I arrive in Asia’s biggest train station in March 2021. The Xiongan New Area station opened three months prior to my trip from Beijing to China’s new megacity. Arriving inside the station, I am greeted by meters and meters of printed PVC banners covering the unfinished parts with the station’s own rendering. I keep walking down a corridor that opens up to reveal one half of the glossy departure hall on my right. On my left, the second half is still being built. Its depiction is printed out, covering the entire space.
I have arrived to see this future city for myself. I get into the car and drive towards Rongcheng, one of the three old counties that have been united to become Xiongan. On my drive I pass by kilometers of vacant land ready to be developed. The road leading towards Rongcheng county town is packed with trucks carrying construction material. The entire area is covered by a thick layer of dust. Suddenly a spot of color pops out of the earth-toned surroundings. Colorful murals and sculptures are scattered over a small square next to a vacant building. In front of a wall painting is a man singing into two mobile phones on a tripod, livestreaming his performance.
We have arrived at Harmony Life Square, a little spot in Xiongan New Area (XNA) that has been built in the early urbanization process to mediate the urban future to local residents. Residents who have already lost or will lose their houses for this new city project and are now faced with the transition from being peasants to becoming urban citizens.1Carolyn Cartier, “Magic Cities, Future Dreams — Urban Contradictions,” in Prosperity, ed. Jane Golley and Linda Jaivin (ANU Press, 2018), 186–206. The square is a government-initiated project introducing a green urban lifestyle and is designed to be activated by social media.
The urban-digital spectacle surrounding XNA started with its announcement in April 2017. Images and imaginations of this state-led future city circulated in national and international media before the first cement was poured. The master plan describes it as the “model city” and blueprint for a smart and green city of “international standard”.2The official English website of Xiongan New Area: http://english.xiongan.gov.cn/2018-04/21/c_129855751.htm In news articles it was described as “China’s Silicon Valley” and a place “too wonderful for words”. The computer-generated images show a lush green utopia of old and young spending time along the riverbank, using an aesthetic familiar from other urban development campaigns. This aestheticization of the urban process is common practice in urban development projects.3Mónica Montserrat Degen and Gillian Rose, The New Urban Aesthetic: Digital Experiences of Urban Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2023). However, while CGI is crucial in the branding and promotion of the future city, this article focuses on physical environments that address a local audience during the early stage of urbanization.
The article adds to Zhang, Roast and Morris’s concept of wanghong urbanism, a new theoretical framework originating from a Chinese context.4Amy Y. Zhang, Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Wanghong Urbanism: Towards a New Urban-Digital Spectacle”, Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture, no.4, vol 7 (November 2022). Wanghong5It can be translated as internet famous, meaning something or someone going viral on the internet. Ge Zhang and Gabriele de Seta, “Being ‘Red’ on the Internet,” in Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame, ed. Crystal Abidin and Megan Lindsay Brown (Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018), 57-67. urbanism is a framework for understanding how urban space is produced, consumed and planned through social media. The case of Harmony Life Square in XNA is an example of “intentional wanghong”, one of three categories developed within this concept: accidental, exemplary, and intentional wanghong. This temporary environment of a public square is planned as a stage for social media performance. The designed space becomes the background of images and videos by social media users and contributes to the digital spectacle of China’s next megacity project, XNA. Understanding the spectacle in the Debordian sense as “not a collection of images”, but “a social relation between people that is mediated by images”,6Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (London: Rebel Press, 1994). this article looks into the early period of the making of a city to illustrate how user-generated content is integrated into urban planning and the transformation of social spaces. The case of Harmony Life Square square adds to the urban-digital spectacle discourse by showing how environments are built for a specific moment in urbanization and their distribution through social media becomes part of the urban planning process.
The article builds on data I collected in the field in 2021 and in 2023 in cooperation with the artist Yang Jialin. During the field research, we documented the future city’s presence in public space and representative architecture through photography and videography. We conducted semi-structured interviews with urban planners, designers, and residents. In addition to collecting the performances and stages of social media spectacle in XNA, I am building a netnography of the urbanization process posted on the social media platform Douyin (internationally known as TikTok). This is part of my PhD research within the project “Social Worlds: China’s cities as spaces of Worldmaking” and this article is a first glimpse into the research on urban media production in XNA.
XNA is supported by the central government and a presidential signature initiative, making it the symbolic project of Xi Jinping’s “new type of urbanization” (xinxing chengzhenhua), as well as giving it the financial and political backing to be realized at such speed and scale.7Nele Noesselt, “A Presidential Signature Initiative: Xiong’an and Governance Modernization Under Xi Jinping,” The Journal of Contemporary China 29, no. 126 (2020): 838–852. Residents of Anxin, Rongcheng and Xiongxian county had to relocate to newly built housing units to make space for the new city project, which covers 1,770 km2. Around 1.04 million former rural residents will have to find their place in this new megacity that is being built 100km south of Beijing.8Yuan Yuan, “Taking Shape”, Beijing Review 60, no. 39 (2017): 30–31. The master plan of XNA is a response to the last three decades of China’s rapid urbanization and is meant to solve Beijing’s issues with overpopulation, including long commutes, pollution, sky-high real estate prices and rent, as well as growing social divisions. The images found in public space of XNA, such as advertisements along the construction sites, little design objects in souvenir shops and many ambient TVs on public squares and buildings, depict a glossy happy future. These promises legitimize the displacement and point local residents towards the future rather than the past or present. At the same time, educational campaigns and art in public space make clear that in order to participate the local residents will have to learn to become urban.
