Welcome to the Chinese Century

On a visit to meet art and design students preparing for study in the US and Europe, Adrian Shaughnessy encounters the motivations and frustrations of young Chinese designers

Hotel room, Beijing. It’s the middle of the night and I’m awake. I’ve just spent three weeks in China and in a few hours, I will catch a flight back to the UK. I’m channel hopping. Zapping through dozens of Chinese language TV shows. They are either game shows, cookery shows, soaps or the Chinese equivalent of sword and sandal epics – lots of flashing blades and men with pony tails jumping out of trees.

But there’s also CNN, BBC World News and several English language channels reporting on the Asian financial scene. I’m watching the BBC. An item on Chinese dissidents appears, and immediately the screen goes blank. A power cut? My TV on the blink? I change channels and everything’s normal. I go to one of the English language money channels. Wow, good news if you’re an investor in Singapore property. But hold on, here’s another report about Chinese dissidents. Once again, my screen goes blank.

It’s 3.00am, and someone doesn’t want me to know about Chinese anti-government protests. To western eyes, the idea that viewing should be so savagely censored is shocking. But this is China, and although its citizens are free to make money on an oligarchical scale, to binge on western consumer goods, and to fill the roads with expensive German cars, they are not free to disagree with their government.

The recent death of Liu Xiaobo, is a repugnant example of Chinese suppression. As the Guardian reported: “Not since Nazi Germany had a country allowed a Nobel peace laureate to die in custody – until today. Liu Xiaobo was still held over his peaceful call for democratic reform, made almost nine years ago, when he died in hospital.”

The internet is censored – no Google, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And although it has a population of just under 1.4b (that’s nearly 19% of the world’s population), China is not a democracy. But after visiting five of China’s largest cites, I found something odd. The people I met seemed, on the surface at least, to be happy. Every restaurant was throbbing with diners, and train stations and airports were all just-out-of-the-box new and crowded with travellers.

The feeling that China might be the world’s number one nation is unmistakable. The smell of money is as thick as the Beijing smog. The nation’s infrastructure is being developed on a scale and at a speed that is out of science fiction. New roads, bridges, airports and buildings festoon the landscape. Gleaming towers go up seemingly overnight, and clusters of high rise buildings spring up like mushrooms after rain. As a recent Icon magazine article noted: “Over the last two decades, China has seen the greatest wave of urbanisation in the world’s history.”

All of this is in blunt contrast to the West’s creaking infrastructure, and the paralysis that sets in whenever it comes to building new public housing or expanding public transport. While Western democracies hold endless public enquiries into airport expansion, debate the wisdom of high speed train lines, and wring their hands over the shortage of affordable public housing, China goes ahead and builds them. It can do this because it is a one-party state that permits no opposition. Complain about a new five lane highway going through your village and the objection is bulldozed (both literally and metaphorically) out of the way.

At a time when the west suffers from what the political writer David Van Reybrouck has called Democratic Fatigue Syndrome (as evidence he cites voter turnout at US presidential elections at less than 60%, and at midterm elections, around 40%), it’s tempting to see China’s lack of democracy as desirable. But any political system that curtails individual freedom is not sustainable, even if there’s a new BMW every year.

I was in China to speak to students about art and design education in the west. I was invited by an organisation that prepares young people for study in U.S.A. and Europe. In fact, a western education is viewed as an almost essential qualification by educated Chinese. Even the country’s leaders send their offspring to the west to be educated.

But why go abroad to study design? Surely there’s a thriving Chinese design scene? The Chinese designers I talked to, all of them western trained, and most of them teaching as an alternative to practicing, cite the rush to complete everything at neck-snapping speed as a fatal impediment to good design. Designers are expected to deliver instant solutions. A new building goes up; the developers need a roof garden and landscaping, but only allow time for an off-the-shelf solution.

Western brands predominate: shopping districts look like shopping districts in Manhattan and London – depressingly formulaic. And whenever I asked about a striking building, I was told it was by an America, European or Japanese architect. An indigenous Chinese design scene exists, but it’s hard to find.

The students I met, however, were like students the world over. They wanted to be reflective practitioners, engaged in meaningful work. All of them were critical of the Chinese art and design education system, which they saw as limited and constraining. They described it as didactic and hierarchical. They were expected to follow their teachers’ instructions, and concentrate only on producing polished outcomes, with little or no attention given to the journey or forming a critical approach to design: the brief is the brief – accept it, don’t challenge it.

The students I spoke to recognised that the western system, with its emphasis on experimentation and independent thinking, was superior. They yearned to expand their creative horizons, and saw a western education as the way to achieve this.

While they were uninhibited to talk about the Chinese education system, when I quizzed them on the Chinese political regime, their criticism was guarded and avoided outright condemnation. There was some mild disquiet over the rush to wealth that they saw around them and the fact that not everyone benefited from China’s money making opportunities. But I was left the feeling that the government was tolerated.

On two issues, there were strong feelings. When I asked about Tibet, I was surprised to find that everyone I spoke to supported China’s position on Tibet. History was on China’s side, I was told, Tibet really is part of China. And anyway, they said, Tibet was a backword country, ruled by religious prejudice and superstition, and China brought progress and modernity. This was unexpected. You’d go a long way in the west to find anyone who agreed with this, but it was the view of everyone I spoke to.

Far less surprising is the dismay with which people viewed the Chinese government’s decision to ban the virtual private networks (VPNs) that allow access to banned online resources. According to Reuters, Apple is removing VPN services from its app store in China, “drawing criticism from VPN service providers, who accuse the U.S. tech giant of bowing to pressure from Beijing cyber regulators. VPNs allow users to bypass China’s so-called ‘Great Firewall’.”

Nothing I encountered in my short stay in China seemed to cause as much disquiet. Could this be the government’s misstep that turns the citizens against their rulers? Or will the prospect of a luxury apartment, a top of the range German car and a well-paid job keep the population quiet?

Adrian Shaughnessy is a writer, designer and educator. He is a co-founder of design publisher Unit Editions and was until recently Senior Tutor on the Visual Communication programme at the Royal College of Art. He is also one of Creative Review’s Creative Leaders 50

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