Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Brian Holmes – March 2008

Brian Holmes – March 2008

As early as 2007, the slogan of the Olympic Games was everywhere, on brochures, magazines, billboards, light boxes, LED tickers, neon signs, and of course, on the omnipresent urban video screens: One World, One Dream. With all the resources of state-controlled media, Beijing was preparing to claim its place in the pantheon of global cities. This time there would be no denial, no memory of the failed 1993 Olympics bid under the shadow of the “Tiananmen incident.” Already, the hallucinatory congestion of the skyscape makes the prophecy come true. There is only one possible world, only one possible dream: continuous buildings, endless highways, infinite urbanization, a city beyond the limits of the imagination. Huge urban blocks, surging arteries, expanding ring roads, metros, airports, refineries, power plants, bullet trains, a city that devours the countryside, scraping the mountains and the sky. A world city.

How does a society remake itself in a global image? The answer lies in a process of internalization, at once psychological and material. Around the world over the last two decades, since the fateful year of 1989, formerly underdeveloped countries have embarked on an accelerated course of self-makeover, absorbing and adapting industrial techniques, institutional forms, aesthetic styles, mental frameworks. Such transformations have happened before; but unprecedented increases in productive capacity and intensified transnational exchanges make this process different, even compared to the great wave of change that followed World War II. The gravitational shift of wealth accumulation to new centers in East Asia may well bring a metamorphosis of capitalism itself, as the historian Giovanni Arrighi has suggested.1 But in the meantime the transition is disconcerting, tumultuous, violent, marked not only by its tremendous acceleration (“Shenzhen speed”), but also by the particular forms of social control that characterize the present. China’s transformation is becoming the central phenomenon in the emergence of a new, complex and disorienting world society.

Global Individuals

To see the process of makeover in its early stages you can travel by taxi back in time, fifteen years ago, to Beijing World Park on the southwest edges of the capital city. This classic piece of Chinese spectacle culture was opened in the early 1990s, and more recently became the subject of Jia Zhangke’s great film, The World (2005). What’s offered to the gaze is a collection of miniature monuments: the Eiffel tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In an age when travel outside the country was virtually impossible, tourists would come by train to take their weekend tour, and brides would pose for a photo, as they still do today, in front of the gleaming white Sydney Opera. As Jia insists, this is where you can “see the world without ever leaving Beijing.” What’s not mentioned in the film, however, is in many ways the punctum of the whole affair: the identity of the aging and decrepit airliner where Jia’s heroine, Tao, dressed as a stewardess, repels yet more advances from her erstwhile boyfriend Taisheng. This was Deng Xiaoping’s official plane, the one used for his state visits and excursions. So the casual tourist on a weekend in Beijing could experience the fantasy of flying in the personal airplane of the man who literally brought the world to China, in the form of foreign direct investment, the magic key that opened the forbidden cities.

Fifteen years is an eternity at Chinese speeds. Today the Beijing World Park is a sad place left behind by progress, like a bad joke gone stale and flat with age. Rather than rushing here, a visitor from the interior would head in the opposite direction, toward the future that Deng made possible, in the northeast corner of the capital. There you find Beijing’s own full-sized World Trade Center in the brand-new Central Business District, not far from Koolhaas’s CCTV building, rising up like an ideogram of power. The city itself is now the world park, glittering with the stardust of transnational architecture. The current phase of internalization is no longer psychological, but material. Beijing, in many different ways, has become the world.

The experience of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen confirms two things. The first is that the global extension of the Anglo-American technological and organizational toolkit has given rise to a world civilization, what Félix Guattari called “integrated world capitalism.”2 The second is that this overall pattern of world civilization can only be governed and normed at a regional or continental scale, using cultural and political resources that are specific to that scale. The continental scale – whether a nation-state like India or China, or a regional bloc like the Russian Federation or the EU – has become decisive in the world today, because only that scale can fully internalize, but also resist global forces. Resistance, this context, means the attempt to impose different societal norms at the specifically continental level, according to whatever social or political power imperatives have taken hold there. What confronts us then are intersecting realities: something like “transnational capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” An entire political economy lodges in the tension of these intersections. The unanswered question is how those tensions are expressed and elaborated by individuals and smaller groups: how the emergence of a world society is tangled up with the production of new subjectivities.

The word individual signals the micropolitical dimension, where cultural commentary is now typically confined as a celebration of subjective choice. Yet individualism is no way the opposite of globalism. Following sociologists like Ulrich Beck, I’ll be arguing that globalism is inseparable from a process of intensive individualization which is its other face, the flip side of the same basic currency.3 This is the symbolic meaning of the slogan, “One World, One Dream.” When we look at the highly original and highly commodified practices of the creative industries, it is globalism that we are really seeing, in the expression of each singular dream. Global individualism results from the monetization and contractualization of social relations, which is an essential part of the neoliberal economic order. And it is a very exciting thing, involving a break from traditional patterns, new possibilities of thought and sensation, even the literal experience of flying through the air – deterritorialization, in a word. That’s first of all a liberating experience. What you feel in urban China today is an extraordinary productive energy, coursing through the architecture and the bodies of the people. The feeling corresponds to a tremendous achievement: an exit from hunger, stagnation and poverty for hundreds of millions of people, and the invention of a new development path promising equality with the Western nations. But the same social reality has a much crueler side, which few of its proponents care to mention.