To illustrate the coexistence of future and present as part of the urbanization spectacle, it can help to take a look at the work of artists Spongegourd Collective. In their video work “Nothing ever happens here,” the artists asked temporary and permanent residents of XNA to step in front of a green screen placed on vacant land of the city yet to be built. In post-production symbolic architecture and advertisements promising a bright urban future are added on the oval screen creating multiple layers of time. The people in the video are standing in front of the layers of what is promised and what is being built, within the present void. Spongegourd’s work makes visible this feeling of being in the in-between and depicts how the void is being filled with imaginations of a future city.
Almost six years after XNA was founded, only a first batch of relocation housing in Rongdong, a business service center, the Xiongan train station and several parks have been finished. Vast stretches of land are still under development. Many residents lost their former occupation, do not yet have new apartments and are waiting for their houses to be destroyed.
The small county towns of Rongcheng, Anxin and Xiongxian have not yet been demolished, because they still serve as basic infrastructure for education, housing, and commerce. Nonetheless these county towns are slowly changing through incoming workers and businesses. New restaurants are opening up to cater to new residents coming from all parts of the country. The streets are being cleaned up and parking is banned from newly built streets and pushed underground. Some of the facades have been given a colorful upgrade. On Luosa Street in Rongcheng, the buildings are covered in murals of people doing yoga or of the now historical industries and crafts that once defined this area. These specific areas are built for the residents of the old county towns “to show them urban life can be fun”, as one director of an urban planning company put it.9The interview was conducted by the author on June 16th 2021 in Xiongan New Area.
Harmony Life Square is a former parking lot of a factory building that was opened in 2019 as a public square. It was commissioned by the local Rongcheng county government and planned and executed by the urban planning company IBR Shenzhen. Its Chinese name, man shenghuo guangchang 漫生活广场, is hard to translate. The character man has many meanings. By itself it can be translated as overflowing, free, casual, and in combination with other characters it can mean romantic (langman) or roaming (manyou). It describes an aspirational lifestyle and a feeling defined by being relaxed and at ease.10This differs from its official English title Harmony Life Square in its meaning, which is probably due to the impossibility of translating the ambiguity of the Chinese character. The square sits at the intersection of Aowei and Luosa Streets and extends into one of the more vivid streets of Rongcheng. The walls of the empty factory depict its mascots Rongrong and Sanmao Duck—a little girl reading a book together with a small duck. The girl is wearing a red dress. She is sitting in a lotus field, which symbolizes Baiyangdian, one of Northern China’s largest freshwater lakes, which is the center of the green ecosystem supporting XNA. In the square are five dome sculptures, developed by students of Syracuse Architecture school in the state of New York. At the entrance to the square is a waving flag sculpture carrying the inscription “Harmony Life Square”. Next to it sits the square’s symbol, a six-meter-high double helix tower covered in (mostly broken) LED strings. The square is designed as a sensory experience with bright colors and an urban aesthetic that feels foreign to its surroundings. A building made of different colored shipping containers assembled within this environment references creative zones found in most cities in China, while a few kilometers to the north more than 100,000 construction workers are living in dorms often made of similar containers. This phenomenon of two timelines coexisting feels like being “sandwiched between the ‘real’ and the cyberspace,” as Cao Fei, one of China’s leading video artists working on China’s urban transformation, puts it.11Cao Fei, “Cao Fei on the Limits of Truth and Virtuality” [Interview], Artforum International, March 15, 2020.
The square is constructed as an educational space for the transition from rural to urban citizenship. A board introducing the concept behind the square reads: “Rongcheng County’s ‘Harmony Life Street and District’ puts forward a completely new concept of ‘man lifestyle’. It looks towards the future of urban life in XNA from a new perspective, using public art instead of drawing from traditional methods to educate people about the concept of a green lifestyle.”12Translated from Chinese: 容城县“漫生活街区“提出了全新的”漫生活“理念， 子全新的视角展望雄安新区未来的城市生活， 并用公共艺术的表达方法替传统灌输式的绿色概念教育. Transcribed from a board on Harmony Life Square photographed by the author in June 2021. This square is not built for the urban tourists coming to XNA. It communicates to new city dwellers that urban life can be fun. However, it also makes clear that in order to participate, new skills and lifestyles have to be acquired. Five bubble sculptures designed by students have suffered from an obvious loss in their translation from sketch board to their physical manifestation. Named the Five Sense Bubble Group, they invite visitors to explore their senses by spending time in a bubble, drinking tea, or reading a book. These unused spaces perform a lifestyle that does not exist in XNA. Although many people are unemployed and are in a constant state of waiting, the concept of dwelling and slowing down to drink tea and read in a bubble sculpture seems oddly displaced from the way the area and people’s lives are structured.
