More than a year after the Olympics, the party isn’t over in Beijing. Earlier this month, the Chinese capital’s National Day extravaganza, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, offered a spectacle that rivaled–and reportedly outspent–the opening ceremony of last summer’s Games.
And up next is something that may pale in terms of pageantry, but that organizers hope will prove nonetheless pivotal in marking China’s rise. Starting this week, and running through October 30, comes the first-ever Beijing Design Week as the city hosts the International Council of Graphic Design Associations’ (Icograda) biennial conference–the latter being the Olympics of the visual communications world. Together, the combined events “will help redefine China’s role in global design, and set a milestone in China’s design history,” according to Wang Min, the design dean at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), one of the main organizers.
Wang’s claim might sound hyperbolic. But if you haven’t noticed, hyperbole often becomes reality in China these days–and taking the long view, Wang may be onto something. It’s not just that the Icograda conference, which is being held in China for the first time, is promising some big numbers: more than 2000 attendees, 97 speakers from 6 continents, 25 exhibitions, and 46 workshops throughout the country. More importantly, it signals China’s determination to transform itself from a low-cost manufacturing economy to an innovation and design-driven one. “There is no question that this is our new ambition,” says Li Danyang, a deputy president of Gehua, the powerful state-owned enterprise that’s spearheading the week.
To be sure, design is the new buzzword in Beijing. Policymakers are working hard at marshalling their considerable leverage and resources to create ways of promoting it. The city’s top design schools, CAFA and Tsinghua, are boosting their curricula, while throughout town, one hears of new developments spanning government-funded design centers to emerging companies and scrappy young firms. Launching with a ceremony at the gleaming National Centre for the Performing Arts, that space-age leviathan aptly nicknamed the Egg, the new Design Week will cover everything from digital and green technologies (including an exhibition of alternative energy cars) to branding and product, industrial, fashion, architectural and interior design. “We want to create an image of Beijing as a world design capital with world-class design resources,” says Li.
Of course, it’s no secret to anyone–to say nothing of the Chinese themselves–that Beijing and China have a long way to go, both in terms of the image and the reality. Creativity doesn’t happen overnight, and China will have to work hard to improve a reputation so badly tarnished by piracy, imitation, quality issues and so on. At the same time, while China has excelled at building hardware (creative industry zones, educational campuses and other physical infrastructure), its software (what goes on inside them) has lagged behind. Whether or not Beijing will reach its goal of becoming a global design capital remains to be seen. Even within China, cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen are bent on giving it a run for its money. But one thing seems clear: it’s getting the ball rolling.