This darker side is revealed in Jia Zhangke’s film, when the migrant worker known only as “Little Sister” is fatally wounded by a falling crane at the construction site where he worked at night for higher pay. Dying in the hospital, he can offer nothing more in his last words to Taisheng than a list of the minor debts he incurred in his short life in the capital. The same theme reappears when Taisheng counts the insurance money in front of the grieving relatives, even as the nephew (the only one in the family who can read) signs a waiver of any future claims. Why the insistence on monetization and contractualization? With his depiction of migrant laborers in the world city, Jia tries to break through the generalized ignorance that surrounds the division of labor, to the point where it renders invisible the very relation that builds the city. This unconsciousness, sustained by global individualism, now constitutes a fundamental risk for society at all levels, as the political and environmental contradictions of integrated world capitalism accumulate at an alarming rate. World society develops at the risk of new subjectivities.

The increasingly authoritarian forms of governance that are emerging all over the globe can be conceived as techniques for managing that risk, each time in a specific fashion that is inextricable from a particular social and cultural history. Driven by its quest to hang on to power, and perhaps even more, by its ambition to provide development for the people, the Chinese communist party is at the forefront of this neo-authoritarian governance, offering a specifically continental solution to the problems of insertion into global neoliberalism. It has developed a balance between a strongly normative political system and a wildly expansive economy, with the paradoxical sense of openness that such expansion brings. It is now attempting to deploy the concept of the creative industries, as part of a bid to increase its international and domestic legitimacy, to overcome a longstanding deficit in product innovation and to build a much-needed internal market for the consumption of sophisticated goods and services. According to that concept, the kind of human energy and aspiration that was formerly invested in the transcendent values of the traditional artistic genres, or in the revolutionary experimentation of the avant-gardes, should now be seamlessly merged with audiovisual production, advertising, design, entertainment events, software and video games – in other words, with everything that creates the aesthetic experience of the hyper-mediated city. These are the forms on which the Western consumer paradise is founded. Do they render other realities invisible? By examining the social, economic and monetary underpinnings of the push for a creative China, I want to suggest some of the contradictions that are at work in the country, and some of the ways that the rest of us are implicated in them.

Just a warning before beginning: I’m no Sinologist, and I have no particular authority to pronounce on all these things. What I’m going to offer are some observations and questions for research into a situation that concerns us all: the development of a global division of labor, and indeed, of a global society, which is now coming concretely into being. In any case, the point of cultural critique is never to supply unequivocal answers. Rather it is to spark off a dialogue that can help crack open the one-world dream.

Urban Divide

Clearly there are artists who might be interested in such a dialogue. For a 1996 performance entitled Half White Collar, Half Peasant, Luo Zidan confectioned a double or split exterior, wearing a tattered Mao suit on the right of his body and an impeccable shirt, tie and slacks on the left. He used cosmetics and hairstyling to distinguish a smoothed, whitened face from the pockmarked bronze skin of a country-dweller. This is how he appeared on the city streets of Chengdu in Sichuan province, holding a crisp hundred-yuan note in one hand and what appeared to be a crumpled rag in the other.

As Chen Hongjie has written:

Walking through the area around Chunxi Road in Chengdu, the performer appears both real and illusory in his actions. At the Holiday Inn he uses the peasant’s sleeve to clean the marble at the entrance… In a watch store, the white-collar worker tries on a 2,300,000 RMB diamond studded watch, admiring his reflection. At a KFC restaurant, he happily eats a meal, while the peasant, left with the fries and salad, is confused as to how they should be devoured. The concept of this work expressed the issues of class, and on a deeper level, social roles common to all human society and the roots of the contradictions that inhibit human desire.4

Luo provides a brilliant metaphor of the split personality of contemporary China, with its sparkling new cities and its 800 million impoverished peasants who aspire to live in them. In this way, he points at one of the fundamental traits of what I called “transnational capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” Everybody knows that since the establishment of the Special Economic Zones in the Pearl River Delta area in the early 1980s, China has become the factory of the world. It owes that status to the “China price,” i.e. the lowest asking price on the entire planet for any given category of basic manufactured goods. But the availability of the China price depends in its turn on the capacity of the urban white-collar worker to extract tremendous amounts of underpaid labor from his other half, the peasant arriving to toil in the factories. How do the two figures co-exist within the same city, and perhaps, as Luo suggests, within the same skin?

Their relation has been formalized, since 1949, in the communist version of the hukou or household registration system, which served to immobilize people in their locality of origin. In the revolutionary era, development priorities were focused on the city: social guarantees and advantages were reserved for the urban proletariat, and rural-urban migration was strictly controlled, with occasional tumultuous exceptions during periods of rapid industrial expansion, often followed by forced transfer back to the countryside.5 What’s surprising is the continuity of this policy since the 1980s. Throughout the period of reform, amidst massive and relatively uncontrolled influx to the city, urban hukou remained almost impossible for country-dwellers to obtain. It barred migrants from access to social services and education for their children, and left them subject to arrest and deportation to their residence of origin at the whim of the police, according to the so-called “custody and repatriation” regulations. The paradox is that the very system that denies peasant populations their full urban citizenship is also at the basis of the incredible engine of wealth-production that attracts them to the city in the first place. This paradox has set an entire continent in motion. The 120 million migrants who make up China’s so-called “floating population” are in between the country and the city, crowding at the gates of modern urban life and yet partially excluded from it.

