Three days isn’t long enough to do more than scratch lightly at the surface of a place but my time at the Creative Social in Shanghai did bring home the scale of the changes that China has undergone. There are no more Period Police for a start…
We heard about the dreaded Period Police from writer and journalist Lijia Zhang. Her memoir, Socialism Is Great (cover below), record her life as a young worker in a missile factory in Nanjing. She had wanted to be a writer but, aged 16, her mother took her out of school in order for Lijia to take over her job at the factory. She thought she was doing her daughter a great favour as a job at the factory meant security for life: “The factory was a mini state of its own,” Lijia said, “it fed us, there were hospitals, a library, a kindergarten school, we had indoctrination at its meeting halls. Our whole life was contained there.” But it was a life that was totally controlled by the state: “We weren’t allowed lipstick, or high heels. The width of our trousers was controlled.” And every month the women among the factory’s 10,000 workers had to line up before the dreaded Period Police to prove that they were not pregnant and thereby obtain their ration of sanitary towels.
By teaching herself English from radio broadcasts Lijia eventually managed to break free of her “mind-numbing” existence and, finally, record her experiences in a book which in itself is symbolic of the new China. Though not officially banned, the book is nonetheless the subject of state disapproval: it’s available, but not officially sanctioned. Lijia herself says that “I don’t think the authorities like me but I don’t fear for my personal safety.” Hearing that the book had been reviewed in the New York Times, she went along to a newsstand in Beijing, where she lives, only to find that the offending page had been torn out. Similarly, a review in magazine Beijing This Month was, she said, censored because she’s a “disreputable character with ant-government tendencies.” And yet we were all given a copy at the event and she felt free to discuss it there.
The situation regarding censorship is “very higgledy piggledy” Lijia told us. There are certain no-go areas, such as the protests of 1989 and someone writing in English is less likely to attract the authorities’ attention than if writing in a local language, but if you show some awareness of the system and sensitivity to the sensitivities, you can work with a degree of freedom, she told us.
Another aspect of Chinese life which has certainly changed is the role of women. After China initiated its reforms “women suddenly got breasts” one western reporter said. Lijia talked about how contemporary Chinese literature has embraced women’s personal expression for the first time – no longer are they mere sexless servants of the party.
For the first time, China is embracing individualism, made manifest through some of the people we met at the Social. Lijia was joined on stage by three female students who each gave us their take on women’s role in China today and their hopes for the future. Later we heard from director Heiward Mak who, at 23, has just directed her first feature film (trailer below). The previous day we had a performance from a DJ with three classically trained female musicians accompanying him.
All the young designers and creative types that we met were hugely precocious, in the best sense of the word. One was teaching herself French, another was studying sociology by day and performing on stage at night. This seemed to be a hugely ambitious generation of only children who have been given opportunities their parents could only have dreamed of.
There will be some major issues for them to address. The recession is already hitting China hard – we heard a lot about lay-offs at factories. In advertising particularly Western agencies hold sway, the majority of senior jobs being held by ex-pats, and you can’t help wondering how agencies who arrived no-doubt with dollar signs in their eyes will react to economic downturn. Will a generation of local talent come through or will it be held back by the ex-pats?
Design, as in India, seemed to be suffering from a lack of client awareness and to be undervalued. Although, also as in India, there were an impressive number of women involved in the profession compared to the West. We also heard that its best people were routinely cherry-picked by ad agencies who would use them as art directors on far higher wages than nascent design studios could manage. Though Shanghai is home to myriad ‘cool’ streetwear brands, the majority of work seemed pretty dull in both advertising and design.
But all this will no doubt change as fast as everything else in China. There are hundreds of design schools up and down the country, churning out thousands of designers (while we were there, the One Show was staging a week of workshops at Shanghai’s Fudan University). Local companies are beginning to understand the value of creating their own brands and not just manufacturing for the West. There are huge public projects to get involved in. And yet, underneath, the Party still exists and still controls. Strolling past H&M or the adidas store in Shanghai, it is easy to forget that this is still a totalitarian country, it still locks up dissidents, and worse, and it still executes hundreds every year, but at least the students we met won’t have to worry about the Period Police.