China’s Design Revolution: Britain’s response and looking at China with new eyes

China’s Design Revolution: Britain’s response and looking at China with new eyes


China’s government, which has managed the extraordinary 35 year transition from basket case to leading economy, now wants to set it on a new course: to become a knowledge-based economy, even an ‘innovation society’, rather than just a manufacturing hub.

Manufacturing industry is “to move from cheap products that others specify to developing their own designs and brands” and is to take on hundreds of thousands of product designers. Design education is a focus of investment and encouragement.

In many other countries such vaulting ambition would be ridiculous, but this government is very effective in promoting its policies. Furthermore, the aspiration is widely shared. Businesses know that they urgently need design if they are to compete abroad. And the universities are tooling up rapidly.


One reason why there are so many Chinese students in the UK is that there were not enough university places at home, and that the quality is variable. In 1991 barely 3.5% of 18-22 year olds went to university, whereas today 40% do; that’s 200 million in a variety of types of institution.

The UK government is encouraging private universities to set up; so is the Chinese. There are already a few foreign university campuses, including three British, and so far there are over 250,000 foreign students, but that is just the beginning. The Korean, South East Asian, Latin American and African students in the International Blocks at Tsinghua, for example, have Chinese as their common language, not English.

To make them more down to earth, universities are encouraged to partner with businesses and offer industrial and professional training. For example, there are often new buildings in which both established companies and new enterprises take space in order to give work experience opportunities to students and as experiment labs.

Design in the curriculum

1,400 colleges offer courses in art and design to 1.2m students. They include famous ones such as the  Academy of Fine Arts  in Peking and that of Hangzhou. The cities of Changsha, Kunming, Shenzhen and Wuxi have recently upgraded or built specialist design education institutions, and provincial governments are trying to attract design firms to their technology parks. 

Few of the design schools are up to standard, especially since the feeder secondary schools have side-lined or abolished art and design in recent years, but institutions are working to correct their weaknesses in three ways. They are importing teachers from abroad; initiating overseas collaborations in design education, and sending students, like the Europhiles, abroad. This is the nitty gritty of economic change and a new challenge for the advanced economies.

The economic background

China is no longer the workshop of the world. Rising wages and labour scarcity show that China is ready to upgrade its economy and produce higher value goods and services. This means investment in education, innovation, science and technology.

As in the UK, culture is now recognised as an industry. This includes art, performing arts, music, media, product design, architecture, fashion, software, video games and advertising. Private and public investment in the creative industries is rising and, according to an EU report, over the last decade the Chinese cultural industry multiplied by 60 times, reaching 5% of GDP as planned by the government in 2013.

Across the country, creative clusters are springing up where artists produce, exhibit and sell their work. One of my former students set up a creative company in Peking six years ago. By chance I was visiting her when she was meeting two local government officials who had supplied her company with premises in a small creative hub in old warehouses in the city centre. Four years later, they were there to discuss a grant for expansion of a company employing over 150 people, of whom 50 are Innovation & Development.

When the China Media Centre, which I founded, got its first commission to train TV producers from Hunan TV, in 2005, that company had already copycatted British programme formats without permission. After our trainers had introduced them to format producers who explained their designs in minute detail, Hunan TV started buying formats under licence. Shanghai TV, among others, noted the success of this approach but in recent years has gone a stage further in using China Media Centre services. Their producers come over twice a year with programme ideas that they then work up with experienced programme development executives; they also brainstorm and hold innovation workshops in London so that they can develop their own programme concepts.

In other words, they have progressed from copiers, to partners, to originators.

I suspect that this is the form we can expect of many industries.

From 1949 to 1979 China went backwards – economically, politically and culturally – so when it emerged blinking into the sunlight under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s it had a great deal of catching up to do.

For many years Europeans and Americans have been very smug, assuming that China will not match them any time soon, especially in design and innovation. They are being proved wrong. Very soon we will be dealing with equals, innovating in numerous fields.

And to cooperate with China, the China of President Xi Jinping, in which Anglo American culture is explicitly rejected and a traditional Chinese identity being reinstated, it would be wise to put effort into understanding a civilisation that is very different and intends to remain so, and discovering just how advanced it is, and may soon be.

Two years ago China Media Centre organised a media colloquium, at which the keynote speakers were Jeremy Paxman, the TV anchor and political analyst, and Bai Yansong, China’s equivalent, a forceful and critical current affairs host.

At the end, Bai, courteously, asked Paxman what Chinese media might learn from the BBC. Paxman made an eloquent exposition of the glories of the BBC, implying that China had nothing comparable. He showed that he knew little about the world’s biggest media system.

Returning the compliment, Paxman asked Bai Yansong what the BBC might learn from Chinese media. Bai paused and then made the laconic remark: ‘Learn Chinese’.

[Based on a talk to the Conference of British Heads of Design, given at Edinburgh College of Art on 16th March 2017]

Hugo de Burgh is Director of the China Media Centre and Chairman of Kensington Wade English Chinese Dual Language School, Europe’s first immersion school for children 3-13



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