Inverting the Cultural Map: Peripheral Geographies of Beijing’s Creative Production

By Adrian Blackwell

Inside-out City
In the North American and European imagination, artists live downtown, in older working class or industrial neighbourhoods. In Beijing, they live in villages at the edge of the city. Unlike the new creative clusters that are gentrifying North American downtowns, the emergent cultural geography of Beijing is highly dispersed, inverting preconceptions of what constitutes a properly cultural space. Many of its most important creative clusters sit beyond Beijing’s fifth ring road, existing as islands outside the line which until recently signified the boundary of the city’s outward urbanization.

In the early days of the PRC, significant cultural institutions were located surrounding the forbidden city, close to the centre, while higher education was sequestered in northwest of the city. After reform, experimental artists were eager to show their work in these central institutions, but did their organizing in the periphery. The slow opening up of the 1980s culminated in the 1989 exhibition China / Avant-Garde, but this thaw was shut down again in the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre, initiating a new migration of artists to outlying villages. Starting on the west side of the city near Yuanmingyuan, artists leapfrogged eastward after repression of the early 1990’s to Dashan village (later called the East Village) and Songzhuang. The move of the Central Academy of Fine Arts from Wangfujing Street to Wangjing new town beyond the forth ring in 2001 precipitated new art spaces in the 798 factory area, and soon after the creation of art villages northwest of the fifth ring in Caochangdi, Cuigezhuang and now Huantie. These villages remain under threat, as they are usually developed unofficially and are technically illegal uses of agricultural land. Spaces in Suojiacun, for instance, were bulldozed by the government in 2005, and 798 was under threat of redevelopment until 2006.

The municipal government has also been instrumental in this dispersion, relocating the Central Academy of Fine Arts, building a National Film Museum in Huantie, preserving 798, proposing Capital Steel and Daxing as creative clusters, expanding of Zhongguancun north of the University District as a software development area, and planning new residential areas along the 13th line for professional migrants. For the municipal government this peripheral land has been more easily developable than urban land, because a large amount of urban land is still controlled through the vertical structure of the Danwei system, in which industrial work units report directly to the central government. This has pushed municipalities to designate ‘New Development Zones’ in the countryside. With government’s strategic planning of the urban periphery augmenting the Brownian motion of artists, the peripheral cultural geography of the city is by now well established.

A Cultural Archipelago
A multiplicity of creative assemblages exist beyond the fifth ring road. In their 2004 study of Beijing, Frederic Deng and Huang Youqin argued that there are two primary forms of ex-urban sprawl in china today: poorly controlled village intensification and expansive new development zones. An examination of the creative industries illustrates the mutual tensions and co-dependencies between these two forms of development.

If the economic intensification of villages through art production and real-estate speculation drives a significant amount of endogenous rural development, then the development zone is the clearest example of the opposite form – the city vaulting into rural space as sprawl. Examples of culturally focused new development in the periphery include: artist’s villages where artists take advantage of cheap housing and work spaces rented out by local farmers; art gallery and art districts, which are highly renovated and transformed spaces for cultural consumption; software parks, high technology development zones and universities, like the immense Zhongguancun development zone; low and high rise residential islands, inhabited by expatriate creative and business classes; and finally leisure spaces, conference hotels, spas and theme parks are concentrated on the urban edge.

Each of these new cultural islands is intertwined physically and operationally within a set of shadow urbanisms – local farm villages. As farmers do not own their land, they are technically unable to sell it and are left to develop it through informal means. While this structure of land control has propelled many local farmers into the middle-classes, the informal character of their development means their primary tenants are migrant workers. The periphery of the city concentrates these migrants from poorer provinces because housing is much cheaper and less strictly controlled. Moreover, migrants suffer less discrimination and there are opportunities to work in industries surrounding these villages. It is this migrant workforce that supports the labour intensive creative industries. Each village finds ways to replace obsolete town and village enterprises: share-cropping farm villages where migrants work the local farmers land, construction villages and art villages where migrants make architecture and art, service workers in ex-urban leisure camps, drivers and mechanics in taxi villages and garbage collectors in recycling villages. In short, it is important to acknowledge the figure of the migrant as a multi-faceted persona without whom there would be no creative industries. Academic research and policy-making has been astonishingly slow and indeed has failed to acknowledged this basic constitutive element of the creative industries.

The Strategic Scaffold of Beijing’s Creative Perimetre
The contained and disjointed urbanisms of Beijing’s periphery have opened up possibilites for a range of urban actors, at the same time that they fracture urban spaces, creating a set of challenges and potentials. What follows, is a speculation on four aspects of the strategic scaffold of the inverted geography of Beijing’s creative industries.

1. A geography of dispersion
The dispersion of the creative industries to the periphery has been driven by the problems of land use and land value. For artists, it was the low cost of renting space in villages outside the city that started the movement to the city’s margins. Originally, this allowed for the relative affordability of the spaces they occupy. However, this has changed in recent years: as the Chinese art market has heated up some artists have been able to take advantage of the ambiguous land use regulations in rural areas to build large homes for themselves, and develop houses and studios for others. This process is evident in both Caochangdi and Songzhuang. So while the liberating potential for finding inexpensive working space on the urban periphery still exists, it is increasingly being overtaken by emerging markets for luxury housing, which cultivate a consumer driven model of individuality. This phenomenon has also isolated cultural industries from the broader society in which they operate, producing enclaves of undifferentiated producers rather than a productive space of interdisciplinary interaction. Artists’ villages are passing a tipping point; as artists change from ‘outcasts’ – to borrow the title of Liu Wei’s exhibition, curated by Pi Li in 2007 – to aristocrats, their spaces of work are transformed from ex-urban to suburban, and the production of space is no longer driven from the bottom up, but is now commanded by real-estate developers and government policies. While the dispersed geography of the creative industries produces serious opportunity costs for migrant workers, it also offers many things to this peri-urban area. Unlike many of these liminal spaces in many other global cities, Beijing’s periphery is rich in terms of both cultural production and cultural difference. The cultural industries on the edge have the potential to change the way the periphery is understood and developed.

2. The low cost and precarity of migrant labour
Despite reports that wages are rising quickly in China due to a shortage of qualified labour, they still hover at less than 5% of those in developed countries. This is possible in part because of the low costs of reproduction, of food and shelter. In Beijing, peri-urban villages are one of the few sources of inexpensive housing other than urban rooms in underground bomb shelters, basements or places of work. So the presence and illegal expansion of these villages on the edge of the city is tolerated by the Beijing government since they fulfill an essential role in the urban economy. If the government or market was forced to produce new forms of housing, wages would increase in order for workers to afford it. Peasants do not only function as an urban underclass, but they are also victims of an apartheid system that naturalizes them, not simply as poor, but as more deeply other. It is for this reason that the villages that act as homes to the mingong (migrant workers) appear as heterotopias of deviance. In the urban villages this labour is spatialized, turning the peripheral urban archipelago into a ‘constitutive outside’ of the city, in multiple senses. The question remains as to how this group, concentrated as it is in unregulated spaces, can be allowed to participate in an engaged way in the creative industries that its cheap and precarious labour facilitates?

3. Cosmopolitanism of both the international and Chinese labour force
China’s incredible economic growth, rapid modernization and unprecedented urbanization has drawn curious workers from around the world. Some are looking for a new view of the world. And, in many cases, there is an exodus from countries unable to offer secure employment to skilled graduates pumped out of the education factories. A high percentage of these foreigners come as to China to work in creative industries. This group of journalists, artists, architects, curators, writers and filmmakers has contributed significantly to the collective knowledge base in reform era China. Foreigners are strongly represented in the new luxury housing developments on the edge of the city where many live in western style detached villas. At the same time that the creative industries have accumulated workers from all parts of the world, the villages on the urban edge house a cosmopolitan workforce from diverse provinces of China: from Hebei and Henan, but also Xinjiang, Sichuan, Anhui and Zhejiang. These migrants have different languages, food, customs, practices, and skills. So these peri-urban villages are quite different from remote villages in the provinces precisely because of the diverse range of skills, experiences and capacities their new inhabitants accumulate. They function as true multiplicities. While this massive change creates many frictions that interpellate or position these workers as minorities, there is also an incredible cross-fertilization of ideas from various places. Such conditions hold great potential for incredible innovation.

4. Strong central government combined with a weak regulatory framework
The apparently contradictory combination of an impenetrable and authoritarian central government that proceeds with minimal accountability to its citizens, and a weak regulatory system – a byproduct of the rapid transformation of society – characterizes the situation in China today. As the capital, Beijing has the burden of having to portray the government’s power over space. But as a result of the decentralization of power underway since 1978, it suffers from considerable ambiguity around the regulation of urban space. Far from debilitating development, it is precisely this conjunction of centralization and lack of regulation that makes the socialist market economy function so productively in globalized markets. As Wang Hui has asserted, the authoritarianism of the Chinese state is perfectly consistent with the rise of neo-authoritarianism in western countries beneath the banner of neoliberalism, and in conjunction with its deregulation of other aspects of governance of the economy and society.

Beijing’s periphery is especially unregulated due to an unclear situation between the jurisdictions of municipal, township and village governance. Yet despite this, the rural/urban edge is considered by municipal governments as a tabula rasa open for development. Here, the two contradictory characteristics of the current political regime are imprinted in urban space: new development zones reorient and guide the direction of urban development, while the interstices between these mega-projects are left to develop in a haphazard way. Such discrepancies produce a landscape for the contestation of creativity in Beijing. The strong state system offers potential for the implementation of progressive policies beyond the scope of more constrained western governments: new polices on the sustainable construction, smaller apartments, the harmonious society, and the new socialist village. At the same time, it is in the gaps that independent actors such as farmers and the migrants themselves are empowering themselves to demand equality for their creative labour.

These observations on the geography of Beijing’s creative industries emerged from a study of urban form on the periphery of Beijing undertaken as a joint research project between students in the Literature Department at Tsing Hua University, and students of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design studying at B.A.S.E. (Beijing Architecture Studio Enterprise) in May and June, 2007 under the direction of Meng Yue (Tsing Hua / UofT) and Adrian Blackwell (UofT / B.A.S.E.).

Adrian Blackwell is an urban and architectural designer, artist and researcher, whose work focuses on the spaces and forces of uneven development produced through processes of post-Fordist urbanization. Blackwell co-edited Unboxed: Engagements in Social Space, with Jen Budney and co-curated Detours: Tactical Approaches to Urbanization in China with Pei Zhao. He teaches architecture and urban design at the University of Toronto, where he initiated al&d’s China Global Architecture program in 2004, and has been a visiting professor at Chongqing University and the University of Michigan.