Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Creative Industries in Beijing: Initial Thoughts
Ned Rossiter on Sun, 9 Oct 2005 16:02:54 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Creative Industries in Beijing: Initial Thoughts

[this brief report has been written for Leonardo magazine and the ISEA'06 Latin
American-Pacific/Asia New Media Initiative, http:// isea2006.sjsu.edu/prnms.html]

'Creative Industries in Beijing: Initial Thoughts'

Ned Rossiter

During a teaching stint at Tsinghua University in May this year, and then
following the trans-Siberian conference organised by Ephemera Journal in
September, I started preliminary research on creative industries in Beijing. What
follows is a brief report on my experiences, perceptions and meetings in Beijing.
My interest is to discern the constellation of forces that might be taken into
consideration in future analyses as the research project develops.  I should also
state that this brief overview of Beijing's creative industries is part of a
collaborative project that undertakes a comparative study of international
creative industries.  The research seeks to go beyond economistic interpretations
of creative industries by focussing on inter-relations and scalar tensions between
geo- politics and trans-local, global cultural flows as they manifest around
issues such as labour conditions, IPRs, social-technical networks and cultural

 46rom the start, there are many factors and variables that make it questionable
to even invoke the term "creative industries" in the Chinese context. Such
complications amount to a problematic in translation of the creative industries
concept.  For the most part, there is little variation at a policy level as
governments internationally incorporate the basic ingredients of creative
industries rhetoric (clusters, mapping documents, value-chains, creative cities,
co-productions, urban renewal, knowledge economies, self-entrepreneurs, etc.) into
their portfolio of initiatives that seek to extract economic value from the
production of cultural content and provision of services. This would suggest that
creative industries, as a policy concept, is divorced from the materialities that
compose cultural economies as distinct formations in national and metropolitan

Yet even an overview as cursory as the one I set out here, it's clear that there
is vibrant activity and energy going on across a range of cultural sectors in
Beijing. One of the most notable is the Dashanzi Art District, situated in the
outer limits of the city, not far from the airport expressway.  Designed by
Bauhaus architects from the GDR in the 1950s as an electronics factory for the
military, 798 Space has emerged over the past few years as the scene of
avant-garde, experimental work. Adjacent galleries, performance spaces, fashion
and design outlets, bookshops, cafes, studios and artist's residencies provide the
requisite signals of a cultural complex that is often compared to the high moments
of New York's Soho.

While Dashanzi is very much a space under construction and inseparable from both
its history as a military electronics factory and contemporary art cultures
peculiar to Beijing, there is nonetheless a strong sense of familiarity - it's
hard not to associate Dashanzi with the phenomenon of high cultural tourism and
cultural precincts common now in many global cities. Such a perception is
reinforced in terms of the economic geography of the area: real estate speculation
and expensive apartment development have played a shaping force in the past few
years, with artist's rents escalating and plans by government and the landowner
Seven-Star Group to demolish the factory site and establish a high-tech
development zone.

According to newspaper reports and the Wikipedia entry on Dashanzi, such a
development would enable re-employment of some of the 10,000 laid-off workers that
Seven-Star Group is responsible for. Should these plans go ahead, there may well
be construction and basic servicing work available for some, but it is hard to see
the possibility of long term employment for these workers - some of whom are still
working in a few small factories that continue to operate on the site. The
proposal for the high-tech zone is modelled on Beijing's so-called Silicon Valley
in Zhongguancun, which is located near the prestigious Tsinghua and Peking
universities. Tsinghua University in particular has strong R&D links with this
high-tech investment zone, and make the privatisation and R&D efforts by
Australia's elite universities notably underwhelming at the level of
infrastructure and pace of development. Whether or not such developments in
Beijing and other Chinese mega-cities are able to become profit-generating
innovation machines is another matter. Or perhaps it's enough to be in the
business of providing high-skill services across a range of geo-economic scales
rather than expect content to be king. In any case, the business model for the
majority of new media content production in Western economies remains haphazard at

Over the past five years, Zhongguancun has transformed from a modest residential
area to a high-tech commercial zone (albeit one that also accommodates numerous
stores selling pirate dvd's and cheap electronic and computer products), driving
out many of the previous residents due to the escalation of property values and
demolition of their homes. If a similar development were to occur in Dashanzi
district, the mixed composition of its current demographic would inevitably be
affected, making the prospect of re-employing factory workers even more
unrealistic - to think these workers might have the necessary skills for
employment in a high-tech zone is another factor that makes re-employment on a
substantial scale unlikely.

It would seem to me, however, that the future of Dashanzi as an art district is
gaining greater purchase on decision makers. The site has been host to numerous
events associated with the 2003 and 2005 Beijing Biennales and there is no sign
that refurbishment of the old factory buildings has been put on hold, despite
reports that the landowners have put a freeze on new rents and limited renewal of
rents until the end of 2005. Amidst such uncertainties, one gets the strong
impression that Dashanzi Art District will be around for a while yet. In the
meantime, surrounding real estate continues to enjoy a speculative economy and
high profile companies such as Sony, Christian Dior, Omega and Toyota launch
events in the 798 Space - chosen as a venue for its industrial chic and upwardly
mobile clientele, and, it could be added, its correspondence with a sort of
standardised global cosmopolitanism.

An analysis that goes beyond the type of descriptions set out above would need to
look into the inter-relations between Seven-Star Group, property developers
surrounding the Dashanzi Art District, government cultural development officials,
the political stakes of under- and re- employment of artists and factory workers,
and the role of artist's agencies or representatives in developing 'promotional
cultures' that articulate with international events such as 2008 Olympics. Such a
study amounts to a political-economic anthropology of cultural *guanxi* (special
relations or social connections/networks).

