Making Cultural Cities in China: Policy Mobility, Assemblage and Mutations

Project: Research

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In an increasingly globalizing world, many ideas, innovations, and best practices derived from the West have flocked into Chinese cities without much critical assessment of their contextual appropriateness and consequences. “Building cultural/creative cities” is one such example. However, such occurrences in Chinese cities linked to the global network have only recently been taken up for examination, , not to mention a critical evaluation.One example is the high-profile “Creative Cities Network” established by UNESCO. Chinese cities have not been left behind in this global trend. Shenzhen was appointed to the network and given the title of “City of Design” in 2010, becoming the first Chinese city to earn such as accolade. Shanghai and Beijing followed suit in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Although Beijing evidently outperforms the other two cities in terms of the number and diversity of its avant-garde bohemians (whose works are considered essential items in any auctions), one may argue that policymakers in Shenzhen and Shanghai have been more proactive than their Beijing counterparts in connecting with the global network. Other Chinese cities are following this lead by pursuing cultural and creative identities. Unlike Beijing, however, many of them lack bohemians and they have, therefore, rushed into a desperate exploration and appropriation of niche culture. They compete to become hometowns for renowned figures, cradles for literary schools, or even venues of legendary events. Creative industrial parks designed under a wide range of themes are being constructed everywhere. Amid all these efforts, trans-local organizations have emerged, organizing forums where policymakers in cities learn from international consultants and from each other. While foreign ‘innovations’ are introduced into China, domestic “Best Practices” are also branded for promotion overseas in the national campaign of “Going Broad.”The scholarly questions that will be addressed in this research include: How the idea of cultural city travels among the rhizomatic networks, and how the global idea and local forces encounter and form the local assemblage of a cultural city. This research aims to critically investigate the mobility of the cultural city discourse and its territorialization into the local contexts of Chinese cities in the global network. In other words, this study explores how the mobile idea of cultural and creative cities, derived from advanced economies in late capitalism, has been channeled to and territorialized in Chinese cities, and how the mutated or reinvented versions, considered not only as an output but also as a narrative force to construct and legitimize respective social interests, are branded and, perhaps, exported.This study positions Shanghai and Shenzhen, two “Cities of Design” in the UNESCO Creative City Network, in one single analytical framework to explore the circulation, in which ideas travel, mutate, and embed. Using assemblage as methodology, the framework of this research attempts to acknowledge the mobility of ideas, policies, and actors while stressing the importance of politics in the processes of mobilization and territorialization. It is also an attempt to treat equally both discursive and material elements. Adopting the Extended Case Method, this study will follow the policy through cumulative multisite ethnographic investigations of selected cultural clusters in the two cities.Upon completion, this study aims to: (i) generate empirical knowledge on cultural cities production in Chinese cities in the global network; and (ii) develop a critical understanding of the role of ideological and political construction that underlie the urban process, helping to shed light on the unique processes of urban dynamics in Chinese cities. Based on an empirical study of Chinese cities, the proposed research is expected to contribute to the methodological attempt to integrate “assemblage” with critical urban studies, and to inform the new mode of theorizing urbanism from below.


Project number9041973
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/12/132/11/17