Why China wants creativity

12 Mar 2009

What does the "creative economy" mean in China and how might it be developed, asks MICHAEL KEANE

VIEWERS of the Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony on the evening of 8 August 2008 witnessed the most impressively coordinated launch of any major global event. Superbly choreographed by the film director Zhang Yimou, the spectacle was filled with colour, symbolic meaning and historical references.

While the synchronised presentation of the 2008 Confucian drummers might have reinforced a stereotype of socialist compliance for many, the digitised scroll on which China's historical achievements were performed was sublimely imaginative.

Contrary to most international perceptions of China's staged propaganda events, this installation was not the outcome of a cultural committee, but a concept created by a local digital media company called Crystal Stone. Founded in 1995 by three people working in architectural design imaging, Crystal Stone now employs 2200.

Crystal Stone operated ten digital video displays at the Olympics, in the process establishing its own Olympic record in the category of longest duration of display, the biggest video screen, and the largest quantity of data with the most 3D and digital special effects. In identifying the importance of creative skills in digital content applications, Crystal Stone has been able to use 3D imaging to broaden their market base.

The company's success on the largest international stage possible has in turn stimulated the development of a new industry ecosystem. The use of 3-D digital imaging technology in the Beijing Olympics has led to innovation in Chinese media industries. For instance, 3-D digital technology is now familiar in many epic history documentaries produced for China Central Television. Building on its technological assets and its human capital, Crystal Stone has moved into video animation production through a joint capital investment with the computer giant Lenovo.

Creativity is not just about the individual

Journalistic accounts of China's urban transformations often follow a standard script. A writer living in a Chinese city conducts a vox pop, encounters a few bohemian artists and chances on urban youth culture. The author shares common experiences of international consumer tastes, and presents an account of the new Chinese individualism.

These descriptions, however, usually miss the bigger picture. Chinese cities have always been places of diversity, although this is not so apparent to the eyes of foreigners accustomed to recognising stereotypes.

According to Chen Guanzhong, the author of Bohemian China (2004), Beijing's complex non-conformity dates back hundreds of years. Its geographical closeness to Mongolia and the former Manchuria (the region now collectively termed Dongbei) has resulted in a hybrid sensibility.

However, in recent years, it is becoming clear that signs of tolerance have extended. Chen says: "whether you have long hair or a shaved head, whether you wear well-fitting clothes or clothes whose style and colour don't match, in public Beijing people are indifferent." He also adds, "Beijing is ‘cool', like New York: you can praise or deride Beijingers. They just don't care."

In the years leading up to the Beijing Games, China experienced the beginnings of a creative renaissance. Thousands of cultural and creative parks, zones, precincts corridors and bases were commissioned, giving a material face to what China's leaders now term "cultural soft power" and "cultural creative industries."

The Beijing Games allowed the construction of a number of iconic design spectacles: the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium, the Water Cube swimming complex, and the new China Central TV towers (now close to completion).

Beijing had its Games in 2008. Now Shanghai is looking with anticipation to the 2010 World Expo. The point to note, however, is that city governments all over China are now realising the value of the creative economy.

The view from the margins

The architectural "curator" of the Bird's Nest Stadium, Ai Weiwei, is an entrepreneur with the kind of creative latitude that international designers can only dream about. Ai Weiwei has been able to exploit his success by openly voicing opinions about China's need to move towards a more creative society.

Ai's most recent "urban installation," the ORDOS100 Project in Inner Mongolia, has raised the bar. In early 2008, 100 international architects from 27 different countries were invited to the desert city of Ordos, eighty minutes flying time west of Beijing, to each design a 1000 square metre villa.

The Ordos Cultural Creative Industry Park, the epicentre of this project, is already a test bed for creative experimentation in China. Bert de Muynck, a Beijing-based writer who has followed this development, says the use of the term "unprecedented" is often a blind and uncritical epithet for a country in the throes of change. He believes the ORDOS100 project is beginning to suggest that unprecedented is almost meaningless.

The project is bankrolled by Chinese millionaire Cai Jiang who provides the resources from two of his companies, Jiangyuan Cultural and Creative Industrial Development Ltd and Jiang Yuan Water Engineering Ltd. According to de Muynck, Cai says: "We give the architects the freedom to design whatever they want, so they can put all their ideas into their work. If there happens to be a difference between the designs and the Chinese regulations, we will do something to make the balance and try our best to make it better."

It is ironic that an artist can be more creative in China than in the West. Of course, there are well known limits to the subject matter. What is clear, however, is that the economic value of creativity is moving China closer to greater tolerance.

Creativity is changing China

"They eat the meat and we have the bone; they eat the rice and we have the husk." According to Li Wuwei, the author of a new book, Creative Industries are Changing China, these are the sentiments of many Chinese.

Li is referring to the Made in China phenomenon, the economic dominance of Chinese factories. He calls these "sweat industries," and he criticises the fact that the profits from these kinds of industries usually go overseas. For Li is time to change China's development model.

If these were the musings of an iconoclast, perhaps even a person like Ai Weiwei, they may be regarded with some degree of ambivalence. However, Professor Li Wuwei from the Shanghai Academy of Social Science is no small player. Li is the vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang Revolutionary Committee.

Li Wuwei believes that China's economic success is no longer limited to attracting foreign enterprises and capital through favourable policies, constructing large-scale industrial precincts, and promoting science and technology. The secret lies in the diversion of attention from "material" to "people," and the construction of what he calls a "creative community."

For many observers of China the important question here is the term creative community. Just what does this mean and how might it be developed? For Li, this is closely linked with Richard Florida's declaration in The Rise of the Creative Class that cities need a balance of technology, talent and tolerance.

Florida attracted much attention by suggesting that the number of bohemians added to a city's creative index. Unsurprisingly, with his emphasis on tolerance, many of China's senior cultural policy makers were reluctant to subscribe to Florida's formula.

However, Li's perceptive interpretation of Florida and his ability to take Ministry of Culture slogans such as "soft power" and "autonomous innovation" and give them credibility in the world of business has a lot to do with his growing influence. Moreover, his vision of a more creative China sits well with Hu Jintao's prescription for a "harmonious society."

Significantly, it was a report from the Development Research Centre of the State Council in December 2008 that provides the link. The report proposed that China needed to adjust its product structure; in doing this, it needed to encourage enterprises to make more high-value added products rather than continue to rely on cheap labour reserves. •

• Li Wuwei's book was published in December 2008.

Michael Keane is a Centre Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. His most recent book is Created in China: the Great New Leap Forward (Routledge 2007).

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