Chengdu skyline aerial view at night, Sichuan province, China
It took students at Chengdu’s No. 3 Kindergarten a whole semester to figure out how to build a wooden plank bridge across a narrow pond. The process required many teacher-assisted trial-and-error attempts, and the result looked crude. But the bridge ended up being functional, and the kindergarten attained its purpose of teaching children to think creatively, its director, Gao Xiang, told me recently.
Creativity is increasingly sought out by Chinese parents despite a tradition of cramming for test scores that is still widespread in China’s education system. In Chengdu, a southwestern city known internationally for being home to the pandas, creativity has become an attribute promoted by the government, tech corporations and entrepreneurs alike. The city has established itself as an industrial base for western China, a railway hub with connections to Europe and a new destination for high-tech companies. Affordable rents and high-quality education have made Chengdu attractive to young families who might have been turned away by Beijing and Shanghai’s expensive real estate.
In October, Chengdu was named China’s best-performing city economy in 2019 by the U.S. think tank the Milken Institute, surpassing traditional champions Beijing and the southern tech hub of Shenzhen.
The report ranked 262 Chinese cities on nine growth indicators such as jobs, wages, gross regional product and foreign direct investment. Chengdu ranked first in five-year employment growth and fourth in wage growth and foreign direct investment.
“Chengdu has been a manufacturing center for decades, specializing in defense-related and equipment production,” the Milken Institute study said. “Today, Chengdu is one of the top five most populous cities in China – and has expanded its economy with a diverse, innovative industry base including transportation equipment production, biotech and life science R&D, and consumer electronics products.”
Just like Beijing has established itself as the political capital, Shanghai as mainland China’s financial center and Shenzhen as the innovative tech hub, Chengdu is carving out an identity as the creative, cultural capital of western China. The city has a population of 16 million and is the capital of Sichuan province. Both the local and the provincial government are pouring billions of yuan into bolstering Chengdu’s image as a creative powerhouse.
For example, the provincial government, through the Sichuan Association for Science and Technology, has allocated about $1.8 billion to build a “science-fiction town” on the outskirts of Chengdu, complete with museums, a writers’ base, a national science and innovation center and a sci-fi theme park. The project builds on Chengdu’s tradition as the center of China’s sci-fi community, which has been cultivated over the past 40 years by the Chengdu-based magazine Science Fiction World. The city also plans to raise its international profile by bidding to host the World Science Fiction Convention in 2023.
Although Chengdu is known for its entrepreneurial fervor, China’s tech giants are also starting to increase their footprint in the city. Tencent, China’s largest tech company and owner of superapp WeChat, has built a research and development center in the city’s High-Tech Zone that is focused on developing mobile games and apps.
It doesn’t hurt that the central government has designated Chengdu as one of the main nodes in the Belt and Road infrastructure development initiative, along with Chongqing and Xi’an, and is heavily subsidizing each train container of merchandise leaving the city for Europe. Nevertheless, many of Beijing’s constraints apply to a lesser degree in Chengdu, in line with the old Chinese proverb that says, “The mountains are high and the emperor far away.”
“Chengdu is a very organic, dynamic place,” says Jiang Xueqin, an education consultant based in the city. “Basically, it lets people in and lets people do whatever they want within certain constraints.”
Jiang sees Chengdu as one of three Chinese cities, along with Hangzhou, in east China, and Shenzhen, in the south, where creativity in education will flourish in the next few years.
But Jiang’s assessment and Chengdu’s own ambition to become the creative capital of western China come at a time when the country’s general climate is one of increased oppression and civil liberties are being trampled on. The government is stifling dissent, expanding socialist education in universities and ordering the removal of books from public libraries that don’t follow the official narrative.
In the higher echelons of Beijing’s top universities, the concept of creativity itself is being reinterpreted to mean innovation within government-imposed limits, sources say. Against this background, the ambitions of the government and people of Chengdu and elsewhere in China will be a tightrope act.