According to statistics whose accuracy is always difficult to verify, in 2008 there were some 30 million migrant workers in the major industrial cities, while the remainder of the floating population wandered between rural provinces. All such mobile individuals are considered displaced, they are not where they should be. The hukou system allows rural labor to play the same role in China that transnational migrant labor does in the European or North American economies, furnishing human fuel to sweatshops and low-end service industries while exerting downward pressure on the wages of more established workers. Recently there has also been a lot of pressure on the state to transform this system, particularly after public outcry in 2003 when a man named Sun Zhigang died inside a Guangzhou police station under the custody and repatriation procedure.6 Meanwhile the government, faced with growing unemployment in the countryside and an inability of smaller towns to generate industry, is projecting the transfer of hundreds of millions of people to the urbanized areas. The stated concern of the officials, however, is that complete abolition of the limits on mobility would result in a chaotic shift of population toward the coastal cities. In fact, the digitalization of up to 80% of the country’s household registration records has made the system into a powerful tool of social control, which is unlikely to be abandoned in the near future.7 The urban/rural divide will not just disappear. To the extent that this particular social relation is implicated in the production of so many of the clothes we wear and the goods we consume, could it be worth knowing about? Are we as foreign to China as we seem? The evolution of the hukou system over the the next ten years may be the most precise barometer for registering the inevitable changes in the class structure, not just of China, but of the world.

It’s intriguing to learn that Luo Zidan did his performance in 1996, just a few years after Deng’s “Southern Excursion” had opened up new development zones, stock markets and the possibility of real-estate speculation, thus creating “the policy basis and market conditions enabling the emergence in China of a class of the newly rich,” as the New Left critic Wang Hui has written.8 While state-owned enterprises were dismembered, giving rise to massive unemployment, Chinese intellectuals engaged in debates over the capacity of civil society to bring about democratic transformation. This was supposed to happen, not through radical change of the system, but instead “through reliance on marketization, the formation of local and intragovernmental interest groups, and the unlocking of traditional resources embedded in such things as clan structures.” What that meant in practice was the proliferation of more-or-less shady business deals at the local level, based on contracts and land-use rights accorded by the government.

However, Wang continues, “the ‘civil society’ that was imagined [by the intellectuals] completely left out the huge working class and rural society, thus not only according perfectly with state policies that had the effect of drastically increasing the polarization between rich and poor, but also cutting off in principle the links between the ongoing progress of democracy and its true social foundations.” The result is that Chinese levels of inequality have dramatically risen, to the point where they now match the highest levels in the developed world: those of the United States.9 Luo dramatized this situation perfectly with a 1997 performance entitled White-Collar Exemplar, which stages a businessman in shirtsleeves and tie, standing at attention on a city street somewhat like an army security guard, but inside a transparent plastic box attached to an oxygen tank so as to hermetically seal him off from any contact with the crowd milling all around.10

When social divides are created with such suddenness, against a backdrop of official egalitarianism and communist rhetoric, then the disconnect between “class issues” and “the contradictions that inhibit human desire” reaches an extreme. Dialogue is only present in its absence, as a gaping psychosocial divide that affects the individual no less than the group. The question asked by Luo’s two performances might finally be this: Does the air conditioning make it impossible for you to feel your other half sweating inside the same skin?

Coastal Networks

Let’s travel from provincial Chengdu to the great industrial center of Chongqing, then through the Three Gorges Dam and down the Yangtze to Shanghai – one of the most exuberant cities in the world. Shanghai was granted the status of Special Economic Zone in 1992. With the growth of its heavy industry, the attraction of its high-tech research centers and the prestige of its brand-new stock exchange, it has outstripped Shenzen to become China’s most productive megalopolis. In 2002 it won the competition to host the 2010 World Expo. As a Canadian consultant explains, “Shanghai wants to be a ‘world class city,’ comparable to New York in finance, London in trade, and Paris in culture. Make no bones about it – Shanghai will achieve its vision by 2025, and is using World Expo 2010 as a stepping stone.”11

Once again, this is a city that wants to remake itself in a global image. But on what basis? Here I want to step back for a moment, and look at some of the infrastructure that underlies China’s status as the world factory. Historically, the city of Shanghai owes its wealth to its position as a port on the Yangtze river, making it an interface between the maritime routes of global trade and the manufacturing capacities of the interior. The port is still tremendously important, as you can see by taking a trip beneath the Huangpu bridge and out to the mouth of the Yangtze. Container transshipment, bulk raw materials, steel, shipbuilding, petrochemicals and navy installations are the most visible. There’s a lot of heavy equipment out there, with an aesthetics of rust that’s fascinating for people from the deindustrializing countries. But more importantly, by venturing out into the Shanghai harbor you begin to grasp the operations of the East Asian network.

What’s going on are intensive exchanges between a series of interlocking seas: the Sea of Okhostk, the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, then onward to India and Australia. These are the historical circuits of China’s ancient tributary system – but also the foundations of a more recent regional economy.12 It was Japan that laid the basis of that economy in the years after World War II, after its industrial sector had been built up again by American investment for the production of Korean war supplies. Drawing on Australian coal and iron ore, Japan was gradually able to increase its steel output until it rivaled that of the USA. In the process it generated a new pattern of coastal production, dependent on shipping rather than on rail or road; and it extended this productive system to the rest of the region, through all kinds of joint-ventures and informal cooperation arrangements.13 This maritime trading pattern ultimately gave rise to what analysts have called the “network power” of East Asia, which has not managed to constitute a formal economic bloc or currency zone like NAFTA and the EU – but which has managed to constitute the new growth center of the world economy.14 In the boom years of the 1970s-80s, Japanese investments and technology helped China to develop new steel-making facilities, including the Baoshan complex in the port of Shanghai. Today that complex has become the largest steel producer on earth.

Again it’s a matter of internalization, this time of fixed capital. Foreign direct investment figures tell the story: Japan and the “Four Tigers” of South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong poured $34 billion into China in the year 2005, dwarfing the Western total of $17 billion.15 Of course the figures are difficult to interpret: Hong Kong is the single largest source of FDI ($17.95 billion), but it also serves as an intermediary for others; and most of the money goes into simple manufacturing for export, with no long-term value on the ground. But in domains such as steel-making and ship-building, and more recently in high-end sectors like finance or research and development, China has been using foreign direct investment to build the infrastructure that will eventually allow it to supplant Japan as the major node in the East Asian network. With the support of a vast diaspora, China is regaining its historical place at the center of the East Asian trading system. And it’s doing so along the coastline, in the zones of exchange constituted by an interlocking series of seas.

The distance between the interior and the coast is the distance between a continental system of social control and a maritime network of high-tech production. It’s the distance between the fixity of the land and the fluidity of the sea – the geography of a class divide which has become so great that it threatens to rip China apart. Here we rediscover the scalar tensions that constitute “transnational capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” The geographical divide is now one of the main preoccupations of the Communist party. That’s why they launched the “Go West” campaign in 1999, a drive to attract foreign investment to the interior. The centerpiece of that campaign is the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, and with it, the projected transformation of Chongqing into an industrial colossus that’s supposed to rival Shanghai. This can be seen as a literal attempt to extend the coastal mode of production into the depths of the continental landmass, via the Yangtze river and the hyper-electrified inland sea that is being created by the dam. In that process, anything stable or traditional – any popular identity or “still life,” as Jia Zhangke puts it in his award-winning film – tends to disappear into the flux of the productive network.

What’s presented in Still Life (2007) is the desolation of a landscape that has become purely economic. The transformation is symbolized when the main character, Sanming, has to look at the sketch of the Three Gorges on a ten-yuan note to confirm the beauty, or even the reality, of the mountains in the distance. It’s a classic case of life collapsing into art. What you mostly see in the film, however, is not artistic beauty or its monetary sign, but instead, the ceaseless round of construction, destruction and reconstruction that underlies them, resulting in the devastation of the landscape and those who inhabit it. At the end, after demolishing countless houses whose ruins will be covered by the rising waters of the dam, Sanming leaves to the interior, to work in a coal mine for money to buy back his bride of sixteen years ago who has been indentured into service on the river. But the other women of the story all escape in the opposite direction: Shen Hong, the estranged wife of Sanming’s violent boss; the neighbor woman, who tries to sell him the services of a prostitute; and finally his own elusive daughter, who only appears in a photograph. They all take flight toward the coast, to Guangzhou and Dongguan in the Pearl River Delta, or down the Yangtze to Shanghai.

Jumping into the Sea

You have to wonder: what’s it like to take part in the productive network? How do people internalize all this infrastructure, to become individuals in the contemporary sense – that is, participants in a global process? To describe the experience of leaving socialized security behind, the Chinese of the reform era used the expression “jumping into the sea” (xiahai). After all the studies of neoliberal governmentality, we know what this embrace of entrepreneurial capitalism can mean. As Nikolas Rose explains, it requires people “to conduct themselves with boldness and vigour, to calculate for their own advantage, to drive themselves hard and to accept risks.”16 Similar things hold true in China – but the academics leave out a basic dimension, the splash of the body in the ocean, the shock and pleasure of the new, either because you arrive as a peasant from the country or because the city where you live has changed beyond all recognition. How that transformation feels is the aesthetics of Chinese urbanism.

To get a first taste you can visit the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, an outlandish piece of architecture looking down on People’s Square. It’s got a scale model of the metropolis in the year 2020, with catwalks over the towers of the future. Even better are the interactive exhibits, like a vehicle simulator that lets you drive out the 32.5-kilometer Donghai bridge to the new deepwater port, then turns into a boat when you arrive. The cartographic displays are packed with information and at the same time strangely popular, as though addressing two different publics. A museum like this can serve as a 3-D negotiating table, where transnational elites debate each other’s proposals for urban development. For the VIPs, it’s about calculating the city’s risks and chances, it’s about making the most profitable bid for world-class status in the decade to come. But it’s even more interesting to consider how the museum addresses itself to the newcomers, to the people who will actually have to live and work here. How are they supposed to make the leap to the endlessly transforming universe of Shanghai?

