China Isn't a Global Center for Creativity -- but It Will Be

P.T. Black Explains Why Shanghai Will Be a Right Brain Paradise

By Published on .

Marketers here in China spend a lot of time trying to figure out how far behind Chinese youth culture is from the rest of the world. From Tokyo street culture to British dance music, it seems China is always playing catch-up. Is that changing? Could China leapfrog the West and become the new global center for creativity?
P.T. Black
P.T. Black is a partner in Jigsaw International, a Shanghai boutique lifestle-research agency that looks at the direction of change in China.

I thought about this a few days ago as I walked through a "creativity fair." The setting was a Shanghai warehouse surrounded by vegetable vendors. It was a riot of bag makers, T-shirt micro-brands, alt-rock bands and even a bizarre cartoon-themed cafe. The event was a launch for a new social-networking website for "creatives," and the place was jumping. It was a chance to reflect on four reasons why China is becoming such a fertile place.

First, the country is web-savvy. It seems every home in urban China has a broadband connection. A global study by Ipsos Insight shows that urban Chinese spend the most time online, an average of 17.9 hours per week. They see everything the world has to offer, at home, in Chinese.

Secondly, there is little gap between concept and execution. 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, for young Chinese, there is an assembly line ready and waiting for a good idea.

Third, there is virtually no copyright protection. As corporations overseas fight an uphill battle to cling to their copyright protections, young Chinese are mostly free to do as they want. There are occasional crackdowns, but most people sail on unperturbed.

Finally, for middle-class youth, city life can be surprisingly cheap. It's normal to live at home after college. Free housing, fortified with mom's home cooking, makes it easier to live a creative life.

Overseas cash and attention act as fuel for all this. Brands look to support designers to develop a hip local sensibility. Individuals do too -- especially overseas Chinese, who bring a unique biculturalism.

So are New York, London and Tokyo yesterday's news? No, we're a long way from that. Education, experience and originality count for a lot, and there is a deficiency of all three here. But that will change. Soon we'll see what it looks like when a dragon leapfrogs.
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