Young creatives are raising the level of innovation in China

Youth expert P.T. Black

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I spend a lot of time helping clients overseas figure out how far Chinese youth culture is behind the rest of the world. Is China ready for reggaeton? Should they bring Shinjuku’s latest cyber goth pirate look to the streets of Wuhan? Will an iconic workwear brand have the same ironic appeal here?

The questions are generally interesting, but more striking is that the flow of youth culture is so one-way. From overseas, to China. Out to in. There seems to be relatively little to inspire Chinese youth that actually comes from China – much less that gets exported to the rest of the world. But is that changing? Could China leapfrog over the West and become a new global center for creativity?

China does of course produce a tremendous amount of its own popular culture. But the vast bulk of it is mainstream. It can be mind-numbing, and there is a growing group of kids across China that is looking elsewhere for stimulation. It is perceived as a national deficiency--a mere 6% of our ChinaWhispers youth panel selected ‘creative’ as a word suitable for describing China, compared to 44% who described the country as “economically developing."

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I walked through a “creativity fair.” The setting was a Shanghai warehouse surrounded by business-as-usual vegetable vendors. The event was a riot of bag makers, t-shirt micro-brands, alt-rock bands, and even a bizarre cartoon-themed café. Technically a launch for a new social networking website for self-defined “creatives,” the joint was certainly jumping. I was deeply impressed by the energy and buzz of the space, and it occurred to me that there were at least five clear reasons why I shouldn’t be so glum about the future of creativity in China.

First, young Chinese are information hungry and web-savvy. It seems that every home in urban China has a broadband connection. A recent study by Ipsos Insight shows that globally, urban Chinese spend the most time online, for an average of 17.9 hours per week. They see everything the world has to offer and are rapidly absorbing all of it. What’s more, they are digesting the information and translating it into Chinese for their friends. Add this to massive increases in travel (both Chinese out, and foreigners in) and a growing media scene and a picture emerges of a country hoovering up information.

Secondly, there is little gap between concept and execution. That means creatives here are merely steps from actualizing their dreams. China is the world’s factory, and everyone has a cousin who knows a guy who manufactures hats or has a plastics factory. It’s cheap, easy, and local. While the West has forgotten what a factory looks like, to young Chinese there is an assembly line ready and just waiting for a good idea. When labor is cheap and manufacturing convenient, that dream line of twine-wrapped hip hop dinosaurs becomes realizable.

Third, there is weak copyright protection. The first thing a wise creative does overseas is to hire a lawyer. Trademarking and protecting yourself from accusations of infringement are a major cost to creatives overseas. The reasons for it are, of course, excellent, but the fact remains that lawyers are an inescapable (and expensive) part of business in the West. Young Chinese however are mostly free to do as they want. There are occasional crackdowns, and large scale unauthorized co-option of others’ elements or images might run into problems. But the vast majority sails on unperturbed. The result is, for better or for worse, a more flexible and less complex innovation environment.

Money is of course an important part of being creative--it’s hard to develop your ideas when your stomach is growling. Ask all the New Yorkers who have moved their studios from downtown to Williamsburg to Queens and now out of the city entirely, despairing of finding a place cheap enough to paint or sculpt. For Chinese kids, city life can be surprisingly cheap. Living at home after college is the norm. Dumplings still cost two kuai (US $0.25) for four, and beer is still three for a dollar at the market. Sure cities like Shanghai and Chengdu are rapidly becoming more expensive, but they still offer lots of low-cost options for food, housing, and entertainment. Don’t be fooled by the Bund--growth in the upper range is not extinguishing enjoyable possibilities at the lower end.

Finally, all of these factors are being accelerated by the jetfuel of overseas cash and attention. From art collectors to savvy tourists, the world is looking for creativity from China. Magazines are hungry for artists to profile and designers to spotlight. Brands are looking for Chinese designers to partner with, both domestically and overseas. We’re a long way from New York, where artists have to scheme and pray to get a little press attention.

Now of course there are strong counterarguments to everything I have identified. Lots of time online? Sure, at the expense of firsthand experience, and regardless it doesn’t make up for the stultifying educational system. Easy manufacturing? Floods the market with junk, which reduces the chance of standing out and trains consumers to expect low quality and prices. No copyright? It just makes it easier for your idea to show up at your competitors shop. Cheap lifestyle? Sounds nice but in practice young people’s expectations are rising faster than their budgets, and besides these cities are certainly getting more expensive. Foreign attention? Yes, but do they actually provide financial support that rewards actual creativity?

These are just some of the valid arguments that begin to explain why China is not yet a creative powerhouse. And in truth, there is a long way to go. Chinese youth are still massively lacking in stimulating education, diverse experiences, and originality. But they are learning fast. The environment is ready, opportunities are there for the taking. Lots of demand, little supply. Any economist can predict what comes next.

P.T. Black is a partner at Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency based in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults. He can be reached at
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