A panoramic video display entitled “Virtual World” invites you to ride and above all to fly through the city, giving you an almost instantaneous introduction to its attractions and facilities, orienting you in a space that is beyond the grasp of ordinary perception, and above all, bringing you up to speed. There is a biopolitical function to this kind of exhibit, and indeed, to all the accelerated, syncopated video displays and computer graphics that one constantly encounters in East Asia. It’s a matter of inserting the body in the new urban sensorium created by advanced production, transportation and consumption technology – science-fiction environments of superhuman scale, which could be totally overwhelming if there were not ways to get used to them, to tame them, to let yourself be energized by them. One recalls the role played by film and photomontage in the process of imagining the mechanized European metropolis, the Großstadt of the early twentieth century; but now it’s digital sense-surround in the Far Eastern megalopolis. And this kind of experience is hardly restricted to museums. In cities where the mirrored skins of skyscrapers morph into immense screens at night, the pulse of neon, and increasingly, of video, becomes a device for the mobilization of millions of people.

How is this mobilization effected? And what is its social significance? Video is the medium used by Yang Zhenzhong, for an ingenious piece called “Spring Story” (2003) carried out with the Shanghai production unit of Siemens Mobile Communications.17 The work is based on the speeches delivered by Deng Xiaoping during his celebrated Southern Excursion in 1992, when the initiator of China’s capitalist turn redefined reform as “the emancipation of the productive forces.” Deng’s verdict of success in the Special Economic Zones of Guangdong province led to the almost immediate opening of Shanghai and other northern cities, and consequently to the installation of thousands of factories and businesses, the employment of millions of people, and the emergence of a consumer economy on the mainland. What Yang did to express this historical transition is to break Deng’s lengthy and complex speech into some 1,500 separate pieces, then film the entire workforce of the Siemens plant as each recites a single phrase, or sometimes even a single word. Each one in isolation from the others, and – by the artist’s own testimony – ignorant or oblivious of the significance of the text, captivated instead by the prospect of appearing on camera, the employees unwittingly collaborate on a supremely unself-conscious portrait of the contemporary division of labor, inside a mobile phone factory which at once symbolizes and effectuates the concrete technological conditions of a flexible, hyperindividualized, “always-on” workforce.

One of the things that this rigorously sustained blurring of faces and subjectivities becomes is a long variation on the virtuoso theme of the “Shanghai haircut,” whose defining characteristic is to never be the same. A distinct personal style now defines the “average” individual, just as it formerly did the artist. But the ultimate enigma for the stylized individual is the overarching power that guides and integrates social cooperation. Through his access to the corporate resources of the Siemens Art Program, Yang was able to choreograph this unlikely performance of Deng’s speech, using a carefully annotated score designed to insure that proper rhythm and intonation were maintained despite the fractional, atomized nature of the actual delivery. One could hardly imagine a more precise metaphor of the contemporary division of labor, in which massively individualized mobility is channeled and orchestrated to fit the needs of those with superior information gathering power and organizational technique. The central question under such a social system is: Who will supply the mobilizing energies to hundreds of millions of free agents? Who will communicate to the communicators?

Outracing the Economy

Here is where the creative industries come in: not the traditional fine arts, nor the modernist cultural industries like cinema and radio, but instead the newly minted and digitized professions that shape the lightweight, complex, ephemeral, ever-changing aesthetic experiences of the hyper-mediated city.18 The professionals who create the advertising, the color schemes, the lighting, the ambiance, the interactive circuits, the interior design, but also the artists and musicians and publics who soak up that light and make those ambiances vibrant and interesting and valuable on the market. Throughout China right now there is a rising buzz around the creative industries, in Beijing as they work for the Games, in Shanghai as they build toward the World Expo, in the Pearl River Delta as they add entire new city centers and cultural facilities to urban production zones trying to upgrade from their former status as the world factory. The interest in this new “new economy” is sustained at the governmental level by a small army of foreign consultants who have come to sell their skills and reinvent themselves in Beijing, and it’s amplified back in the West by professional style magazines like Fast Company, which ran a glitzy special on “China’s New Creative Class” in mid-2007.19 As the name of the magazine would suggest, this kind of culture is produced at high speeds, usually by very young people who can always accelerate to outrace the competition. In that respect it’s like the dot-com boom. As a twenty-five year-old computer programmer confided to labor researcher Andrew Ross: “China is a very crowded world and Shanghai is not a place you can ever relax. Even when I try to relax, I can feel the economy behind me, running up at my back.”20 The art of outracing the economy, of dancing and twirling and glittering just in advance of its leading edges, is what defines the creative industries.

The creative industries discourse (CI) is brand new, since it was only codified by the British cultural ministry’s Creative Industries Task Force in 1998. But it’s also very old, if you date it back to Ronald Reagan’s “Creative Society” speech in the mid-1960s, one of the foundation stones of neoliberal doctrine. During the California state gubernatorial campaign of 1966, Reagan audaciously proposed to replace president Lyndon Johnson’s federal welfare programs with a voluntary mobilization of California’s talented individuals, local governments and innovative businesses. As Hollywood’s Great Communicator explained to the masses: “That is the basis of the Creative Society – government no longer substituting for the people, but recognizing that it cannot possibly match the great potential of the people, and thus, must coordinate the creative energies of the people for the good of the whole.”21 Thirty-two years after that Maoist pronouncement, British culture minister Chris Smith and his functionaries would draw up their famous Creative Industries Mapping Document.22 All they really did was to package and re-export a set of practices that had long characterized the productive hegemony of the USA. Yet they did it at the perfect moment: exactly when digitalization was set to expand the knowledge-based economy from a few advanced OECD countries to the entire world.

