In this global era, ranking global cities has become a parlor game for pundits, almost an industry in itself. All cities, it seems, want to be global, and each wants to be more global than the others. To issue a ranking of global cities is to invite debate and dispute which, I guess, is one of the purposes.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has learned about this because it has joined with the Chicago-based accounting firm, A.T. Kearney, to rank the world's global cities, with the results published in Foreign Policy magazine. Kearney teamed earlier with Foreign Policy to rank the world's most globally-linked countries. But globalism does not descend evenly on entire countries: rather, it is concentrated in cities, so the focus has shifted to global cities.
The first ranking came out in 2008. A newer ranking is just out, with the raw results published in Foreign Policy's latest issue and a more complete and nuanced report scheduled for later this month. Here is the listing of the most global cities:
Midwesterners looking to see where their city ranked will find that this region has one global city, Chicago, and that's it. But Chicago, according to this listing, is a powerhouse -- sixth in the world, behind the acknowledged global Big Five -- New York, London, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong. Two years ago, Los Angeles was sixth, ahead of Chicago, but has now dropped behind.
Most other American cities are regional capitals, like Chicago -- Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Miami, plus Washington and that high-tech mecca, San Francisco. Personally, I think Minneapolis or Minneapolis-St. Paul belong in the top 65: it's big enough, has a raft of global corporate headquarters, is home to a major university, has a thriving cultural life and, like Atlanta or Boston, is a regional center, dominating the vast stretch of America between Chicago and the West Coast. Maybe it will get listed in 2012.
Global glitz, of course, is largely in the eye of the beholder. Kearney and the Council worked hard to set up hard criteria -- business links, government institutions, foreign residents, top universities. But obviously, all this is open to argument, which is invited. Should big sports events count? How important is the presence of big locally-owned banks? Should a wealth of foreign restaurants play a role? (In the drafting of the 2008 list, Paris at first lagged behind because foreign restaurants were considered important and Paris doesn't have that many: then we realized that, given its native cuisine, Paris doesn't need foreign restaurants, so we instructed our computers to get real.)
When the full report is published, I'll come back to all this -- to the criteria that make a city truly global and why most Midwestern cities don't make the list.
For now, I'd like to focus on one aspect of the listings that has less to do with the Midwest. This involves a criterion, introduced this year, on censorship and the free flow of information. This criterion resulted in the demotion in the rankings of several cities in authoritarian countries, especially in China, and tended to move Western cities up a notch or two.
I went into this in some detail in an article I wrote for Foreign Policy magazine and thought readers of this blog might like to see it. Here it is:When I was a correspondent in Soviet Union, back in the days when they were “building Communism,” the word always used to describe Moscow was “drab.” A cliché, but accurate, and telling. This was an autarkic country, a self-isolated economy, sealed like a darkened room from the color and glitter of a more commercial world, disdainful of our bright lights and frivolity. Nothing penetrated – neither fashions nor unwelcome news. No discouraging words got through, nor criticisms. And certainly no alien ideas. What the rest of the world was up to was of no interest to those for whom Marxism-Leninism was the future.
Years later, after Communism fell, I talked with a young Russian economist, just back from a six-month stint at the World Bank. What he saw there left him in despair, nearly in tears. “We’re so far behind,” he moaned. “There’s so much we don’t know. We’ll never catch up.”
Nearly 20 years on, Russia and Moscow haven’t caught up yet. Can any country or city really play the global game, really consider itself global, if it deliberately cuts itself off from the winds of the world?
It’s a question asked by the new 2010 Global Cities Index.
This new Index shakes up the 2008 rankings. Of the 65 cities listed in the 2008 report, 39 ranked lower in 2010. And of these 39, no less than 26 are in countries ranked “not free” or “partly free” by Freedom House. In 2008, we didn’t take this into account: only metrics like human capital or global business links affected a city’s rank among the global all-stars. But this year, we added a “censorship” metric, based on that Freedom House judgment, and it really shuffled the deck.
Other criteria mattered, of course: even Washington, Toronto and Amsterdam, all in certifiably “free” countries, slipped for one reason or another. But the censorship criterion definitely put the skids under Dubai, Cairo, Moscow, Bangkok and Istanbul, all of which dropped several notches. Especially affected were Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing and Guangzhou.
Not to compare any of these places with the old Soviet Union. That was an extreme case, so cut off from the world economy that rumors of a shipment of shoes from Romania could produce lines of shoppers that stretched around the corner. Perhaps apart from Myanmar and North Korea, no hermit nation exists today. Global goods are on sale in Moscow and Shenzhen as in New York and London. Trade flows from Guangzhou, foreigners invest in Shanghai, ex-pats live in Cairo, foreign universities set up shop in Dubai.
But the essence of globalization is the free flow of almost anything – not only money, goods, services, people, jobs, students, but information, too. If a country restricts trade or immigration, that country – and its cities – are that much less global. The same with information. These rankings reflect the notion that censorship also is a barrier to the global flow.
Is this fair? All the cities affected are in the non-Western world. Western cities shine by comparison. So is this censorship criterion merely a Western tool to shove non-Western cities down in the global rankings, to preserve Western supremacy, to prove that these cities —even Shanghai – are not really “global” at all? Or does it get at something important – that in the global knowledge economy, anything that impedes this knowledge is a self-imposed handicap?
Well, ask yourself this. Would you invest in a not-free country or city? Well, sure. China, which ranks behind Venezuela and on a par with Somalia on the Freedom House list, inhales foreign investment. But if you ran a global corporation, would you consider moving its headquarters to a country that might censor the information that your top executives need to compete globally? Ah, that’s different.
We usually think of censorship as a political or human rights issue -- to block news about Tibet, for instance. But there’s no real line between politics and economics.
The same impulse that leads to censorship – don’t rock the boat -- also cramps risk-taking, even entrepreneurship. The same censorship that snares news about Tibet also keeps out news of economic innovation. The same ban on political protest keeps citizens from raising economic issues. When Saudi Arabia bans chat on Blackberries for political reasons, it brings commercial life to a halt. Who can do business these days without a Blackberry?
Developing countries can import foreign processes and technologies and make a living by doing what other countries already do, but cheaper. But at some point, a truly global nation has to get ahead of the global game, by innovating. Innovation is a disruptive act, even a heretical one. Where heresy is unwelcome, innovation is unlikely. Freedom House calls China “highly repressive,” with heavy censorship in such areas as public health, the environment and foreign policy. Google complained that censorship of the Google site in China “goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.” As Thomas L. Friedman has written, “countries that choke themselves off from exposure to different cultures, faiths and ideas will never invent the next Google or a cancer cure.”
Perhaps the leaders of repressive countries really are the wise men they think they are, needing no criticism of their policies, political or economic. But if they aren’t, there’s no one to tell them that they’re making fatal mistakes. Until, as in the Soviet Union, it’s too late.
This discussion shows that otherwise global cities are at the mercy of their national governments. Non-Western cities have no monopoly on this problem: American cities and their universities detest the U.S. government’s security-based limits on visas to foreign scholars. Left to themselves, Shanghai and Istanbul might be as open to global news and ideas as New York or London. But governments in Beijing or Ankara won’t leave them to themselves, and they may pay a big future price in the global competition.
Not that all Western cities on this global list are model democracies. Chicago itself is a one-party city state that is much more Democratic than democratic. But the key here is not democracy but liberty – the freedom to fight city hall. Critics may not win many battles in Chicago, but they can’t be censored, and that makes all the difference.