China’s cities are trying to buy their way to cultural prestige, and it’s really weird

Beijing's colossal National Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Paul Andreu. Image: Francisco Diez.

The turn of the last century was a pretty good time to be a big-shot architect with an eye on China.

Paul Andreu, a French architect, is the brains behind the gargantuan National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, a hulking egg of curving glass, costing upwards of £300m to build in time for a July 2007 opening.

Sitting bizarrely on the reflective surface of its own artificial lake, the complex hosts a concert hall, an opera house, and a theatre – adding up to an impressive total of 5,473 seats. The dome is panelled with Brazilian mahogany, which hardly comes cheap, and floors are covered in marbles of differing shades sourced from 22 different provinces, blended to form a contiguous but varied textured surface.

In short, it’s an impressive space inside, and a formidable landmark from outside.

Jean-Marie Charpentier, also French, did a similarly hefty job for the city of Shanghai back in 1998. Coming in somewhere around the £135m mark, the Shanghai Grand Theatre is actually home to three theatres – the Lyric, with 1,800 seats, a drama theatre for 600 and a studio theatre for 300.

Zaha Hadid, one of Britain’s own, finished a masterpiece for Guangzhou, a provincial capital just round the corner from Hong Kong, in 2010. And Carlos Ott, a Canadian architect born in Uraguay, bagged four jobs building performance halls for Zhengzhou, Wenzhou, Hangzhou, and Dongguan, all finished in the mid-noughties. Google them if you like. They’re ridiculous.

The common thread here is that Chinese cities are pumping an awful lot of money into nebulously useful infrastructure projects like concert halls, opera houses, and ‘Cultural Centres’.

Look at it. An egg. In some water. Why, Paul? Image: Caribbean88.

Part of that story, of course, is the mere fact of how huge so many of China’s cities are, and how they’re only getting bigger – both in terms of economic output and the number of people living in them.

But the other part of the story is a deep insecurity in China about its position on the world’s cultural stage. China knows it’s an economic superpower, set to overtake America in not all that many years; and with financial tendrils across Africa and military and diplomatic tendrils across east and south-east Asia, its recent emergence as a political superpower is becoming incontrovertible.

And yet, China sees itself falling behind in terms of its cultural power.

Hu Jintao, China’s leader before Xi Jinping, said it in no uncertain terms in a fairly groundbreaking essay in 2012:

“The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak,. We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernising and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.

“We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.”

The essay was part of a drive offering more government funding for Chinese companies to work on cultural products – anything from an opera production company to a book publisher. Jintao argued that boosting China’s cultural standing was a way to increase both national prestige and soft power internationally.


He tried to make the cultural drive a central part of his legacy as he left office in 2012, and the current premier, Xi Jinping, has continued the theme.

Peculiar examples of a cultural drive abound under Jinping’s tenure.

The 12 “core socialist values” were turned into a song-and-dance routine by authorities in Hunan Province, in the south-east, and traditional “square dancers” – by best approximation the Chinese equivalent of morris dancers, but actually popular and not awful – were encouraged to take on these routines.

The push came under the direction of the Ministry of Culture, and 10,000 textbooks including videos with demonstrations of the routine were distributed across China.

Coming soon to a town square near you: freedom, equality, patriotism, dedication, prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, justice, rule of law, integrity, and friendship – the all-singing, all-dancing 2017 edition. (Just don’t ask too many questions about the first and sixth of those.)

Similarly, Matt Damon’s embarrassing starring role in The Great Wall, a rather oblique bit of pro-Chinese propaganda converted into Hollywood blockbuster format, hit cinema screens at the end of last year, at a cost of at least £110m.

The little town of Wuzhen is probably the oddest example. After a major fire gutted much of the town twenty years ago, it was rebuilt as manufactured tourist destination.

Wuzhen's picturesque canals. Image: Jakub Halun.

Its canals, part of the Grand Canal system dating back to the 5th century BC, were designated as the centrepiece of two new ‘Tourist Zones’ – charging around £11 each for entry. Now the 50,000-strong town receives around 7m visitors a year, with one of the principle highlights being the four-year-old Wuzhen Theatre Festival each October.

There’s also the Wuzhen International Contemporary Art Exhibition, which last year launched with works by Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei, amongst others.

Meng Jinghui, the theatre festival’s artistic director, said: “In terms of content and budget, they have given us complete freedom. That’s very rare in China.”

Clearly, someone somewhere high up has an interest in the success of this odd enterprise.

But odd is still a key word. Chen Xianghong, the chairman of Culture Wuzhen, which supports the festival, told the New York Times last year: “With Wuzhen, we have built a beautiful shell. Now we are trying to fill in the shell with culture.”

Admittedly, it may be a western attitude that makes this so uncomfortable, but the notion of building a shell in order to artificially fill it with cultural value is a little jarring.

Xi Jinping is clearly in it to win it on the cultural front, just like his predecessor. In a plea for artists to embody ‘Chinese values’ in their work, Jinping said that “Chinese art will further develop only when we make foreign things serve China, and bring Chinese and Western art together via thorough understanding.

“Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.”

In theory, this is all great. Proper investment in the arts and the infrastructure that creatives need to thrive is a very good thing, and a cornerstone of sound policy that our own leaders could probably do with learning from.

But China already has an incredibly rich cultural fabric. It has the second-highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and Chinese influences on food, music, art, and poetry are felt throughout the world.

Building shiny concert halls is all very well, but if they’re built to house the genres imposed by another culture – the western orchestra, the western opera, the western notion of drama and theatre – then surely the only culture that gets a boost is the Western culture?

And, just as pressingly, what point is an outrageously expensive opera hall or theatre stage if its people have no real freedom as to what they can say, sing, or play in it?

The commitment that China’s cities have shown to culture and the arts is astonishing, and should be a lesson to nations and cities in Britain and Europe. But until China and its cities can have real freedom, and have the bravery to foster Chinese culture on its own terms, it all feels just a bit weird. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.