By Rebecca Catching, originally published in China Now, the British Council platform for the arts and creative industries in China
Chinese administrators have a certain penchant for carving up the country into different kinds of zones to stimulate different kinds of economic activities and environments. Though it may seem heavy-handed, it is this willingness to engage in controlled experiments that allowed China to emerge from a centrally-planned economy.
The latest round of “re-zoning” involves an attempt to lasso nine cities and two special economic zones (SEZs) in southern China into an integrated megalopolis that moves towards an EU-style integration but stops quite a bit short. It’s a plan which is quite controversial and has very different meanings for different people.
Some see the Greater Bay Area (GBA) as a mere “re-branding” of the Pearl River Delta in order to jumpstart the country’s slowing economy, following a previous attempt in 2004 to introduce the concept of the “Pan-Pearl River Delta.” Others see it as an attempt to create a zone of more openness by allowing Hongkongers to live, work and practice their professions in the area more easily i.e. through recognition of their professional credentials and through access to social services. Many in Hong Kong see it as a thinly-veiled attempt to bring Hong Kong back into the warm embrace of the Motherland, but it is most likely a case of all of the above. Its true form and purpose is something that is likely to make itself clear only as it unfolds.
The Overall Plan: A Megalopolis and Economic Power House
With an area, the size of Croatia and a population slightly larger than Britain, the Bay Area economy ranks in the top 15 economies in the world and could benefit from improved transportation, the harmonization of regulations and the creation of interregional networks. This new configuration seems like an attempt to put a fresh, new international face on the region, which often compares itself to the Tokyo or San Francisco Bay Areas. But it is more than just hype.
In this scheme, each city has a vital role to play. Hong Kong is the portal to the outside world—the financial engine of Asia with a robust legal system based around English common law, which makes it an attractive headquarters for foreign business. Shenzhen has become the tech and innovation hub, home to firms such as, Tencent, Baidu and Dji (a drone manufacturer); Macao offers gambling and tourism; Dongguan is known as the Factory of the World; Foshan is a base of furniture and ceramics manufacturing; and Guangzhou is a historical trading hub and administrative capital of Guangdong. The plan also includes Zhuhai, Zhongshan, Zhaoqing, Huizhou, and Jiangmen, and all these cities form a c-shaped cluster around the mouth of the Pearl River.
Cultural Goals: Promote Lingnan Culture and Create a Space of Global Interface
The rhetoric of the report outlining the plan is dualistic in the sense that it is both outward-looking in emphasizing greater engagement with the outside world but also rooted in the region’s cultural traditions.
As we can see from this excerpt of the plan, the government sees the plan as a soft power offensive, one which is geared at both foreign and domestic audiences. It aims to:
. . . jointly take forward the [promotion] and development of the fine traditions of Chinese culture, leverage the advantages of the geographical proximity and cultural kinship of Guangdong, and Macao’s similar geographical and cultural backgrounds, jointly carry out major cross-border cultural heritage protection, co-organize various cultural heritage exhibitions and performances . . . [This includes] cultural relics, world cultural heritage and intangible cultural heritage in the Bay Area [and] the promotion of Lingnan culture represented by Cantonese opera, dragon boat [racing], martial arts and lion dancing . . . [The scheme also aims to] strengthen the cultural soft power of [the Greater Bay Area] district, further enhance the cultural literacy and social civilization of residents, and jointly shape and enrich the humanistic spirit of the Bay Area.
Given this, we can assume that projects which provide a greater international platform for Lingnan culture as well as projects involving UK arts practitioners of Chinese ancestry, to be favored and funded as we can see by the focus on exchange with Lusophone countries, overseas Chinese, and international collaboration in general as mentioned in the plan outline.
