Holes in the Net? State Rescaling, Creative Control and the Dispersion of Power

By Xuefei Ren

The Beijing Olympics demonstrated once and again the effectiveness of using mega-events for place making. This global spectacle moved Beijing one big step toward the centre of the world city network. In the community of urban China research, there has been much discussion on the shifting balance of power between the centre and the local. Some consensus has been reached about the rise of local states and the devolution of state power from the central to city governments. However, the nation-state is still by far the most sophisticated institutional architecture ever produced, and demonstrates great flexibility and adaptability when facing external challenges. The restructuring of the Chinese state is not simply one-way traffic of power from the central to local governments. Rather, it is a reshuffling of power among different geopolitical scales – a process of state rescaling. The spectacle of the Beijing Olympics can offer us some glimpses into the complex process of state rescaling taking place in China.

The geopolitical repercussions of the Olympics could not have been possible if state power was only contained within the central government or, for that matter, within the municipal government of Beijing. Rather, a ‘successful’ Olympics of this kind is only possible by simultaneously redirecting state power, authority and resources to the metropolitan and global scale. The national scale lacks the kind of flexibility required to interact freely with the wild forces of markets and globalization. Only at the sub-national level, especially the metropolitan scale, can governments and policy makers be entrepreneurial when courting global investment and media attention. Cities and metropolitan regions are therefore the critical scale for the restructuring of state power in the context of intensified global competition.

But the rescaling of state power has casualties. Art and cultural industries in Beijing are excellent examples to illustrate the point. In 2005 a few multi-million dollar auction sales of works by Chinese artists signaled the coming of age for the Chinese contemporary art market. Realizing the potential of cultural industries, the city government quickly usurped the control of private capital by designating creative industry clusters. In merely three years, art districts from 798 to Songzhuang went through a quick metamorphosis, transforming from grassroots artist colonies to mass tourist destinations. In the meantime, ‘creative industries’ has also become the new buzz word in the discourse of urban policy making. The concept is believed to have somehow a superpower to cure all the ills of the transitional economy. With the heavy involvement of the rescaled local state, art districts in Beijing exemplify an odd combination of horizontal networks, new hierarchies, and bureaucratic management. A rescaled Chinese state has thus inscribed a new logic in creative industries, making it the ‘creative industries with Chinese characteristics’, just like everything else in China.

But being an urban optimist, I find it hard to agree with the common perception on the conflict between state control and creativity. I see globalizing cities such as Beijing and Shanghai as fertile sites for creativity and new possibilities. They are strategic spaces for new actors to make a presence. The real creative talents can find inspiration in the tensions, contradictions, and dilemmas characterizing today’s creative industries in China. They are able to navigate freely, to bypass the creative control of the rescaled Chinese state.

In short, there are holes in the net.

Xuefei Ren received her PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago in 2007. She teaches urban theory and sociology at Michigan State University.


任雪飞 (芝加哥大学社会学博士,现于密执安州立大学教授都市理论与社会学)