This is the fourth city newsletter.  We shall now take a break to research and write a book.
– Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna
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Culturally Hangzhou has tended to play, maybe always will play, second fiddle to its larger neighbour Shanghai – 45 minutes away by high-speed train. Art fairs, major museums, fashion weeks, book fairs, film festivals – all are rooted in  Shanghai, especially those with an international dimension.

The same goes for global entertainments such as Disneyland. Before Covid, a very smart and ecologically sound property developer wanted to take Legoland to Hangzhou. It is being built in Shanghai.

Douyin, TikTok and performance
But at least in one regard Hangzhou trumps Shanghai. As early as 2015 the Chinese government identified Hangzhou, a city of more than 10 million people, as the e-commerce centre of China, a not unreasonable judgement given the city is the home of Alibaba, and remains so even after the fall from political grace of Jack Ma. In 2020 China’s e-commerce added 38% to GDP and 25% of physical goods in China were sold online, according to Statistica.
If that is the e-commerce picture, with Hangzhou its centre, the city is even more key as the home of the innovative interface between e-commerce and livestreaming  – spheres which in the West are largely separate (think Amazon). The major platform is Douyin (抖音, launched in 2016),  the Chinese elder sister of the international version TikTok (launched in 2017), both owned by China’s ByteDance.

Now of course livestreaming on Douyin exists in its own right and has many of the elements on tap in the West – men and women interacting (even if more decorously in China), comic short videos, gameplaying etc. But the key and distinctive element is this marriage between e-commerce and livestreaming which was worth nationally a total of 1.2 trillion yuan (US$ 190 billion) in 2020 and is set to double to 2.7 trillion yuan (US$ 420 billion) this year according to the Shanghai-based iResearch Consulting.
To grasp what is happening on a human scale it might be best to glance at two Hangzhou livestreamers. One is Luo Yonghao (17.79 million followers on Douyin, see image below) who in April 2021 moved his live streaming operation of 400 people (front and back end) in its entirety to Hangzhou from Beijing. He is a controversial figure who as long ago as 2006 had a blog platform, one of the most liberal, which was subsequently closed-down. More recently he owned a handset company now in financial trouble. According to, Luo Yonghuo’s first 7 hour promotional Hangzhou livestreaming/e-commerce event was watched by 6.25 million and sold more than 260,000 products, bringing in US$ 3.21 million.
If Luo Yonghao is a major Hangzhou player, together with even bigger players such as Weiya who was disciplined by the government in November for tax evasion on her livestreaming activity – there are also much smaller players. Even foreign ones. Rachele Longhi is an Italian living in Hangzhou who has a live streaming operation with 3 million followers. She promotes everything, from Tesla cars to wine, from make up to farmers’ paintings.  KOLs such as her need to develop a good relationship with their consumers who are price sensitive and demand reliable goods. Sometimes she doesn’t make a lot of money but she does generate the necessary trust and loyalty.
Of course the role of the ‘middle person’ means that the power of the consumer to review products online is diminished. The consumer’s relationship is with the KOL, not the business.
This Chinese phenomenon is moving into Europe in the next couple of months (Wallmark, one of the US investors in the American version, has already begun a livestreaming/e-commerce operation there). It is said that staff will come from China to the UK to oversee and implement the transformation; the staff in Europe simply don’t work fast or hard enough.

