

  However, GDP per capita (73,134 yuan) and urban income per capita figures (19,090 yuan) in 2009 all show very healthy year-on-year gains.  And all other key economic indicators show similarly robust growth. As I was puzzling over the conundrum, I remembered that I had spent the bulk of my time on my last visit away from the central area.  In 2007, I had toured the Dalian Development Area (DDA) – the shiny part of town as well as Dalian’s engine for economic growth. The DDA is so important to China’s economic development that it is controlled by China’s state council in Beijing, not by Liaoning’s provincial government.

  So, could it be that my impression of Dalian in 2007 had been skewed by a number of positive experiences (which included interviewing a Ferrari salesperson, who was the personification of Dalian’s reputation of a “nothing is impossible” pioneering city, and that my observations this time could not and should not be compared with my 2007 impressions? 

  I went to a bar to find out what the locals think: Mr Cao, the bar owner, had no idea about Dalian’s “best city” award. He also had quite a negative view of Dalian’s current economic position.  “Things have not been great since Bo Xilai was transferred away,” he told me.

  [Bo Xilai, a charismatic and popular figure, was transferred to Chongqing in 2007 as party secretary to sort out corruption in what is technically the world’s biggest city.  Think of Clint Eastward riding in to town chewing a cheroot and you get some idea of how the media portrayed him and how the general public have feted him.  But, before that, he was Minister of Commerce at state level (2004-2007).  He worked in a provincial position prior to that.  The truth of the matter is that Bo Xilai’s seven year tenure as major of Dalian came to an end on January 2001.  So, as good as the good old days were, it’s a tad unfair to blame Bo Xilai‘s successors for the perceived woes of the past two or three years.]

  Now thoroughly confused I continued walking down Zhongshan Road.  A night venue with blaring music sucked me inside. 30 minutes was long enough for my eardrums, as well as being long enough to convince me that Dalian young people are indeed every bit as upbeat as I remember them.  Despite the cracks in the pavements, the run-down alleyways, and ancient tram system, Dalian is still one of the most happening cities in China.  If the progressiveness of its young people is anything to go by, Dalian city is right up there vying for the title of China premier league champions.  Which reminded me to check out the evaluation criteria for the recent “China Brand City” contest:

  After an hour of fruitless searching, I stumbled on an article also in the People’s Daily (which cited an article in the China Daily) that succeeded only to muddy the water.  It was essentially a copy of the article I referred to earlier, except that the winner was Hangzhou, not Dalian (which was listed as one of the nine runners-up, along with Qingdao, Quanzhou, Changchun, Wenzhou, Shenzhen, Changsha, Wuxi and Tianjin Binhai New area). The Hangzhou city website was also trumpeting the success in the event that “is billed as the largest and most influential annual competition about city brands in the nation”.

  I then wasted another hour trying to get to the bottom of this mystery, only to hit a dead end at the Brand China Industry Union’s website, which didn’t include any reference to the event that it had co-hosted. Then, with my patience running out, I hit on an important lead.  The Chinese government’s Intellectual Property Protection in China website reports that: 

On August 8, the 10th Brand China Summit hosted by China Council for the Promotion of International Trade and Brand China Industry Union was held… Over 2000 governmental officials, representatives from renowned enterprises, brand experts, brand managers and media participated in the summit.  Vice Chairman of both Brand China Industry Union and All-China Federation of Industry & Commerce Sun Xiaohua made a speech at the summit representing the host. He said Chinese brands have met so many difficulties in the process of internationalization, with much loss; although this gave us bitter lessons, this is a must in the brand development. Brand construction is like the growth of a person; we will face confusion and twitch [sic], then span and progress. These are all necessary. Rome was not built within one day. It needs enterprises' enduring efforts and investments, as well as pure-hearted expression and charm release of the brands.” 

  "Curiouser and curiouser," said Alice.  This event was clearly a Chinese-brand event (in line with Brand China Industry Union’s modus operandi) and not a “city-brand” event.  What’s more, according to the government website, the winner was neither Dalian, nor even Hangzhou… but Wenzhou… the city that is widely recognised as being a stronghold for Chinese brands.  The article points out that “Wenzhou has 203 China Top Brands”. 

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Old tram meets new tram on Dalian's Zhongshan Road