CI is both a policy discourse and a promotional rhetoric. It flourishes in financialized economies, driven by speculation on prosumer appetites for aesthetic goods and services. For governments, the aim is to attain higher levels of employment and economic growth, by commodifying and privatizing some of the cultural programs judged necessary for social cohesion. For businesses, it’s a matter of competing in highly profitable sectors where new-style design products, entertainment and IT meet the old-fashioned pay dirt of real-estate. CI has exploded in East Asia since the turn of the millennium. Michael Keane has shown how it emerged as a full-fledged policy discourse in China over a mere two-year period (2004-06). Updating their former emphasis on mass-media spectacles with traditional content, officials now speak of “Cultural and Creative Industries.” The goal is a rise of Chinese products through the global value-chain, from “Made in China” to “Created in China.”23 But the advertising and design professions are also supposed to fuel a surge in the nation’s consumption of its own seemingly boundless productivity – an elusive goal which is considered essential by both the Communist party and American trade representatives.23b The concrete results of all this have been the overnight bloom of “creative clusters” in China’s coastal cities: integrated districts where the multiple arts of human creativity are brought into a theoretically ideal mix on the urban territory.


For a compact example, consider the “1933” project now on the rise in Shanghai: the ambitious remodel of a 31,000 sq. meter Art Deco slaughterhouse, transformed into a creative industries center by a private-public partnership between the Axons Concepts Company and the Hongkou government. Architectural form was the key to this project, whose organizational aim is to bring the creative capacities of the human nervous system up to the scale of the megalopolis:

Inside, the neurological influences are apparent. The five-floor concrete structure is supported by solid “flowering” pillars whose stems open out like petals at the point of contact with the ceiling. The funicular central building is linked to a square outer casing by a striking series of sloping concrete pathways and staircases. “This is the brain of the building,” says [Axons manager Paul] Liu. “You can see the inter-linking effect of these original walkways. We can use that to help carry creative energies throughout the whole structure.”24

Projects like this move fast in China. While still unfinished, the building had already hosted the Shanghai Creative Industries Week, November 15-21, 2007. To attract an elite roster of tenants, it’s advertised as a lifestyle paradise of “restaurants, bars, private clubs and cigar lounges,” with an upscale learning sector focused on self-cultivation: “Bookstores and education spaces will include elements such as drama, yoga, sculpture workshops, calligraphy and painting classes, cooking school, tea ceremony courses and Beijing opera appreciation… 1933 will redefine what it means to be a ‘person in full’ by having all the elements to inspire in one location.”25 But it also aims to be a productive facility, with university partnerships and private corporations generating intellectual property for profit – in short, a ready-made version of the “creative city” condensed into a single urban block. The classic question of whether creativity can be managed and produced doesn’t seem to bother the real-estate developers one whit. After all, there is money to be made in this domain – as a reported $3.8 billion of deals at the 2007 Cultural and Creative Industries Expo in Beijing has proven.26

No one can predict what future subjectivities will emerge from the hothouse of China’s new creativity boom. Access to culture is likely to expand immensely, at least for the professionals and the business elites; and the consequences of that expansion may surprise everyone. Artistic invention has been given an operational role in economic development, fulfilling one of the long-held ambitions of the modernist vanguards. But the willingness of governments to use aesthetics as a form of psycho-engineering – and the efforts that corporations have expended, since the time of Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, in the quest to manipulate their clients’ dreams27 – make the dangers all too obvious. Critical interpretations of the new cultural forms, and of the social and political frames in which they create their effects and meanings, will be crucial in opening the imaginary space where people can gain some kind of relative autonomy, some capacity to be their own steersman. But that critique must reach all the way into the images themselves, it must be transformative. The stakes of these new images are tremendous. When state-capitalist power begins manufacturing your dreams, then art becomes the primary process of politics.

The contemporary visual arts do give clues about ethical/political positions in today’s China. But critique and contradiction aren’t exactly the strong points of the creative economy. Amidst the plethora of opening ceremonies and real-estate deals, the artists themselves are outflanked by the functionaries, the galleries and the museums. In the early 1990s, exiles from the Tiananmen movement began exhibiting around the world, opening up the possibility of markets beyond traditional or social-realist painting. A decade later, when those artists had been taken up as a neutralized elder generation in China itself via the explosion of Biennials and Triennials, the critic and curator Gao Minglu diagnosed the entry into a “museum age.” In such an age, he says, the avant-garde way of making meaning – which consisted in transgressively entering the institutions that claimed to embody the highest values of society, then violently breaking away to show their hollowness and insufficiency – has become practically impossible. The multiplication of spaces acts to blur the hierarchies of value, rendering transgression insignificant. As Gao writes:

Today, Chinese avant-garde or experimental artists have gradually lost the consciousness of space that once defined their identity. Their creative spaces, studios, exhibition spaces, galleries and museums have gradually been integrated into one. The art world in China today can be described as a “triumph of systems.” … The external environment for an avant-garde artist no longer exists since the “wall” between the avant-garde artist and the official system is no longer there.28

