How should we judge the success of Shenzhen’s cultural industry?

According to released statistics, in 2011, Shenzhen’s cultural industry accounted for 8% of the SEZ’s GDP, with a total 87.5 billion (875亿) yuan of goods and services. More importantly, cultural industry in Shenzhen grew at a rate of 20.5%, making it one of the strongest sectors of the local economy. Dafen and OCT Loft are often promoted as exemplars of successful cultural industry. Nevertheless, I don’t know how to interpret these statistics because when I visit some cultural industry sites — Dawang and 518, for example, I’m underwhelmed. begging the question, how universally successful is Shenzhen’s cultural industry or do these statistics more accurately reflects the determination of and concomitant investment by the government to push the economy in a certain direction?

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Today, for example, I visited the Century Handicraft Culture Plaza (世纪工艺品文化广场), which was one of the earliest attempts to transform Shenzhen’s economy from industrial manufacturing to creative industry. Located on the eastern section of the Gemdale Industrial Park (Shawei), the Handicraft Plaza was built in two stages and now consists of at least eight, four to six story factories that have been converted to a plaza of shops, offices, and museums.

The idea behind the Handicraft Plaza was to sell cultural commodities. On the face of it, a simple enough project. However, one of the functions of the Plaza has been to distinguish between auction quality pieces, expensive collectors’ items, and everyday objects, creating a complex cultural commodities market where one did not previously exist. At the level of architectural renovation, this goal was achieved by spatially integrating shops and “museums”. Shops selling collectors’ items and everyday objects have been located on the first and second floors of the buildings. In turn, museums, which exhibit one of a kind jades and ceramics and traditional paintings are located above the shops. In addition, the museums also have large displays that introduce visitors/shoppers to particular artists as well as explain the history of these traditional arts and crafts. In addition, since its opening, the Handicraft Plaza has been a designated a sub venue for the annual Shenzhen Cultural Industries Fair, which began in 2006, providing another means for educating and developing consumers for cultural products.

On March 30, 2007, the Handicraft Plaza opened to great fanfare. In fact, then Mayor Xu Zongheng (许宗衡) attended, as did Wang Jingsheng (王京生), previous Chief of Shenzhen’s Information Ministry (宣传部). The Handicraft Plaza was a joint venture of the Municipal and Futian District Governments and, at the time, was identified as an important effort to renovate factories for the new economy. Indeed, estimates of future commerce went as high as 8-10 billion (80-100亿) yuan annually.  Nevertheless, what I noticed today, however, was how abandoned the stores and area seemed. Compared with even a year ago (the last time I visited), there were noticeably fewer shops and a reduced selection of products.

The Handicraft Plaza interests me for two reasons, one personal and the other sociological. Personally, I once lived in Shawei, just around the corner from the Handicraft Plaza and even a year ago, I would shop there for bone china, ink stones, and chopsticks. Sociologically, the Handicraft Plaza exists at the nexus of multiple levels of government and state-owned industry. In addition to the municipal-district partnership that owns the Handicraft Plaza, Gemdale the owner of the factories, was one of the first state-owned for profit real estate developers in Shenzhen.

More generally, the Handicraft Plaza’s status as a government project matters because it opened a year before Shenzhen approved the idea to create “cultural industry bases (文化产业基地)” throughout the city, taking advantage of national and provincial subsidies to build its cultural industry. To date, Shenzhen has 48 cultural industry bases, including 8 national bases (OCT, Dafen, Yachang, Tencent, Curio World, Huaqiang Culture and Technology, Yongfengyuan Ceramics, and Lingnan Cultural Creative Park, of which OCT is a national model); a national music base (Meisha) and a national animation base (Yijing). In addition, the Municipality boasts four provincial model bases (Huanqiu Digital, Tencent, Topway, and Yachang) and three provincial level cultural industry parks (Tianmian City of Design, Shenzhen Culture Creative Park, and Yijing Animation).

Here’s the rub: Yongfengyuan — a national level state-owned industry — was the flagship brand at the Handicraft Plaza. The store is still there. But all that I saw on sale today were the same products I saw last year. What’s more, the second floor showroom was converted to offices. It’s as if the store has been abandoned except for a “place holding” function. But what that place would be — except perhaps for securing subsidies — I’m not sure.

So another post that ends with questions, rather than answers. First, how does the apparent decline of the Handicraft Plaza help us contextualize the statistical success of Shenzhen’s cultural industry? Second, what does the Handicraft Plaza teach us about the extent to which markets can be created and maintained through state intervention?  Third, where is the actual cultural industry growth that Shenzhen is claiming? And fourth, is it enough to justify pushing through the SEZ’s 13-year cultural industry plan [2007-2020纲要] and continuing to displace industrial manufacturing from the city?”

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