China Design Now: their tanks are on our lawn.

How tragically apt. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum mounts an exhibition on Chinese design culture, and Tibet erupts in flames. In a further irony, the crowds of protestors gather outside the Royal Institute of British Architects, which happens to be across the road from the Chinese embassy. But the architects are having a heated debate, too: the international big names are arguing whether it is ethical to take fat fees from China. It’s a bit late for that, really. Western architecture long ago made its Faustian pact with the Eastern Empire. Now comes the payback.

And this is the great unstated underlying theme of “China Design Now” at the V&A – we all knew they could make stuff, now they can design it too, and this brings their tanks right onto our lawn. The tacit commercial understanding between East and West used to be very simple: you make lots of cheap goods which we can import to keep our prices low – and we will do lots of sophisticated value-added design work which we export right back, along with the Rover 75 production line. It didn’t come close to balancing the books, but it made us feel slightly needed.

Thus, the Beijing Olympics site is masterplanned by Americans with its famous “birds’ nest” stadium designed by Swiss. Its vast new international airport terminal is by a Brit. The largest and oddest-shaped new building in the capital – the China Television HQ, so an instrument of state control – is by a Dutchman. You see all these things, in model and computer-graphic form, in the final room of the show. But what you also see is the emergence of talented Chinese architects. Such as Zhu Pei, whose “Digital Beijing” media centre at the Olympics is clever, assured, and considerably subtler than the European contributions.

This is early days because private design firms of all kinds have only been tolerated relatively recently. But it’s clear where things are going. You only have to visit the “Commune by the Great Wall”, as I have, to grasp that immediately. The old Communist phraseology has been appropriated by the new young entrepreneurs, with a nudge and a wink. The Commune sounds like a worker’s collective. It isn’t. Originally planned as a show village of cutting-edge private contemporary homes by a variety of Asian architects, it has now become the ultimate boutique hotel. You stay in one of the radical houses, set in a mountain valley. You dine in the central restaurant with its adjacent spa. And you have – get this – your own private section of the Great Wall to promenade along, insulated from the jostling crowds of tourists and souvenir sellers you find elsewhere. It’s a rich person’s modern Summer Palace, removed from the pollution and stench of Beijing. Which is still only an hour or so’s drive away in your airconditioned Merc.

There are areas that China Design Now ignores – not only politics (it is almost paranoically silent on the subject), but also the extraordinary flourishing contemporary art gallery scene in Beijing, an investment target for many a canny Western collector. Some artists have gone from poverty to millionaire status in no time at all. Plenty of big-name Western artists sell in China, too. But there is much the exhibition also reveals. It looks beyond the bustle of the capital to the graphic design explosion of Shenzhen, for instance.

Innovative graphic design is a youngster’s activity, and in Shenzhen – which just happens to be the largest manufacturing centre in the world – the average age is 27. Graphics thus becomes an aspect of youth culture. This being China, the youth culture does not waste itself spray-painting bus-stops, but instead is channelled into a new industry covering everything from posters to the (restricted) internet. Guan Xiaojia’s poster “The Chinese Worldview” tells us much, very beautifully. There are subcultures here, yes, but according to this exhibition the youth subcultures are not anti-establishment. How can they be, when the Establishment has so materially improved their lives, so allowing them to spend money on the latest street look and even attain near-Western levels of teenage plumpness?

I would have liked to see more on the emerging fashion business. There’s some promising stuff here in the section “Shanghai – Dream City”. It’s a bit confused, though. The curators have set out to draw together the threads left dangling from Shanghai’s glamorous inter-war years when it was the most Western of Chinese cities. The recent massive expansion of Shanghai as an urban centre has gone hand-in-hand with a rediscovery of that period, its films, its fashions, its louche attitude. The mood is summed up by Wing Shya’s 2005 “Pearls of the Orient” photography series for a Time magazine supplement. Sulkily pouting girls in filmy 1930s-influenced dresses are glimpsed posing on the bonnet of a shiny black in-period car.

The reference here, then, is to an earlier, pre-Communist engagement with the West, an era that (of course) seems more desirable because until recently it would have all seemed so impossibly unattainable. Mao’s great portrait may still adorn the front wall of Beijing’s Forbidden City overlooking Tiananmen Square, but nobody is pretending that what V & A director Mark Jones calls “an astonishing period of reform and growth” would have been tolerated during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. You very seldom see a woman with close-cropped hair in China now. That’s because it used to be mandatory, back in the days when there was no such thing as an affluent middle class outside the protected world of party officials and their families.

China Design Now, sponsored by HSBC, is what its name suggests – a snapshot of an interesting moment in the development of the new global superpower. Interesting, as the Tibetan insurrection of March 2008 has shown, because outside of all this the unmentioned political context has not, and will not, go away. As we are only too aware, it’s the Olympics in Beijing this year, but just how rosy will things be looking by the time of the next great World Expo, in Shanghai in 2010?

Text and photos of the Commune by the Great Wall © Hugh Pearman. Pre-edit version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, March 23, 2008, as “A cultural revolution against Mao”. Other credits: “The soft touch: Pearls of the Orient” for Time magazine supplement, Spring 2005, © Wing Shya-La-La Production. “Chinese Worldview” poster, 2005 © Guan Xiaojia. “Digital Beijing” image © Studio Pei-Zhu/Urbanus.


Victoria and Albert Museum:
The new buildings of Beijing:
Commune by the Great Wall: