Having lived in two Chinese mega-cities, Guangzhou and Shanghai, PhD candidate Emma Björner decided to combine her greatest interests – China, urbanisation, and communication – in her thesis project at SBS. In her research she wants to find out how Chinese mega-cities are strategically branded in China and the world.

City Branding in a Chinese Context

Events such as the Beijing Olympics 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo 2010 have served as triggers for city- and nation branding efforts within China. The cities in Emma's study – Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chengdu and Chongqing – are all attempting to establish their own unique city brand. While there are many similarities between city branding in China and in other parts of the world, there are some key differences.

"The differences are partly attributable to the Chinese context, and China's history, culture, and institutional system being different. Historically, it has been a strict hierarchical society, which permeates city branding to this day. In China, the central government is powerful, and city leaders are required to follow CCP policies. Nevertheless, these leaders also enjoy comparative freedom to develop and brand their city the way they like, as long as it is in line with the overall guidelines of the central government."

The Creation of Change

Typically, the branding activities of the mega-cities in the study are both visionary and future oriented, and even serve as active and powerful agents of modernisation and change. The cities imagine their future, produce desirable images of the city and communicate it to audiences inside and outside the city, ultimately inducing change. The concept that Emma uses to describe this phenomenon is 'imagineering', including the two rather contradictory concepts of imagination and engineering.

Chinese mega-cities are imagined and envisioned based on ideas about an ideal city future. Images (such as words, pictures, symbols, concepts and ideas) are the tools used to take the city into its desired, envisioned direction; and this is done in a proactive, powerful and engineering-style manner. The imagineering process is influenced by ideology, power and influence from the central government, the city government and the city districts, and negotiation between these levels. A central outcome of city imagineering is the creation of change, both in terms of the changeable character of city branding in Chinese mega-cities, and in terms of the change that the imagineering process can bring about.

Chinese Mega-cities on the Rise

Emma believes that in the future more Chinese mega-cities will gain the status of 'global city' or 'world city' and be regarded as important command points in the global economy. Cities like these are political powerhouses and centres for heavyweight national and international bodies. In China, Beijing and Shanghai are eager to seize these esteemed titles, and according to some they have, along with Hong Kong, already reached global city status. 
"With increased economic, political and cultural power in Chinese mega-cities, other cities around the world will be increasingly influenced by Chinese cities. This may also come to alter our current definitions of world cities and global cities, to incorporate more of the characteristics represented by cities in China."

Text: Linda Strid