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Where is China’s cutting-edge culture heading?

Author: Michael Keane, Curtin University

Visitors to the Chinese city of Shenzhen looking for evidence of cultural innovation are often bemused by the city’s overt showcasing of the artificial — a full-scale replica of the Swiss ski resort Interlaken, a miniature Eiffel Tower in a theme park called Window on the World and Van Gogh copies for sale at the Dafen Oli Painting Village. Once a place where locals apologised about rampant copy culture, Shenzhen is now a hub of innovation and the centrepiece of the strategy to modernise the economy as laid out in China’s 13th Five Year Plan.

In March 2015, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced the slogan ‘mass entrepreneurship, mass innovation’, signalling the launch of the nation’s Internet Plus blueprint by which Chinese people would embrace the digital era.

Premier Li’s announcement took place at Chaihuo — translated literally as ‘firewood’ — which is a popular Shenzhen ‘maker space’. The city now has hundreds of maker spaces that have now been rebranded as ‘mass innovation spaces’. It might have more incubators, accelerators, fab labs and co-working spaces per capita than any other city in the world.

In line with this, Shenzhen is sometimes called the world capital of the Internet of Things. QR codes are ubiquitous. Virtual currency is driving consumption. With just a quick scan of a QR code, one can pay for taxis, groceries or ‘share’ a bicycle. The headquarters of Tencent (the owner of WeChat and China’s largest internet technology company) is located in Shenzhen, as are mobile technology giants Huawei and ZTE.

Shenzhen’s status as a city on the frontier of innovation dates back to the Special Economic Zone policies of the early 1990s. In February 1992, Deng Xiaoping reasserted his economic reform agenda on the so-called ‘southern tour’, enticing entrepreneurs, investors and migrant workers south. The influx of people from all parts of China as well as proximity to Hong Kong engendered an entrepreneurial mindset.

During the 1990s, Shenzhen was frequently characterised as a cultural desert. From not having culture, Shenzhen is now making culture. Lacking the traditional art districts and cultural relics that lure planeloads of tourists to other parts of China, Shenzhen instead works in new media that blends real and artificial. 3D printers are readily accessible, as is virtual and augmented reality technology, while manufacturing revolves around artificial intelligence (AI) and RFID chips. Such interactivity signals the dominance of machine learning and what is known as platform capitalism.

Whereas Shenzhen is the epicentre of the Internet of Things, Hangzhou (the capital of Zhejiang Province) is the ‘cloud capital’ of China. Hangzhou illustrates the power of platform capitalism in China and beyond its borders. The term ‘cloud’ refers to a distributed system of computer resources, millions of servers, hard drives, routers, fibre-optic cables and networks that now connect masses of people while tracking their online lives.

Alibaba, which is based in Hangzhou, owns the biggest cloud service in China: Aliyun. Entrepreneurs and start-ups can rent storage services while using the company’s e-commerce platforms to reach out to consumers and ‘crowds’, with the latter referring to the recent popularity of venture crowdfunding in China.

What impact are these thriving technological hubs having on China’s labour market? And what has become of the formerly pivotal human capital resource of China: workers, farmers and labouring factory hands? The short answer is that many have been displaced or made redundant, and more will be joining the ranks of the unemployed as AI continues to gain traction in China.

China’s youth are educated and tech-savvy, hence the genesis of the slogan: ‘mass entrepreneurship, mass innovation’. The message is that anyone can have a start-up. Even high school kids are now being taught entrepreneurial skills. The annual China–Australia Millennial Project is undoubtedly capitalising on the mood of techno-utopianism sweeping the nation.

But the future of China for the millennial generation looks uncertain. The race against the machine may well determine their future prosperity. A colloquial term aptly describes such uncertainty: the diaosi or ‘loser’ — a person whose fate is precarious.

The Chinese Communist Party has stared down the dangers posed by the internet. It erected firewalls to stop unwanted foreign ideas, although the firewall has hindered rather than stopped the flow. Of late it has worked hard to convince a ‘born digital generation’ that they represent the future rejuvenation of China.

But there is a distinction to draw between past struggles, present reality and future utopias. In the 1940s, the common goal was a communist paradise. People were indispensable. The posters on display now proclaim ‘the Chinese Dream lies ahead’. But if that dream is to be shared among all the people, China’s planners will need to be mindful of the dangers of labour-saving technologies.

Michael Keane is Professor of Chinese Media and Cultural Studies at Curtin University and Program Leader of the Digital China Lab.

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