[The scheme aims to] support Guangzhou to build Lingnan [as a] Cultural Center and portal [of foreign cultural exchange] to expand the influence . . . of Lingnan culture to support Jiangmen, to build an important platform for cultural exchanges and cooperation between overseas Chinese and Chinese. Support Macao [in its long-term role of facilitating] multiculturalism in integration [of Eastern and Western Cultures], accelerate the development of cultural industries and cultural tourism, and build cultural exchange centers between China and Portuguese-speaking countries and to encourage Hong Kong to play the role of a cultural exchange platform between China and the West . . .  [italics mine]
Though this inward-outward leaning proposal may seem new, it is in fact rooted in the indigenous culture of the region, reflecting the historical culture of exchange.
What the Scheme Means for Culture
The GBA initiative hopes to leverage Hong Kong’s internationalism, to promote the creative industries, develop the market for culture including publishing, media radio, film, and television and create a base for the development of the music industry. In concrete terms this means exchanges between school groups, performing arts organizations and museums, to facilitate “cross-boundary” performances and to support projects such as the West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong Palace Museum and Xiqu Center (Hong Kong’s glorious new Cantonese Opera Hall), the International Film and Television Exhibition (FILMART), the Hong Kong Book Fair, Art Basel Hong Kong, and the HK-SZ Design Twin Cities Exhibition. These projects were chosen because of their international profile and will help provide a platform for Mainland cities which will be invited to collaborate and participate.
Tempting Talent: Changing Restrictions in the Film Industry
As a medium of mass communication, the film is often subject both to strict censorship and staffing restrictions aimed at protecting the Mainland film industry. But the GBA scheme plans to loosen the requirements placed on the ratios of nationalities on film crews, remove the requirement that film plots in co-productions be somehow linked to the Mainland and eliminate co-production set-up fees. Hong Kong films can now apply to participate in Mainland awards ceremonies and apply for incentive programmes to promote their films throughout the region and abroad. This should open up new opportunities for HK film producers and for UK film producers looking to collaborate in the region as the GBA scheme seems to place a large emphasis on foreign collaboration.
As mentioned previously in this article, this new scheme builds on pre-existing trends. Film scholar Grace L.K. Leung writes that Hong Kong has made a huge contribution to the Mainland film industry already, “A lot of Hong Kong producers and artists entered into the China market and contributed to the modernization of China’s cinema. Between 2007 and 2017, nearly half of the top ten box office successes in China were directly or indirectly related to Hong Kong.” Hong Kong is also an important marketplace for Chinese films, writes Leung, it “serves as the hub of buying and selling Chinese Mainland films and TV dramas through FILMART and it is increasingly seen as a remarkable platform to explore co-production in Asia. In 2017, there were over 220 Chinese exhibitors at FILMART.” This new development is a welcome trend for many HK film professionals as the HK film industry has been stuck in a low ebb for a few years.
Visual Arts: Building Upon Regional Roles
In terms of the visual arts, the integration makes quite a lot of sense given the various strengths of the cities in the area. Hong Kong as a global financial center is not only home to many high-net-worth individuals willing to enter the art market but also a hub for collectors in Asia. Another advantage is that its customs regulations allow galleries to import art for art fairs without paying duty if the goods are shipped back. The reliable, efficient and transparent customs agency and sophisticated logistics system which can handle art shipping, make for a seamless experience. All of this has galvanized the local art scene attracting many international galleries to establish branches and creating momentum in the local Hong Kong scene, supported by organizations such as M+, Asia Art Archive, and the Asia Society. In addition, Hong Kong has historically played a role in funneling books and information on the latest global trends to artists in the early decades of contemporary art in China.
Guangzhou provides certain historic importance as the home of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and was also the home of the Lingnan School of painting. Today it is home to a number of important art institutions, the Guangdong Times Museum (arguably one of the most cutting-edge Art Museums in China) and the non-profit art center HB Station, and Mirrored Garden (the new location of the historically-important gallery Vitamin Space). There is also Libraria Borges, the Video Bureau (an archive of Chinese video art), and Bonacon Gallery, all founded by artist, Chen Tong—a member of the Big Tail Elephant group and a kind of godfather of the Guangzhou scene. Shenzhen has the He Xiangning Museum, OCAT Loft and Design Society—a collaboration with the V & A, which focuses more on the applied arts and dialogues with Shenzhen’s tech scene, maker culture and the region’s manufacturing traditions.