The most disorienting confirmation of these ideas comes from a stroll through the dream-like spaces of Factory 798 in Beijing’s Dashanzi District, or of its smaller and somewhat more recent clone, Moganshan Lu in Shanghai – or tomorrow, of the thousand-and-one “art factories” that will flower across China. The boom in these spaces is clearly bound up with real-estate speculation, in markets like Shanghai’s where already-inflated properties are said to have doubled in price over the course of 2006. The difference with San Francisco or London is that it’s less about gentrifying a run-down neighborhood, and more about razing an area as soon as it appears valuable, to put up a high-rise complex for gigantic payoffs. For the time being, however, the state seems to have other plans for the art districts, particularly after the meteoric career of Factory 798 and the apparently successful negotiation by the artists, which saved the area from the wrecking balls at the price of turning it into a tourist attraction and upscale lifestyle destination. To judge from that story – which involved evicting one of the earliest art spaces, the Beijing Architecture Studio Enterprise, and opening a Nike-sponsored “Mr. Shoe Museum” in its place – the Olympic state now wants to use the art districts as vitrines for foreign visitors, in order to dispel the idea that free expression is not tolerated in China. And it undoubtedly wants to use them as laboratories as well, in order to see whether design innovations and profitable new consumer environments will really be invented by these Chinese children of Warhol.


This is not to say that Factory 798 or Moganschan Lu are uninteresting or merely “co-opted” places, far from it. They both represent the kind of cultural infrastructure that makes an artistic gesture or a literary conversation possible, and on that strength they are worth defending. But like it or not, they also bear witness to the capacity of an authoritarian government to control a population by carefully sketching out the open pathways on which it can evolve with apparent freedom. Of course those open pathways have to include some modest critique – which is how the Chinese state is internalizing what currently passes for democracy. When an artist like Liu Bolin sculpts an immense iron fist pressing with all its oppressive weight on the ground, he clearly enacts an anti-authoritarian gesture.29 What’s less clear is where that gesture resonates, what kind of weight it has in the imagination. Fifteen or twenty years ago, such things would not have been tolerated; but they would have had immense symbolic significance. In today’s context of total economic pragmatism no one pays any them mind: the attention is elsewhere, still looking for the perfect fit between the banknote in hand and the beautiful landscape in the distance. What world society cannot find the time or space or concentration to really discuss is the ground we are creating beneath our feet.

Another artist, Liu Wei, has made this missing ground explicit. On June 4, 2005, he took his video camera to Xinhua University in Beijing and asked the passers-by what day it was.30 Most of them simply reply, “June 4th.” When they’re pressed – “But what day is it?” – they avert their gaze and walk swiftly away, covering their faces, shielding themselves from the camera and its questions. What the video shows with painful lucidity is a moment of choked-off speech, so that you literally see the personality of the non-respondent dissolving into the impossibility of saying publicly what everyone knows as an intimate truth: June 4 is the anniversary of the massacre on Tiananmen Square, the birthday of authoritarian neoliberalism.31 After the sequence at the university, Liu Wei goes out to film this ground, its calm, perfect order, without agitation. The historical experience of repression has been internalized as the everyday reality of self-censorship, which remains a palpable force in the lives of an overwhelming majority of the population, including the artists and intellectuals.


Ma Yansong - MAD 2050 Design, Project for Green Tiananmen

Here is where the ideologues of liberal democracy take up their rhetorical positions, in defence of Western freedom. But I don’t propose to join them. A similar, if less dramatic, internalization of repression occurred in the Western societies after 1968, and in the former Soviet bloc in the course of the 1990s. Today it is the economic imperative, not the state, that commands in detail what should or should not be represented by the creative industries. The result has been a gradual neutralization of ethical and political speech. This gap at the heart of self-expression is now being exported across the earth. What’s missing in all our societies are the psychic and social resources for resistance to the present.

Floating Cities

The journey ends, not in Shenzhen where the reforms began, but somewhere else, in a floating city. Shiny gold letters flash up on the screen and the music starts playing, repetitious and optimistic, like a lilting Chinese lute plugged into a rhythm box. The first thing you see against the brilliant red ground is a tiny drum kit shrinking rapidly out of sight; but already the viewpoint has receded, the ground becomes a bright red flag cradling a sharp-pointed yellow star – and there’s a panda hovering up in the sky, a Mao-statue foundering out at sea and an over-sized plastic hardhat set down on a bustling ring road. A bicycle wheel spins, a patterned fish flops out of a techno-blue cascade, a city bus circles round in the air and the iconic CCTV building dangles crazily from a crane, high above a rotating mass of skyscrapers looking for all the world like a virtual Hong Kong. A smokestack belches flame at the summit until finally it explodes, billowing smoke and swirling ruins, while the mountain of buildings goes on spinning round and round with the music, and a shopping cart full of buildings and a leftover Buddha never quite finishes sinking into the rippling ocean. The title of this looping video is “RMB City: A Second Life City Planning by Tracy China.” It’s a promotional clip for a 3-D fiction yet to come.32

RMB is, of course, the abbreviation of the Chinese currency, the people’s money or renminbi; and Tracy China is the Second-Life avatar of Cao Fei, busily rendering all enduring clichés of her country into the synthetic landscapes of the latest global village. The video captures the inexorable economic unreality of contemporary China, in a satirical computer-graphics form that evokes both the neon-drenched arcades of Shenzhen, and the endless streams of finance transiting through Hong Kong to the mainland. What better symbol of the future than the dreamland of Second Life, for a country that has gone in a single generation from the extremes of popular socialism to the extremes of popular capitalism?

