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

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.
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