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Economy / Jobs

Here's how China's ancient capital Nanjing is trying to emulate London's creative economy

Autumn is a busy time in the calendar of London’s creative economy, beginning with London Fashion Week and the London Design Festival in September, and leading into Frieze Art Fair and the London Film Festival. This is a time when London’s designers, artists and makers converge, and when London promotes itself to the world.

But it also a time when other cities are trying to harness London’s international profile and promote their own creativity.

The mayor is well aware of this and, post-Brexit, is keen to use this period to present London as an open city, welcoming people and investment as part of his London is Open campaign. He will no doubt be pleased to be welcoming Chinese cities such as Nanjing, which is exhibiting as a strategic partner of the London Design Festival as well as organising events across the capital.

Nanjing is not alone in using London as a platform to establish its brand on the world stage. In June this year Shanghai ran an “Amazing Shanghai in London”  campaign, bringing businesses and celebrities to help reinforce its profile of the city. 

Nanjing lacks Shanghai’s stature. But it was China’s capital during the reign of the Ming dynasty, and in the modern era, it developed an economy founded upon industry: cars manufacturing, petrochemicals, iron and steel.


Contemporary Nanjing has an economy which is more than 60 per cent services, however. It’s increasingly trying to follow London’s path in diversifying its economy and to make the transition from manufacturing to high-value services, such as creative industries.

Participating in the London Design Festival is certainly one route. But can cities like Nanjing really realise this transition? And should established cultural capitals feel threatened by their rise?

London is about much more than just the commercial creative industries, of course. It is also a centre for education, and in recent years unprecedented numbers of Chinese students have taken courses in London. Indeed, their numbers have increased over 150 per cent in the past five years, with creative arts now second only to business studies as the subject of choice.

The relationship is symbiotic. London reaps the benefits of attracting international talent and income, and cities like Nanjing can welcome home a newly skilled workforce. 

The question is whether cities like Nanjing can develop their own education offer and grow talent at home. After all, it’s been a centre for education in China for over 1,700 years, and in 1907 Nanjing University was the first modern university to be established in the country.

This history is clearly an important foundation for building a knowledge economy. But successful urban economies such as London’s are built on being globally fluent, attracting international talent and capital in order to create the best ideas, as well as having a tradition in educational practice. China’s total international student population is still under half a million — there is still significant room for growth.

Nanjing may be an important pioneer amongst Chinese cities in developing this international outlook: it claims to have undertaken 2000 international commercial projects in the past 30 years. Significantly, the Nanjing delegation in London will also include the CEO of Sanpower Group, a Chinese conglomerate with interests in the energy, media and telecoms, and which recently acquired House of Fraser and Hamleys.

Sanpower will be making a donation to enable the restoration of Kew Gardens Pagoda (based on an original Nanjing design). It’s work in London highlights the ambitions of Chinese businesses to go global.

For now, London is rightly still perceived as an open and international place for others to build their international profile by dint of association. But it is clear that this position is not guaranteed. When the pace of global urbanisation, the economic might of Chinese industry, and the ambitious outlook of its city leaders are all considered, one has to ask: how long will it be before London seeks to promote itself in cities like Nanjing?

David Adam is the founder of Global Cities.

Nanjing Week in London is taking place from 20-26 September. You can follow @nanjingweek on Twitter.
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