We can already see a certain amount of collaboration occurring within these regions, for instance, a Greater Bay Area Art Tour was organized this March for collectors visiting Art Basel Hong Kong, covering eight institutions in the region, and the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture, which routinely asks probing questions about urban space and the construction of cities. Hong Kong artists, though their art scene suffers from a lack of influential art academies, and governmental support have been batting above their weight due to their access to the outside world and yearly inundation of curators and collectors, their language proficiency and the fact that they speak a “global” language of contemporary art and art theory.
Though the independent art circles of the Greater Bay Area have been engaging in exchange in an organic way for many years; the region’s official art circles have been recently galvanized by the new initiative into a more intense interaction. The newly-formed government body, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area Artist’s Union, has committed to the creation of new committees for academic research into art and design, the production of an annual large-scale yearly exhibition, the creation of a young artists’ organization for the Bay Area, to inviting various renowned speakers to give lectures and improving the general level of theory and criticism in the region. A lot of this kind of activity has been occurring already but not within this regional framework.
Distinct Theatre Ecosystems: Learning from Each Other
The market for drama in Hong Kong is severely affected by the lack of sufficient performing venues, amongst other major challenges including the need for modern interpretations of traditional content, more focus on research, the need for more dedicated performing arts centers, and the need for more collaborations with brands and business. Hongkongers recognize, with some envy, the strong development of the particularly lucrative field of children’s theatre in the Mainland, but also reflect on the need for Hong Kong to actively explore the market through providing funding to smaller performing arts groups to experiment with new ways to export Hong Kong’s theatre content.
One barrier for Hong Kong producers is censorship, but another equally important issue is the use of the Cantonese dialect in a theatre scene with is mostly-dominated by Mandarin-language productions. There are very few productions that are suitable for all three markets, and the GBA region also suffers from a lack of professional drama schools—the Shanghai Theatre Academy and the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing are the two renowned institutions in greater China.
In order to share best practices and experiences between the various regions, the government has organized the “Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macao Youth Drama Exchange Program,” which aims to train the next generation of young theatre professionals through joint creation, production, performance, and playwriting competitions. Selecting the best scripts from each region were first made then the theatre alliance brought several plays to the stages of Guangzhou, Macao, and Hong. One co-production, Confucius 63, explored the life of the sage, but rather than producing the kind of pat biographical re-telling, it actually sought to challenge the notions of Confucius as a modest benevolent philosopher, even going as far as to create a satire of Hong Kong’s current political situation, according to Hong Kong critic He Junhui. Confucius 63 is an example of what sorts of fruitful and critically-challenging cross-border projects can be achieved.
A New Chapter Literary Collaborations
The collaborations between the various literary worlds in the GBA also suffer from some of the same issues as the theatre world, including language, ideology, and censorship. Though Hong Kong’s literary scene was highly influenced by Mainland authors who fled the country prior to 1949, that influence began to wane in the 1970s. Hong Kong bookstores today carry mostly Taiwanese and Hong Kong authors. Hong Kong books or foreign books of any kind are strictly controlled within China and the Hong Kong publishing sphere has been devasted by the influence of Mainland censorship with several booksellers arrested for selling politically salacious material; many booksellers closing up their shops due to pressure and Zhong Hua Book Company—a Mainland firm—has now taken over all of the bookstores in the Hong Kong airport. Gone are the days of “democracy tourists” who would visit Hong Kong to purchase banned books.
That said, the publishing industry, as early as the mid-2000s, had recognized the importance of the PRD Market. In 2004, the “Pan-PRD Publishing Forum” signed the “Framework Agreement on Co-operation in Publishing in the PRD” which allowed Hong Kong and Macao companies access to opening up bookstores and the distribution of audiovisual products. In order for this plan to work, however, there needs to be an earnest commitment to not only opening up markets on both sides but also a commitment to clear channels for the dissemination cultural regulations. Publishing houses and creators in the two SARs often lament the mercurial approach to regulations, which change as often as the seasons and which are not clearly publicised. The Hong Kong government has also recommended that the Mainland government “must work with the non-governmental sector in many ways to build up an integrated development platform,”  which is sound advice given how much creativity is generated from the authors outside of the official circles.
There has already been a number of publishing collaborations between the Mainland and Hong Kong, for instance the Sanlian Press collaborated with the Guangzhou publishing house, HCH 广州花城出版社 to produce a classic literature series including a set of Shen Congwen’s writings, (Shen Congwen is a modern writer of equal standing to Lu Xun), and Yu Dafu, a writer of the same era, whose decadent and sometimes decrepit characters are seen as a critique of the Chinese nation. Other regional collaboration projects include the recent series by HCH, A New Literary Force From Hong Kong “Xianggang wenxue xin dongli,” 香港文学动力, which spotlights emerging talent from Hong Kong such as Dorothy Tse, Snow and Shadow, and Chen Yuanshan, Foolish Wood.
Despite these successful Collaborations, Pan Yaoming of the Sanlian Press, suggests there is a need to promote and popularize the literature of the region through mainstream print media platforms. Zhu Shoutong, a professor at the University of Macao feels that in order to improve the fortunes of the region’s literary output more focus needs to be put on the local literature ecology, for instance, the creation of robust funding bodies and sponsorship systems—an area where Macao has seen some small but significant victories. To this effect, the Guangdong Provincial Writers Association launched a new series, “Greater Bay Area Literature,” “Yuegangao dawnqu wenxue congshu” 粤港澳大湾区文学丛书, from the humanities research base of Jinan University, which invites authors under the age of 50 who have not published collections of their work to apply.
Writing a long profile about the attitudes and ideas of the region’s young literary talent, author Zhu Shaojie explains that next generation of young authors has ambitious hopes of changing the model of the “yue pai” 粤派 or Guangdong School. Though many remain loyal to their Lingnan roots, some would like to escape the strict delineations of the Lingnan sociocultural system. History, it seems can be both a burden and a springboard.
What’s interesting about this GBA experiment is that it is firmly grounded in both tradition and innovation—a strategy that might seem anachronous to Western audiences but which is in line with Taoist cyclical concepts of time which seem to push forward and pull backward at once. For instance, the platform echoes back to the earlier 2004 “Pan-PRD” plan and also the historical exchange which has been occurring for Dynasties. The plan has no trouble embracing notions of both tradition and modernity and is inward and outward-looking at the same time. The comfortable existence of these polar opposites makes perfect sense in the context of China’s Taoist underpinnings and the concepts of “yin” and “yang.” The constant interplay and existence of both yin and yang is the foundation of human experience—both are equally important and one cannot exist without the other. This interaction produces a modernity which is simultaneously forward-looking—hopeful and utopic—but also backward-looking, glancing back over its shoulder at the cultural and historical forces which shaped it.
Some might see this focus on “roots” in the context of guoxue and Confucius institutes as a CCP-backed soft power initiative, but we might also see it as a legitimate attempt to avoid being swallowed up by the maw of modernity—assimilated through the process of cultural globalization. If we were to take a Taoist approach, we might say that it is, in a wholly uncontradictory fashion, both of these things.
 “Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area,” www.bayarea.gov.hk, last accessed April 28, 2019, https://www.bayarea.gov.hk/filemanager/en/share/pdf/Outline_Development_Plan.pdf)
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 The full text of the plan can be found here https://www.bayarea.gov.hk/filemanager/en/share/pdf/Outline_Development_Plan.pdf
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