The square uses an urban aesthetic to create an introduction to what is to come. It further uses this out-of-place feel to create a space worth noticing — the idea of creating something worth taking photos of, or with. A collaboration between the urban planning company behind Harmony Life Square and the social media platform Douyin shows the intention of having the space documented and its image circulated via social media. In December 2020, an event on Harmony Life Square launched the project “Douyin lively Xiongan”, uniting all social media posts using the project name as a hashtag. As an event series, the official Wechat account of Harmony Life Square invited the local residents to come together and jointly document the “beautiful XNA”. This collaboration between the urban planning company and Douyin is intended to make the square wanghong.
During our visit in 2021, two retired women dance and sing in front of their camera in Harmony Life Square. They tell me they come here every day. A man dressed all in black uses two phones to record his karaoke performance. On the other side, next to the double helix tower, a mother and her daughter take turns filming each other with their phones. Although the hashtag only has about ten thousand views — so in wanghong terms it might not be internet famous at all — this temporary environment is part of the urbanization process of XNA and is meant to become part of its digital spectacle. The intentional wanghong environment uses a specific urban aesthetic found in many rural to urban transformation processes and even collaborates with one of China’s most used social media companies to turn the square into a spectacle. It is a curation of images, integrated into the planning and promotion of the square, which then becomes part of the urban-digital spectacle of XNA.
However, the media spectacle around Harmony Life Square cannot be understood as only top-down; rather, it must be seen as a collaborative act of making worlds. It is a networked spectacle.13Florian Schneider, Staging China: The Politics of Mass Spectacle (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2019). In the urban-digital spectacle, the collaborative aspect has moved to the centre. Former consumers of spectacle have become creators, environments have turned into stages, and urban planning is actively incorporating wanghong urbanism.
As of February 2023, Harmony Life Square has seen its heyday. The empty building with the mural of the girl Rongrong is currently under construction. The planning company told us that the square was planned to exist for only two to three years. It has now been replaced by places like the Music Fountain in Jinhu Park, which marks another stage of XNA’s urban-digital spectacle.
Antonie Angerer is currently a junior researcher at the BMBF funded project “Worldmaking: A Dialogue with China” in the subproject “Social Worlds: Chinaʼs cities as spaces of Worldmaking” at the University of Würzburg. She is writing her PhD at the Free University Berlin researching the function of urban media in Chinaʼs early rural-urban transformation processes. Outside of academia she is active as a curator and was the co-founder and director of the art and artistic research platform I: project space (2014- 2020) in Beijing. In her curatorial practice she has worked on projects around the topics of urbanization, gender concepts in the Asia Pacific, independent space practice, and new media and digital art practices. She is editor at tria publishing platform and co-founder of the independent art space festival Beijing.
|↑1||Carolyn Cartier, “Magic Cities, Future Dreams — Urban Contradictions,” in Prosperity, ed. Jane Golley and Linda Jaivin (ANU Press, 2018), 186–206.|
|↑2||The official English website of Xiongan New Area: http://english.xiongan.gov.cn/2018-04/21/c_129855751.htm|
|↑3||Mónica Montserrat Degen and Gillian Rose, The New Urban Aesthetic: Digital Experiences of Urban Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2023).|
|↑4||Amy Y. Zhang, Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Wanghong Urbanism: Towards a New Urban-Digital Spectacle”, Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture, no.4, vol 7 (November 2022).|
|↑5||It can be translated as internet famous, meaning something or someone going viral on the internet. Ge Zhang and Gabriele de Seta, “Being ‘Red’ on the Internet,” in Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame, ed. Crystal Abidin and Megan Lindsay Brown (Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018), 57-67.|
|↑6||Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (London: Rebel Press, 1994).|
|↑7||Nele Noesselt, “A Presidential Signature Initiative: Xiong’an and Governance Modernization Under Xi Jinping,” The Journal of Contemporary China 29, no. 126 (2020): 838–852.|
|↑8||Yuan Yuan, “Taking Shape”, Beijing Review 60, no. 39 (2017): 30–31.|
|↑9||The interview was conducted by the author on June 16th 2021 in Xiongan New Area.|
|↑10||This differs from its official English title Harmony Life Square in its meaning, which is probably due to the impossibility of translating the ambiguity of the Chinese character.|
|↑11||Cao Fei, “Cao Fei on the Limits of Truth and Virtuality” [Interview], Artforum International, March 15, 2020.|
|↑12||Translated from Chinese: 容城县“漫生活街区“提出了全新的”漫生活“理念， 子全新的视角展望雄安新区未来的城市生活， 并用公共艺术的表达方法替传统灌输式的绿色概念教育. Transcribed from a board on Harmony Life Square photographed by the author in June 2021.|
|↑13||Florian Schneider, Staging China: The Politics of Mass Spectacle (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2019).|