Bonny Yau

Advisor: Mabel Wilson

MS.CCCP 2013

Constructing a Harmonious Society: Cultural Policy in Contemporary Chinese Architecture

In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Communist Party of China (CPC) governs almost every aspect of contemporary society and defines cultural policy. As China’s status in the global economic market rises, famous Western architects and international events have become commonplace, but are always altered by the deeply rooted Chinese culture. China begs for inclusion into that exclusive club of world superpowers, but similar to how Deng Xiaoping (then leader of the PRC) famously referred to China’s system not as socialism but as “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” [1]  China seems doomed to forever be the quirky kid in the sandbox no one fully understands. By studying the organization of the Shanghai World Expo 2010, it can be seen how architecture has become a new form of foreign policy for China and the Party’s preferred tool for disseminating cultural policy while challenging the entrenched systems.

The 12th Five-Year Plan (released 2011) is China’s latest socioeconomic plan and refers repeatedly to “cultural construction,” [2]  meant in terms of raising awareness of Chinese identity and establishing locations of cultural programming that can only be afforded by a developed nation’s of strong national funding. This was clearly seen at the Shanghai World Expo (May 1-October 31, 2010) where economics and culture mingled. At a cost of almost 12 billion CNY to construct, what country could afford it but a rich one? The Expo broke records, with over 73 million visitors and an area of 5.28 square kilometers, and even included the participation of nations the Chinese government does not officially recognize [3].  The Bureau of Shanghai World Expo Coordination (BSWEC), established in 2003, organized all aspects of the event with one simple objective: “to promote China's ‘soft power’ – to show off its growing influence in the world.” [4]  The use of architecture as a tool for diplomacy and trade is not new – world’s fairs have been a platform for this since the nineteenth century – yet China approached it with the newfound flair of globalization in the twenty-first century, embracing its own rapid urbanization and rising importance in foreign policy. In essence, the 2010 Expo was not an expo, it was an expo with Chinese characteristics.

However, with that came a Chinese bureaucracy plagued by opaque inner workings and accustomed to unchallenged propaganda, which clashed against the shiny new pavilions and undermined the international community’s appreciation of the event. The Expo was declared a rousing success via statistics and Chinese media, and less of one by outsiders. The phrase “harmonious society” put forth by Hu Jintao (current leader of the CPC) in 2006 is the Chinese government’s propagandistic view of itself … a ubiquitous catchphrase strewn in banners across the nation. It is socioeconomic and cultural/nationalistic, envisioning a utopian version of China that is the most innovative and respected in the international community – at best described as optimism and at worst a delusion. The Expo is thus a jumbled combination of these different strands, a ‘cultural construction’ for a ‘harmonious society’ with decidedly ‘Chinese characteristics,’ as dictated by the Party and scrutinized by the world.

[1] Deng Xiaoping, speech given June 30, 1984.
[2] “Outline of the Cultural Reform and Development Plan during the National ‘12th Five Year Plan’ Period,” China Copyright and Media, last modified February 16, 2012, http://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/outline-of-the-cu....
[3] “Countries and Regions, ” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The People's Republic of China, accessed October 11, 2012, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/gjhdq/.
[4] Chris Hogg, “Shanghai Expo is China's new showcase to the world,” BBC News, April 29, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8651057.stm