TikTok meets the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company
TikTok and Chinese soft power
Because TikTok is Chinese owned, it has been worrying Western analysts for some time. President Trump insisted that American investors be involved with the American TikTok to mitigate data security threats.
More recently, Silicon Valley executives recognise TikTok as an overwhelming challenge to their stranglehold on the digital domain.
The sinologist Elisabeth Economy in her recent book The World According to China has gone so far as to claim TikTok as an example of Chinese tech soft power.
But it is not the TikTok technology as such that is an incarnation of soft power any more than it was the technology of Hollywood that made it for a time globally powerful. It is the content on TikTok and especially the relationships it develops between KOLs and fans/customers and corporations over time that is most distinctive, important and compelling. This is the cultural importance of TikTok and it may be the intimacy that e-commerce/livestreaming develops as much as the tax evasion of the KOLs that has attracted the attention of the Chinese government, always wary of alternative centres of loyalty to itself.
If livestreaming/e-commerce  is half as powerful in Europe as it is in China, it may change not only how TikTok is used and by whom, but also the character of shopping in Europe, the relationship between KOLs and followers and shift further the amount of time that people spend online. Such shifts in behaviour would be solid testimony to TikTok’s cultural or soft power status.
As if to forestall criticism of what may happen, TikTok has just announced that it will subsidise the price of tickets to the UK Royal Shakespeare Company for 14 to 25 years old.
Hans Haacke, White Sail (1964 –1965), in ’A Show About Nothing’. Photographer: Wu Qingshan
Museums Hangzhou-style
Two new museums have been built recently in Hangzhou, adding to the large number built during the Chinese museum boom
 – even if quite a few of them may have been features imposed on the developers by the government in exchange for land. But that is not to gainsay their remarkable flowering.
More on the World Tourism Museum, one of the two new museums, below. But the opening of By Art Matters, a private contemporary art museum founded by the fashion entrepreneur Li Lin may suggest a Hangzhou inflection of the museum boom, one which marks out its difference from its neighbour, Shanghai which is full of grand museums
Li Lin has wisely not tried to compete with such behemoths – even if she commissioned Renzo Piano to design the museum. What is distinctive about this new museum is that it is integrated into a complex that includes two commercial galleries, a music venue, restaurants as well as the headquarters of her company. Integration might also be said to be the signature of the opening exhibition. The exhibition A Show About Nothing brings together Chinese with Western artists, from a concept proposed by its New York-based Italian director Francesco Bonami. It remains an open question, after only one exhibition, whether the museum will develop a distinctive identity or will lapse into becoming another space where globally trending artists show. For some, the appointment of a New York based  director does not bode well; for others he brings a necessary wealth of experience.
But at present one can say that By Art Matters does appear to be an attempt to integrate the global and local at the level of art – and to integrate the museum into the traffic of daily life. The same ambition can be found in the Hangzhou developments of Weng Ling’s IDEAS group which is building two major cultural projects, one of which will integrate art and science. As with By Art Matters, the ambition is to build museums not in proud isolation but to integrate them into complexes serving a variety of needs.
There has not been a great deal of noise on social media around the opening of the By Art Matters museum which may be a sign that its attractiveness will be restricted only to an already constituted art crowd. It’s worth remembering that it is opening at a moment when President Xi’s ambition towards Common Prosperity includes culture.
Tourism and the city
Tourism is the largest industry in the world in terms of employment – which means that countries vie for influence in the institutions that globally monitor tourism activity.
China certainly does this – and perhaps inevitably wants to make Hangzhou, one of the most the beautiful cities in China, traditionally called ‘Heaven on Earth’, the city of tourism. Hence the new World Tourism Museum, which is asking for donations from around the world to add to the collection and which is working with Beijing’s Palace Museum to develop products (museum products are a woefully underdeveloped sector in China). Hence too, the founding in Hangzhou of the World Tourism Alliance (WTA).
There is a back story to both initiatives, especially to the WTA, as Professor Wolfgang Arlt of COTRI helped us to understand. China and Saudi Arabia – in other regards increasingly close allies – are struggling over ownership of the UNWTO, the official UN tourism body. Saudi Arabia is investing billions in tourism. The Secretary-General of UNWTO, supported by China for the post, seems not to have challenged Saudi Arabian imperatives. If this continues, it’s possible that China will want to substitute its WTA for the UNWTO and Hangzhou will be the centre of the alternative court of global tourism.Irrespective of diplomatic power struggles during Covid, the virus and its effects have transformed the sector. But it does look as if Hangzhou may have benefitted from the inability of the richer Chinese to leave China. The city has enjoyed this year a 5.3% increase in luxury hotel occupancy and during the last national holiday alone received 17.99 million visitors. But like everywhere else subject to mass tourism, Hangzhou is paying a high environmental price, not least with pollution in Hangzhou’s glory, the West Lake.
Of course, the new museums and art spaces (many have opened; many others planned) begin to enable Hangzhou to offer as its tagline ‘Culture and Nature’- but this depends on the city’s ability to reduce pollution and despoliation – much like Venice.

Wu Duanduan, Illustration no. 1 to the play Tea House by Lao She, 1982. Woodblock print. Courtesy, Muban Educational Trust
The face of realism
Elements that By Art Matters are not attempting to integrate (nor are many the other new museums) are the Chinese realist art of the twentieth century (the art equivalent of the great Chinese writer Lu Xun) or post 49 revolutionary art.
This is odd since in the west Black Lives Matter has brought back realist figurative art in from the cold. Western galleries are now searching manically for committed figurative art.
It is particularly strange that new Hangzhou institutions do not acknowledge these kinds of art because the city’s famous art school, the China Academy of Art, began life in 1928 as the National Academy of Art, and was the first art institution in China officially licensed to engage with Western modernist art. There was nothing parochial about the social realist and socialist realism traditions and a small Hangzhou private museum called Xixi Yide Art Museum continues to keep this particular flame burning, with exhibitions of artists including the great German Käthe Kollwitz and the Soviet artist Andrei Mylnikov.
Sadly, with the Chinese government celebrating ink art and the new museums involved with a certain version of globalised art, these realist traditions can often seem orphans. It need not be the case. Eastern European countries are trying to come to terms with their post-war socialist and social realist art in a series of museum shows which try to reckon with the past.
It is worth remembering that almost all the Chinese artists valued by the contemporary artworld began by making social realist paintings.
Additional research: Gao Jingyi

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