“Sino-futurist art seeks to explore the cities of the future”: on Western visions of China

Geomancer, Lawrence Lek, commissioned for the 2017 Jerwood FVU Awards.

In the run-up to 2016’s US presidential election, I suffered from anxiety and insomnia; I live and work in Shanghai, and US politicians have started talking about China in ways that make me concerned about my livelihood.

There’s a YouTube video that strings together Trump uttering the word “China” in various speeches; three minutes long, he utters the word sometimes angrily, sometimes with excitement, and sometimes with a puzzled, lost tone of voice. After watching, I’d go to sleep easily; there was no way this loser would become president.

Our culture has a long and knotty engagement with China, mostly based on fantasies and projections that don’t correspond to any reality. From Macartney’s ill-fated visit in 1793 to Coleridge’s opium dreams, China has been a synonym for mystery, cruelty, revolution: whatever our obsessions of the moment, we managed to discover them in China – often without even needing to go to China or to speak with Chinese people about it.

As China has experienced meteoric economic growth that increasingly manifests in investments around the world, from London to Ethiopia, the question of what China actually is, and what it means, has ceased to be some sort of fun trivia for poets. For the sake of our economy, our environment, and our cultural heritage, we really need to understand what China’s society is. Otherwise, we run the risk of projecting paranoiac visions onto the nation that is the only real alternative to western capitalist society – and whose economic relationship with Britain grows every day.

Artists working in a vein called “sino-futurism” have started to explore the Chinese city as a generic future landscape. Still, one can’t help feeling that our understanding of what China is, and the ways that our imaginary visions have shaped Chinese realities, remains limited.

When Shanghai’s new district, Pudong, was being built, there were no tenants in the high-rises; the illusion of a growth spurt became a reality. The “ghost cities” such as Ordos that we’ve heard about recently, the empty British-themed suburb of Thames Town, new cities such as Xiongan which seem to materialise overnight… In many ways, China’s economy is driven by real estate, built on powerful fantasies and projections of the future. So is London’s.

We’ve come a long way from Coleridge’s Xanadu. The last few decades have seen a flood of representations of Asian cities as futuristic, cruel, and mysterious; where once we had Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, now we have Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. British artists like Lawrence Lek and academics like the mildly demented Nick Land have made the Chinese cityscape into the site of very British worries and aspirations.

But – the same could be said of Boris Johnson, who airily dismisses worries about Brexit with allusions to India and China as some sort of cure-all. If we can’t build a new tube line, we reflect on the fact that China can; if London suffers from air pollution, we observe with horror that it’s worse than Beijing; Iain Sinclair, visiting the Shangri-La in the City, finds the sinister forces of global capital embodied in Fu Manchu-style Chinamen.

Sadly, these representations don’t have much to do with reality. We need to get the facts straight; China and Chinese people are a fact of life in British universities, cities, architectural practices, arts institutions, and pretty much everything else, and our future depends on the ways that British society can engage with China. No more #fakenews, please.


Near that inscrutable and wicked Shangri-La is the DLR station for Limehouse, the former Chinese slum. China might be our future, but it’s also our past; and China is a place, but it’s also a population.

So far, when we represent China, we typically do so in terms of the built environment; it’s easier to describe what we can see with our own eyes than to understand the humans who live in China.

However, as the debacle surrounding Scarlett Johanssen’s casting in Ghost in the Shell illustrates, there’s a problem with representing China as a generic space evacuated by humanity. It’s not; China is crowded, weird, and very human. China’s population is diverse, the cities in China are filled with oddities, and within the vast terrain of Chineseness there are endless variations; we don’t grasp any of that when we represent a China as a set of buildings, with people scuttling around them like insects transfixed by neon lights.

China the place, with its cities, ghost or otherwise, is a place that many British entrepreneurs, artists, politicians etc will visit; you should go too. But China as a population impacts Britain in a more direct way. When Steve Bannon tells us about an inevitable war with China; when Brexiteers suggest Singapore be a model for a British future; when we hear what “China” has done in terms of investments, pollution, human rights violations, and so on – we betray a naiveté that is positively dangerous. Would we talk about what “France” has done? Or would we talk about what specific French persons have done, within a context of understanding that probably other French people may disagree?

From education to architects to financial services, Britain’s role in a new Chinese economy is defined by our cultural heritage and the mixed successes of articulating a shared humanity and common set of rights. We’d better start understanding that a Chinese future isn’t just a set of buildings or mirage-like skylines; it is you, and me, and that man in the off license, and we’re all in this together.

Shanghai was partly built by British architects; and London, by Chinese laborers. These are two cities in which we can hopefully get together and start understanding each other better.

Jacob Dreyer is a Shanghai based writer and editor.

 
 
 
 

Seven climate change myths put about by big oil companies

Oil is good for you! Image: Getty.

