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Media portrayal of the globalized city

By Zeng Yiguo | 2013-08-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Dragon Dance to celebrate Chinese Spring Festival in Macao
From the early 1990s, Beijing had embarked on the path of building an open, cosmopolitan city. The 2008 Olympic Games only added fuel to this fire. Concurrently, the mass media has consistently been an outlet of suggestions and portrayals of the potential world center Beijing could become. Shortly after its initial steps toward internationalization, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Nanjing, and Suzhou also followed suit. The warm embrace of “internationalization” is indicative of the Chinese people’s aspiration to see the rejuvenation of their nation. Globalization has not only facilitated the rapid expansion of cities, but also accelerated the construction of intricate networks between different cities, inevitably fueling both cooperation and competition. In this process, the media’s role has been one of both promotion and reflection, highlighting the triumphs of internationalization, but observing the disadvantages caused and furthered by it as well.
Various media outlets have released city rankings to spur competition between different cities and regions. However, along with the numerous success stories attributing their good fortune to the opportunities provided by urban expansion, problems also arise: environmental pollution, heavy traffic and the exacerbation of the income and education disparity between rural and urban populations. In some cases, internationalization fails to enhance a city’s international recognition; rather, it destroys the city’s unique historical and cultural traditions. As the architect Ruan Yisan has observed, while in the 1980s there were around 50 ancient towns in the Jiangnan region, such as Zhouzhuang in Kunshan City, Jiangsu Province, many of these have since been demolished to make way for massive urbanization projects. Globalization and internationalization have been regarded as the main culprits in the cultural destruction of many cities.
According to some scholars like Feng Jicai, what lies behind internationalization and urbanization is the worship and total acceptance of western culture. Unconditional westernization has not elevated the international status of the city, but has hampered national self-esteem and culture. Ordinary citizens and intellectuals alike have vigorously debated the cultural merit of some of the recent additions to Beijing’s skyline, such as the National Center for the Performing Arts (nicknamed as "The Egg") and the iconic CCTV Tower. Behind these edifices is the hidden conflict between traditional Chinese architecture and modern western architecture.
As the British historian Eric Hobsbawm has observed, tradition can be revived in the process of modernization. A significant number of media sources have launched campaigns for city protection and the reconstruction of native identity. In 1997, Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House initiated a series of “classic pictures,” to help raise people’s awareness of cultural conservation by presenting old photographs of Beijing, Suzhou, Shanghai and Tianjin. In the steps taken by the media to promote local cultural awareness, the traditional world is portrayed as a warm, cozy and stable environment—the dreamland of contemporary urbanites, closely related to the self-identification and the collective memory of the urban citizenry. The lost tradition thus has regained its value, serving as antidote for social maladies and a spiritual destination for those seeking to reconnect with ancestral or cultural roots.
By rediscovering tradition, the media can help establish a new understanding of the relation between the city and the individual, the city and region, the city and the nation and the city and the world. For example, Oriental Dailybased in Hong Kong reconsidered Hong Kong’s link with the Zhujiang Delta from the perspective of regional culture, while Wenhui Bao based in Shanghai revisited Shanghai’s historical connections with the Jiangnan Region.
While Macao may feel inferior in comparison to its looming cosmopolitan neighbor Hong Kong, the rediscovery of the tradition has helped the media formulate a new vision of Macao. In an article published in Review of Culture, it is asserted that Macao should transcend its singular reputation as a gambling haven and “recreate its image” from a historical and cultural perspective to become an “advanced, tasteful, and world-renowned city.” Regardless of its size, as long as a city has local color, it can always appeal to the rest of the world. We should also note, however, that undue emphasis on local culture may fuel excessive protectionism, transforming “local tradition” into a euphemism for the rejection of other cultures.
Additionally, there are some circumstances where tradition loses its authenticity after becoming an object of media portrayal; many traditions have been transformed, distorted and whitewashed, and even some pseudo-traditions have come into existence. Someone argued that  the efforts to “repair” the historical and cultural preservation district on Shantang Street in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, commenting “A new Hulu Temple, no matter how realistic it is, is merely a fake antique after all, because the real one cannot be revived. Culture accumulated for a thousand years cannot be replicated in a short time through pecuniary expenditure; even if it is built, it is nothing but a product developed by business to make a profit, not an ancient cultural relic that has been carefully protected.”
According to Edward William Soja, distinguished professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, when rethinking the process of localization, we tend to think and act locally; however, we also need to bear in mind that we cannot separate the city from the region, the nation, and the world. I believe we need to keep thinking critically so as to keep the extremes of rapid globalization and obstinate nostalgia. An ideal city is human-oriented, regardless of whether it is globalized or localized.
Zeng Yiguo is from Soochow University.
The Chines eversion appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 385, Nov. 28, 2012.
Translated by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne