China is fast becoming the world’s creative superpower. And it is doing it on its own terms. No longer an emerging nation that needs to learn from the west or copy its way to commercial success, China is in many ways already ahead of the rest of the world.
And it is moving fast. Bewildered visitors to the country talk about “China speed” – the incredible velocity at which buildings get built, products get launched, start-ups get started, technologies get adopted.
Dockless bike-sharing networks are a good example of China speed in action. The first provider, Ofo, launched in 2014 and within a couple of years millions of rental bikes, unlocked via a smartphone app, were visible on Chinese streets. The market subsequently contracted dramatically but the speed and scale of the rollout of an entirely new urban mobility service was astonishing.
Another example is WeChat, the app that combines social media, messaging, payment and web functionality that is streets ahead of anything we have in the west.
China is the leading global player in many other technologies of the future including solar power, battery technology, electric cars, facial-recognition tech and drones
Launched in 2011, it is now used by over one billion Chinese people, with new functionality being added all the time. Its seamless payments service has created a cashless economy where even credit cards are viewed as anachronisms and where restaurants are booked, friends invited, food chosen and the bill split and paid for with just a few taps of your phone screen.
The ubiquitous QR codes plastered over every surface in Chinese cities are the visible links between the physical world and the new virtual economy.
But China is also the leading global player in many other technologies of the future including solar power, battery technology, electric cars, facial-recognition tech and drones. The ambitious Made in China 2025 policy aims to make China a leader in yet more next-generation industries, leaving decisively behind its reputation as a cheap manufacturing base for foreign brands.
The battle to dominate sunrise sectors such as biotech and AI is in many ways a two-way fight between China and Silicon Valley. With e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba and Tencent, owner of WeChat, China has two of the biggest and most dynamic tech companies in the world.
And with moonshot projects like its plan to build a solar power station in space, China also has the potential to take global leadership on technologies to mitigate climate change, at a time when western drives to reduce emissions appear to be stalling (although a recent surge in construction of coal-fired power stations could undo China’s good-cop reputation).
Chinese soft corporate power is on the rise and its brands have started to become household names in the west. These include consumer electronics and telecoms brand Huawei, PC maker Lenovo, drone-maker DJI and cycle-sharing networks Ofo and Mobike. Video-sharing social network TikTok is the first app from China to find major global success.
China has the potential to take global leadership on technologies to mitigate climate change, at a time when western drives to reduce emissions appear to be stalling
The 2016 animated movie Kung Fu Panda 3 was the first international blockbuster to be co-produced by a Chinese studio, with one third of the film made in China. Didi Chuxing, the ride-hailing app that beat Uber at its own game in China, plans to launch overseas.
Many other iconic western brands are now owned by Chinese companies, including car brands Lotus and Volvo, which are owned by Geely, and MG, which is owned by SAIC Motor. Motorola, Weetabix, Hamleys and Inter Milan and AC Milan also have Chinese owners. Less well known is Qumei Home Furnishing Group’s £480 million purchase last year of Norwegian furniture giant Ekornes, the biggest furniture manufacturer in the Nordic region and owner of the Stressless brand.
With technology driving the economy, serious architecture and design have often felt like an afterthought. When a showpiece building was required, the talent was imported. When a contemporary interior look was required, it was copied.
But that too is changing. A new generation of home-grown Chinese practitioners is gaining confidence, encouraged by the international success of the first wave of overseas-educated talents including architects MAD and Neri&Hu, and furniture and homeware brands Stellar Works and Zens.
With technology driving the economy, serious architecture and design have often felt like an afterthought
This year, Chinese designers are being feted at fairs around the world. Chinese architects and designers were notably present in the longlists for last year’s Dezeen Awards, with 62 firms making the cut, making China the fourth-most successful country after the UK, USA and Australia.
Meanwhile western architects and designers are being drawn to China in droves. Walking around the vast halls of the Design Shanghai fair and attending social events in the city last month, I was struck by the number of people I know who have relocated to the country to take advantage of its dynamism and wealth.