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Making cultural cities in China: Policy mobility, assemblage and mutations
Policy mobility is a strand of studies that explore the emerging geography of governance in an increasingly globalizing world. The proposed study is based on the premise that the cultural/creative city is a mobile concept that travels across different decision-making fields and is territorialized in local political and economic contexts. Being an attempt to study Chinese cities’ endeavor of cultural city making in the global network, this study positions Shanghai and Shenzhen, two “Cities of Design” included in the UNESCO Creative City Network, in a single framework for a comparative analysis. The proposed research will explore the question of how the mobile idea of cultural/creative cities, derived from advanced economies in late capitalism, has been channeled to and territorialized in Chinese cities, and how the mutated or re-invented versions have been institutionalized, branded and, perhaps, exported. Deploying assemblage as methodology, the research framework attempts to be equally sensitive to the role of relational and territorial geographies as well as discursive and material dimensions in the ideological and political construction of cultural cities.

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. “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.

First of all, empirical studies on Chinese cities are few and apart. They are usually confined to Beijing; and most of them treat cities as isolated sites. The fact is that cultural city building has been pursued by scores of ordinary Chinese cities, which, unlike Beijing, lack an army of bohemian population and, they have therefore rushed into a desperate exploration and appropriation of niche culture. Cities 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. In this endeavor, the locals do not work by themselves, but frequently meet at conferences or forums organized by trans-local organizations that have emerged in the past several years. While foreign “innovations” are introduced into China; domestic “Best Practices” are also branded for international promotion in the national campaign of “Going abroad.” Secondly, empirical studies on Asia cities have revealed inconvenient truths, which are by no means non-existent in China. For instance, politicians have appropriated creative city campaigns to enhance their political popularity (Lee and Hwang, 2012). Instead of developing a new economy, culture or creativity is deployed to boost the land market, which is frequently accompanied by gentrification (Kong, 2007, Cho, 2010). In this light, Chinese cities in competition of building a cultural city require a critical evaluation in the global network.

Being an attempt to study Chinese cities’ endeavor of cultural city making in the global network, this study positions Shanghai and Shenzhen, two “Cities of Design” included in the UNESCO Creative City Network, in a single framework for a comparative analysis. The proposed research will explore the question of how the mobile idea of cultural/creative cities, derived from advanced economies in late capitalism, has been channeled to and territorialized in Chinese cities, and how the mutated or re-invented versions have been institutionalized, branded and, perhaps, exported. Highlighting the ideological and political construction processes that underlie the practices of cultural cities, the study will shed light on the unique urban dynamics of building Chinese cities.

Based on studies of Chinese cities, the proposed research will contribute to the methodological attempt to integrate “assemblage” to critical urban studies. Prevailing theories on urbanism focus on Euro-American societies and they are less capable of explaining urbanism elsewhere. Scholars have called for opening up “new geographies of theory” (Roy, 2009) and exploring “ordinary cities” from the bottom-up (Robinson, 2006). The concept of assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987) and its applicability to urban studies have gained extensive attention from scholars (Ong and Collier, 2005, DeLanda, 2006, Sassen, 2006, McFarlane, 2011b, McCann and Ward, 2012, Prince, 2012) and have initiated heated discussions (e.g., the four special issues on “City” in 2010 and one special issue on “Area” in 2011 and “EPA” in 2012). On the one hand, assemblage is useful for its indiscriminating treatment to mobile components, thereby serving as an appropriate platform to study space of flows in globalization and providing room for theorizing subaltern urbanism from below. On the other hand, critics have pointed out that understanding of assemblages must be put in the broader context of capitalism.

Echoing the call by Sassen (2006), this proposed research will investigate locally established assemblage driven by a global agenda of building cultural/creative cities. In designing the research, we attempt to acknowledge both contingency and politics of policy mobilization and territorialization, by drawing together thoughts from assemblage and cultural political economy. Deploying assemblage as methodology (Brenner et al., 2011, McFarlane, 2011a, Roy, 2012), the research framework attempts to be equally sensitive to the role of relational and territorial geographies as well as discursive and material dimensions in the urban processes of cultural city production.

Photo: Big Hand Art in 798 District, Beijing, by Bridget Coila via Flickr.

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