Further complications arise for comparative analyses due to the dominant
association of creative industries with countries undergoing the passage of
neoliberal capitalism over the past 15-30 years. The national experience of
neoliberalism is not limited to the usual suspects of Western liberal democracies,
however. As the role of NGO's in structural adjustment programs in African
countries has demonstrated, neoliberalism - like capitalism - is not singular in
any universal sense, but rather universal in its singular manifestations. Similar
efforts of extra-national control by foreign capital coupled with political
pressure to instigate a 'leapfrogging of modernity' can be seen more recently in
Iraq. In theory, such mechanisms of leapfrogging aspire to a direct shift of
developing economies into a neoliberal paradigm of privatisation and outsourcing
that bypasses the meddling influence of civil society and the state, to say
nothing of the political traction wielded by the formation of citizen-subjects.
Even the form of de facto structural adjustment that accompanies aid relief
efforts for Tsunami affected countries could be added to a taxonomy of
neoliberalism and the variegated modulations of global capital.

What, then, does all this mean for the creative industries model when it is
located in countries pursuing authoritarian, state controlled or socialist forms
of capitalism? First, it shows that while there is a distinctive homogeneity in
the way creative industries travels internationally as a policy discourse, the
material, economic and cultural diversity of neoliberal capitalism - its
amenability and adaptive capacities to national modulations - enables creative
industry style developments to translate in ways that seem improbable if analysis
focuses exclusively at the level of policy reproduction.  Second, it reinforces
the need to understand the variable and uneven dynamics of global capitalism,
whose indices would include the movement of cultural commodities, labour and
ideas. Here it is necessary to analyse the constitutive power of intra-regional,
international macro structural and trans-local micro-political forces.

One instantiation of such macro-micro inter-relations can be seen in China's
accession to the WTO in 2001 and its subsequent need to comply in a more formal
manner with intellectual property regimes.  Such a move signals an incorporation
of innovative economies into the predominantly manufacturing based economy
generally assumed of China. 

This is where non-governmental organisations such as the Created in China
Industrial Alliance (CCIA) take on important roles as cultural intermediaries.
Toward the end of a wide-ranging and fascinating interview with Su Tong, Executive
Director of Secretariat of CCIA, we hit on a core definition of the organisation:
CCIA can best be understood as concept translators. This struck me as a decisive
way of comprehending the complex environment and sophisticated set of principles
that enables CCIA to operate across a spectrum of scales, from high level
government endorsed projects involving the promotion of Chinese culture during the
Olympics to publishing adaptations of fashion and computing magazines held under
license by foreign companies.

There has been a growing view in creative industries critique emanating from
Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Europe, and the UK that a privileging of creative
production in terms of its potential economic value obtained through IPRs
overlooks more fundamental factors such as class tensions and the precarious
condition of labour and life for those involved in the creative industries. By
contrast, CCIA considers IP compliance as key to securing a sustainable future in
a global market for creative industries in China, and does not consider creative
industries as exclusive to metropolitan centres and elite cultural sector
interests. By way of example, Su Tong highlighted the importance of regional
craftspeople skilled in traditional ceramics whose unique designs are illustrative
of IP generation special to regional cultural traditions that are developing entry
points into international markets. Su Tong acknowledged the contradiction between
IP compliance as a condition set out by government and supranational trade
agreements on the one hand, and the necessity for cultural production to retain a
capacity to be shared and open in order to make possible the creation of new forms
and ideas. Certainly such a tension is not special to China, but can nonetheless
be understood as symptomatic of the current state of play vis-E0-vis China's
situation within international policy and economic fora, to say nothing of the
difficult terrain for organisations like CCIA that need to be delicate in the
manner in which they negotiate such complexities in order retain the relative
autonomy and multi-scale engagements with cultural, business and government

The brevity of this report can only provide the barest of detail on the creative
industries in Beijing in recent times, and its level of analysis is akin to the
gesture of a cultural tourist passing through. Even so, I hope to have conveyed
some insight into a few of the prevailing trends and issues defining the cultural
sector in Beijing. The scope of research required to develop this project further
is contingent on developing collaborative relations with a range of actors across
the cultural, political and academic sectors.


Thanks to Michael Keane for kindly sharing his research material on 
China's creative industries, and for opening up the possibility to 
meet with Su Tong and CCIA.  And thanks to Du Ping for her excellent 
translation skills during that meeting.

Related Reading

Berghuis, Thomas J. 'Considering Huanjing: Positioning Experimental 
Art in China', positions: east asia cultures critique 12.3 (2004): 

Created in China Industrial Alliance, http://www.ccia.net.cn/

Keane, Michael. 'Brave New World: Understanding China's Creative 
Vision', International Journal of Cultural Policy 10.3 (2004): 265-279

Keane, Michael. 'Once were Peripheral: Creating Media Capacity in 
East Asia', Media, Culture & Society (forthcoming).

Space 798, http://www.798space.com/

Wang, Jing. 'Culture as Leisure and Culture as Capital', positions: 
east asia cultures critique 9.1 (2001): 69-104.

Wang, Jing. 'The Global Reach of a New Discourse: How Far can 
"Creative Industries" Travel?', International Journal of Cultural 
Studies 7.1 (2004): 9-19.

Wang, Hui. 'The Year 1989 and the Historical Roots of Neoliberalism 
in China', positions: east asia cultures critique 12.1 (2004): 7-69.

Wikipedia entry on Dashanzi Art District, http://en.wikipedia.org/

Zhiyuan, Cui. 'Liberal Socialism and the Future of China: A Petty 
Bourgeoisie Manifesto', in Tian Yu Cao (ed.) The Chinese Model of 
Modern Development (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 157-174.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net