China Turns To Cultural Districts To Nurture Soft Power

Researcher Says 20 Cultural Districts Being Constructed In Beijing, 40+ In Shanghai, 50+ In Nanjing

The Songjiang art district is only one of dozens of newer cultural districts to appear in China over the past twenty years

The Songjiang art district is only one of dozens of newer cultural districts to appear in China in recent decades

Many visitors to China’s major cities are familiar with the so-called “cultural districts” that have sprung up there over the past 30 years, from Dashanzi in Beijing to Songjiang in Shanghai and others in cities like Nanjing, Chengdu, Xi’an, Wuhan and Changsha. Recognizing the importance of a strong cultural sector in projecting China’s “soft power” outside the country, Chinese officials have begun to more actively foster the construction of more of these creative districts where once they saw them as an unwelcome nuisance.

Though many have noted that government tolerance of cultural districts remains shaky at best, and crackdowns in the name of zoning restrictions are still commonplace, China’s more innovative artists have shown over the years that they’re more than willing to move on to another part of town and start from scratch.  However, with government involvement in the dozens of new cultural districts currently being constructed in cities like Shanghai and Nanjing — not even counting the “unofficial” districts popping up in far-flung places like Yunnan — it is clear that China’s cultural officials have noticed the importance of a healthy creative sector in promoting Chinese soft power.

What will happen, and what will be produced, in these new cultural districts will be anyone’s guess at this point, but as a China Daily article notes, they are mainly designed to emulate the success of Beijing’s 798 and help China take a larger slice of global cultural “market share,” an objective that has already spilled over into other areas like filmmaking and television:

“The creative industry has been developed for less than 10 years in China, but at a really fast pace,” says Wang, who is a consultant to Beijing municipal government on creative industry zones.

“Take 798 art district for example, it is mature and has developed into more than just an art area,” Wang says.

“You can watch movies, have dinner and coffee as well as visit galleries. The new creative industry zones take 798 as a model and go further with other functions,” like tourism.

This brings opportunities for investors and stimulates consumption, Wang says, particularly for small- and medium-sized enterprises.

She says development of the culture industry will boost the country’s soft power and the country’s market share in the global cultural industry.

“The government wants to use the platform to attract visitors from home and abroad to propel cultural economic development,” Wang says.

These moves — and the China Daily article — echo China’s broader “PR” strategy of promoting culture rather than making (much) noise about politics. As writers from James Fallows to Joshua Kurlantzick and Susan Shirk (and Chinese authors like Xu Ruiheng, Zheng Guangkui, and Liu Weibing) have pointed out, although China’s soft power has increased in sophistication, volume and influence along with its economy, much of China’s so-called “charm offensive” has failed or fallen flat because of a misreading of foreign perceptions and interests (or a myriad of other reasons both deserved and undeserved).

Earlier this month, the Toronto Star’s Murray Whyte detailed how the government has turned more to contemporary art and fashion and the performing arts as the future of Chinese soft power. While older forms of cultural projection such as “panda diplomacy” and sports, or “ping pong,” diplomacy, continue, art-as-soft-power is still a relatively new area of focus for Beijing officials:

Splashy showings on the international art auction circuit have been fruitful not just for the upper echelon of Chinese artists, but also for the government itself. The rising prominence of artists such as [top contemporary artist Yue Minjun] suggests to the world an unofficial reconciliation with a dark recent history, and an openness to quiet forms of dissent.

Look past that glossy surface, though, and a carefully calibrated gambit is playing out that links cultural production with economic development and the ruling party’s deep desire to shift from a service-first manufacturing centre to a serious, full-fledged player on the international stage.

There’s a term for it: Soft power. It’s defined as “the ability of a political body to get what it wants through cultural or ideological attraction.” Practically, in modern China, soft power translates to a full-scale public relations campaign designed to bolster its image – and influence – by selling an in-tune, culturally savvy version of itself to the world.

Whether the new cultural districts achieve — in some part — their stated goal of helping make outside perceptions of China more favorable will remain to be seen. But clearly, China’s cultural engineers have their work cut out for them. By turning attention to, and nurturing, the arts by promoting the construction of these districts along with the country’s museum and art education infrastructure, however, Beijing is undoubtedly doing more on a public level than it has in the past to develop a form of cultural and artistic soft power that should be perceived as less heavy-handed and easier to digest than large-scale, flashy demonstrations like those created for the Beijing Olympics.


Art & Design, Market Analysis