Since the start of this year, major players within the fossil fuel industry – “big oil” – have made some big announcements regarding climate change. BP revealed plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by acquiring additional renewable energy companies. Royal Dutch Shell defended its $1-$2bn green energy annual budget. Even ExxonMobil, until recently relatively dismissive of the basic science behind climate change, included a section dedicated to reducing emissions in its yearly outlook for energy report.

But this idea of a “green” oil company producing “clean” fossil fuels is one that I would call a dangerous myth. Such myths obscure the irreconcilability between burning fossil fuels and environmental protection – yet they continue to be perpetuated to the detriment of our planet.

Myth 1: Climate change can be solved with the same thinking that created it

Measures put in place now to address climate change must be sustainable in the long run. A hasty, sticking plaster approach based on quick fixes and repurposed ideas will not suffice.

Yet this is precisely what some fossil fuel companies intend to do. To address climate change, major oil and gas companies are mostly doing what they have historically excelled at – more technology, more efficiency, and producing more fossil fuels.

But like the irresponsible gambler that cannot stop doubling down during a losing streak, the industry’s bet on more, more, more only means more ecological destruction. Irrespective of how efficient fossil fuel production becomes, that the industry’s core product can be 100 per cent environmentally sustainable is an illusion.

A potential glimmer of hope is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that sucks carbon out of the air and sends it back underground. But despite being praised by big oil as a silver bullet solution for climate change, CCS is yet another sticking plaster approach. Even CCS advocates suggest that it cannot currently be employed on a global, mass scale.

Myth 2: Climate change won’t spell the end of the fossil fuel industry

According to a recent report, climate change is one factor among several that has resulted in the end of big oil’s golden years – a time when oil was plenty, money quick, and the men at the top celebrated as cowboy capitalists.

Now, to ensure we do not surpass the dangerous 2°C threshold, we must realise that there is simply no place for “producers” of fossil fuels. After all, as scientists, financial experts, and activists have warned, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, the proven reserves of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies cannot be consumed.

Myth 3: Renewables investment means oil companies are seriously tackling climate change

Compared to overall capital expenditures, oil companies renewables’ investment is a miniscule drop in the barrel. Even then, as companies such as BP have demonstrated before, they will divest from renewables as soon as market conditions change.

Big oil companies’ green investments only produce tiny reductions in their overall greenhouse gas emissions. BP calls these effects “real sustainable reductions” – but they accounted for only 0.3 per cent of their total emissions reductions in 2016, 0.1 per cent in 2015, 0.1 per cent in 2014, and so on.


Myth 4: Hard climate regulation is not an option

One of the oil industry’s biggest fears regarding climate change is regulation. It is of such importance that BP recently hinted at big oil’s exodus from the EU if climate regulation took effect. Let’s be clear, we are talking about “command-and-control” regulation here, such as pollution limits, and not business-friendly tools such as carbon pricing or market-based quota systems.

There are many commercial reasons why the fossil fuel industry would prefer the latter over the former. Notably, regulation may result in a direct impact on the bottom line of fossil fuel companies given incurred costs. But climate regulation is – in combination with market-based mechanisms – required to address climate change. This is a widely accepted proposition advocated by mainstream economists, NGOs and most governments.

Myth 5: Without cheap fossil fuels, the developing world will stop

Total’s ex-CEO, the late Christoph de Margerie, once remarked: “Without access to energy, there is no development.” Although this is probably true, that this energy must come from fossil fuels is not. Consider, for example, how for 300 days last year Costa Rica relied entirely on renewable energy for its electricity needs. Even China, the world’s biggest polluter, is simultaneously the biggest investor in domestic renewables projects.

As the World Bank has highlighted, in contrast to big oil’s claims about producing more fossil fuels to end poverty, the sad truth is that by burning even the current fossil fuel stockpile, climate change will place millions of people back into poverty. The UN concurs, signalling that climate change will result in reduced crop yields, more waterborne diseases, higher food prices and greater civil unrest in developing parts of the world.

Myth 6: Big oil must be involved in climate policy-making

Fossil fuel companies insist that their involvement in climate policy-making is necessary, so much so that they have become part of the wallpaper at international environmental conferences. This neglects that fossil fuels are, in fact, a pretty large part of the problem. Big oil attends international environmental conferences for two reasons: lobbying and self-promotion.

Some UN organisations already recognise the risk of corporations hijacking the policy-making process. The World Health Organisation, for instance, forbids the tobacco industry from attending its conferences. The UN’s climate change arm, the UNFCCC, should take note.

Myth 7: Nature can and must be “tamed” to address climate change

If you mess with mother nature, she bites back. As scientists reiterate, natural systems are complex, unpredictable, and even hostile when disrupted.

Climate change is a prime example. Small changes in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere may have drastic implications for Earth’s inhabitants.

The ConversationFossil fuel companies reject that natural systems are fragile – as evidenced by their expansive operations in ecologically vulnerable areas such as the Arctic. The “wild” aspect of nature is considered something to be controlled and dominated. This myth merely serves as a way to boost egos. As independent scientist James Lovelock wrote, “The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever.”

George Ferns, Lecturer in Management, Employment and Organisation, Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.