John Howkins is the author of ‘The Creative Economy’
Beijing and Shanghai are like New York and Chicago in the 1890s: excitable, rumbustious and slightly crazy. Fortunes are made and lost quickly. Local government officials are deeply involved in property and business. The families and companies that succeed become the new aristocracy.
The Europeans looked at emerging America and found it slightly vulgar. They did not like the way art mixed with business. I suspect many feel the same about China. They say Chinese creativity is an oxymoron. They believe the country lacks the west’s bravura and risk-taking. They dismiss it as a nation of copiers.
But walk the streets, or check the output figures, and you see Chinese creativity on the march. Once reliant on low-cost manufacturing, China is now catching attention for its art, design, digital media and fashion.I estimate that 10 times more fashion stores opened in Shanghai than in New York last year. BK Design, a womenswear shop in Wuxi city, Jiangsu province, could hold its own in Brooklyn. The most expensive fashion store to open in London last year – at a cost of £30m – was China’s Bosideng.
Tencent – the Hong Kong-listed company that is one of China’s top three internet groups – is ingenious in catering to China’s 600m netizens, twice as many as live in America. Sales at Jack Ma’s online retailer Alibaba exceed those of Amazon and eBay combined. Mr Ma is planning an initial public offering in New York; the valuation is likely to exceed that of Facebook, partly because Alibaba offers a wider range of mobile services.A surprising fact about China’s creative industries is the extent of private initiatives. Those fashion stores are all private. Most creative start-ups receive less state support than their equivalents in the west.
The complaint that the Chinese are a nation of copiers is half-true. They are astonishing copiers. They copy for the same reasons and with the same skill as did the British, Germans, French and Americans when they industrialised. Copying is often the best way to learn. In the 20th century, Europe and America went on to produce the greatest art, literature and design, and China may well do the same this century.
Yet anyone who uses Tencent’s WeChat messaging app or sees the Pritzker Prize-winning Wang Shu’s Art Academy in Hangzhou and says everything is copied is just not looking. It is true the Chinese tend to copy more than the west thinks polite or legal. One Chongqing company allegedly copied a whole complex by architect Zaha Hadid. This is reprehensible – but again, the west should remember its own history. Architects from London to Washington happily copied Palladio.
In my experience, while Beijing imposes shackles in some sectors, creativity and innovation are as highly valued in China as elsewhere. But the west’s scepticism means opportunities are being missed. Beijing knows it must import new thinking to manage the biggest building boom in history. Prime Minister Li Keqiang says the way China manages its cities will determine both quality of life and economic resilience. China needs masterplanners, urban transport specialists, “smart city” designers, landscape architects, low-energy engineers and interior designers. The west has a good record here. But last month’s meeting on creative cities led by Mr Li and Europe’s José Manuel Barroso was disappointingly short of Europeans with new ideas.
It is the same in film. James Cameron, the film director who used motion capture to make Avatar, is working with a new studio complex in the city of Tianjin, outside Beijing, on his next movie. I have asked several western motion-capture companies if they are interested in China; none has made the move.
The companies that move in successfully have four principles. They focus on areas where they have a clear advantage. They open an office – preferably a big one, since the Chinese are impressed by size. They know how to mix their own skills with local talent.
And they visit as much as possible because business in China is based on personal relationships, just like the US in the 1890s. Like America, China is experimenting with individual freedoms, the role of the state, the nature of risk and the kind of society that results. It is a conversation worth having, and working together in a creative business is the best place to start.