The paradox of the Chinese development model is written in sheet metal and electric pylons all across the Pearl River Delta. Debt-financed spending by Western households has encouraged foreign investors to build a sprawling factory landscape producing low-end consumer goods that the mass of the local population can still barely afford to purchase. The peasants who work at the plants are crying for better pay, a decent meal on the table and maybe even the right to go shopping – which would ultimately require a higher exchange rate for the RMB and a chance to bring home some of the profit that all this manufacturing has generated. But a rise in the standard of living means the inflation of average wages and the end of the China Price, choking off the export-driven mode of development that has brought so many millions from the country to the city. How to shift to another economy, where the fruits of labor are redistributed internally? How to invent another industry, where the price of progress is not deadly pollution? Here is the riddle that the country’s elites have tried so hard not to answer. The collapse of home equity values and the consequent halt to the credit-card spree in Anglo-Saxon lands has finally opened up the question of the Asian transition, whose answer will give concrete forms to the twenty-first century.

Rem Koolhaas and his Harvard research team first brought news of the Pearl River Delta to the creative classes of the West in the mid-1990s, amid the early stirrings of the new economy. Pasted up on the walls at Documenta X in 1997, texts and images from the PRD promised a new mode of critical research into the transformations of the world system.33 But the global technocracy just goes on recycling the old love-hate relations of the bourgeoisie and its avant-gardes. Today the radical Koolhaas is building not only the Beijing headquarters of China’s CCTV broadcasting conglomerate – the central Communist party control institution – but also the Shenzhen stock exchange, to inflame the investor appetites of the coastal classes. Meanwhile his partner Bruce Mau promotes the spectacular fiction of “massive change” by means of graphic design, without any curb on the ecology of infinite competition.34 If you want to understand the reality of the Pearl River Delta, the concise texts and images of Adrian Blackwell and Xu Jian could be a lot more useful. They diagram the structures of a camp-like “factory territory” based on land leased by village collectives to industrialists, and on dormitories built by individuals to extract rent from migrant workers.35 Following their indications, I traveled to the village of Houting in the Shajing District of Shenzhen. The neoliberal formula of massive change by individual and small-group initiative has functioned perfectly in Southern China. What results is the banality of ordinary sprawl: modern apartments crowded tightly around a decaying village core; austere collective blocks inside the industrial perimeter; simpler factories with guards sleeping at the gate; residual traces of an agricultural life that has vanished into the concrete. As usual, the labor process itself remains completely invisible. The walls that Gao Minglu no longer sees between the artist and the system have sprung up everywhere.


In 1995, the Guangzhou artist Lin Yilin did a performance entitled “Safely Maneuvering Across Lin He Road.” The video shows him sheltering from the onrushing traffic behind a temporary wall of breeze blocks, which he displaces brick by brick to make the crossing.36 The scene takes on an incredibly vivid meaning when you see the tremendous sprawl of the southern cities, choked with traffic and polluted, bordering on insanity, but at the same time, gleaming with refinement and luxury. The work could be a metaphor of an entire society moving ahead beneath a shield of overdevelopment that is about to become life-threatening, but that remains the only game in town – the one you’ve got to play to be part of anything. There is a wild lucidity to the best of Chinese art, which asks for a response, for a dialogue, for a critical engagement with the present. As Lin writes on his website, “The rapidly popular art market also brings the trial to the artists. Chinese contemporary artists take the risk to change their isolated status, suddenly to become brand name stars. If Chinese contemporary art cannot develop a particular theory, then ultimately [it will] only be expensive craftwork for this period of history.”37 But Chinese artists are not alone in this reluctance or refusal to develop a theory of their role in world society.

Cao Fei is also from the Pearl River Delta. “RMB City” bears witness to the wild humor and deep disbelief of people who know how easily the dream of contemporary China could disappear into the maw of some unforeseen crisis. What you don’t see in the virtual city is what everyone who lives there knows: the wasted landscapes, the choked horizons, the pollution lying black and sticky on the shore. What you don’t see are the labor revolts, the “mass incidents,” the migrant workers billeted on the peripheries. What you don’t see are the wildly swinging real-estate prices, the continual financial turmoil awaiting a full-fledged crash, or the dependent relations with Americans as consumers of last resort, absorbing floods of products that China itself now pays for by investments in Treasury Bonds looking more worthless every minute. What you don’t see is what everybody knows, what everybody feels in the ground beneath their feet, what nobody can put into an image. The incalculable risk of the twenty-first century. The infinite uncertainty of global individualism.




Thanks to all the people who extended their hospitality, insight and support, including Stephen Wright, Ned Rossiter, Gao Minglu, Adrian Blackwell, the Urban China editors, the Walking Cities project, Yang Zhenzhong, Howard Chan, the people at Vitamin Creative Space, Luca Martinazzoli, Anselm Franke, so many others, your help was essential.

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