Category Archives: globalization

Review: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films of Beijing

Zheng, Yiran. (2016). Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films. Lanham MD: Lexington Books.

In recent years, the dialectic relationship between tradition and globalization has become even more visible in the urban spaces of Beijing. In the majority of news reports highlighting economic and cultural attractiveness of Beijing, we may find seemingly disconnected expressions, such as ‘greatness of imperial history’ and ‘rising center of global economy.’ This implies that there is a significant temporal gap taking place, and thereby, and points to the drastic urban transformation of the nation. Yiran Zheng’s recent book, Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films (2016), also acknowledges this presentation of Beijing. The conceptualization of Beijing as “the fusion of “traditional” Chinese city and a modern international metropolis” is one of the central themes that is constantly brought up in the book.

Writing Beijing (Zheng, 2016)

By this point, it is also important to note where all those urban spaces are located in the spatial structure of Beijing. According to the author, the area showing a concentration of typical Beijing buildings or courtyard houses is geographically located near the center of the city. Then, the next layer of architecture that loops outside the center is dominated by three to four story military compounds constructed under the guidance of Soviet experts. Thereafter, in the outer layer loop, there is new architecture and urban spaces that were built in the global era. Based on the three types of urban spaces identified above, the book largely consists of three parts: the first part focusing on military compounds (chapter 1,2,3), the second part concentrating on the typical building or courtyard house (chapter 4,5,6), and the third part exploring some examples of Beijing’s new architecture and urban spaces (chapter 7,8,9).

However, when considering the geographical map of Beijing and the structure of the chapters in the book together, Zheng does not fully explain why she organizes the three parts in such an order; namely, starting from military compounds to typical traditional Beijing housing, and ending with contemporary buildings. In the introduction, Zheng notes, “Beijing has been transformed from a traditional imperial capital city to a political center of communist China, then into a cosmopolitan metropolis (p. x).” The structure of the book does not seem to illuminate this transitional and changing character or flow of the city, but captures the configurations of the city in specific moments framed within the specific literary works. In that sense, to meet the author’s aim of this book, it is more persuasive to organize the parts and chapters in a geo-temporal order, moving from the central area of traditional housing to the outer area of contemporary buildings developed in present day China.

Each part of this book has three sections (chapters). In every first section, Zheng explores the architectural and spatial qualities of specific urban spaces. Then, Zheng discusses some representative writers and filmmakers in every second section, and finally in the third section, the author analyzes the configuration of the city in the literary works. Throughout the parts and chapters, Zheng uses different sources from different disciplines, such as urban studies, architecture, literature, cultural studies, history studies, and sociology. And Zheng also makes a balanced use of sources between foreign and Chinese authors. Zheng’s cross-disciplinary and cross-national use of sources is what makes this book interdisciplinary and allows it to retain a more balanced point of view.

In this study, the methodological framework is inspired by Lefebvre’s theorization of space. Lefebvre (1991), in his book The Production of Space (1991), proposed the spatial triad to understand the production of space and its embedded power relations. The triad divides space as: spatial practice (producing physical space), representations of space (conceived space), and representational space (lived space). According to Lefebvre, our spatial experience in space consists of these three interrelated elements (Lefebvre, 1991). Zheng specifically points to two of the spaces in this triad, representations of space and representational space, to formulate her methodology.

Within this framework, she emphasizes the intermediary role of artists (writers and filmmakers) between these two spaces. To be more specific, writers are influenced by urban spaces and architectures that are the “representations of space”, reflecting the ideology and expectations of designers. At the same time, writers and filmmakers respond to and reflect on those “representations of spaces” through their use of symbols, signs, and images in their literary productions. Thus, they create literary and filmic texts that refer to the space lived in by artists, “representational spaces”. However, except for brief explanations about the framework in the introduction and conclusion, the author actually does not conduct an extensive engagement with spatial theory, which she bases her work upon. It would have been more helpful if Zheng had continued to connect her discussion to her framework while discussing different type of urban spaces. By doing so, it would have been more apparent how the dialectic relationship between the three moments shown in Lefebvre’s spatial triad can be manifested and applied in this study as well.

Most interestingly, as noted in the beginning of the book, the concept of the coexistence of local and global in Beijing is an important issue for Zheng. This is clearly addressed when the author says that “the “ideal building” should be both modern and Chinese.” (p. 99). Zheng’s personal voice and position towards the relationship between the local and global in cityscape becomes especially prominent in Chapter 7, where Zheng discusses modern and postmodern architecture in the global era. These include the “three new symbolic architecture” in Beijing—National Centre for the Performing Arts (the Giant Egg), National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest), and CCTV New Main Building (the Gate).

In Chapter 7, Zheng is concerned about Beijing becoming “a common metropolis with no distinct cultures” (p. 91). According to Lefebvre, the urban spaces of Beijing produced within the context of global capital are Abstract Spaces, which are homogeneous and transparent, showing the orders and power hierarchies of capitalism (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 50-51). The Abstract Spaces of these new contemporary buildings of Beijing are shown in their symbolic architecture marked with the dominant activities of the cities (Castells, 2005). The three new buildings mentioned above are examples of the symbolic architecture that Zheng criticizes for its disconnection from the surrounding local context and environment. In that sense, Zheng also demonstrates that these designs are not “Chinese” because they were built by “non-Chinese” designers, which I thought was a bit difficult to understand (p. 102). Although this may be partially true, the concern should not lie in the nationality of designers, but with the strategies used in incorporating this symbolic architecture within the local city at large.

The book is, in general, interdisciplinary in its approach and provides a broad socio-cultural and political context on urban issues of Beijing. In addition, the book is approachable because it does not use discipline-specific academic jargons and is written in an illustrative and descriptive manner. It is clear that Zheng wishes this book to be read by broad range of students and scholars who are interested in the city of Beijing. Zheng also achieves this by consistently and systematically reiterating the important points throughout the introduction, the beginning and at the end of each chapter, and the conclusion; the structure of the writing is easy to comprehend. Finally, the book is very narrative and poetic in that it smoothly introduces us to the artists’ world of imagination. Thus this book creates another “representational space” that is lived by its readers, who have or have not been to Beijing, and encourages them to engage with the mode of imagination of the urban spaces of Beijing.

Jeongwon Gim (University of Alberta)


Additional References

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Castells, M. (2005). Space of Flows, Space of Places: Materials for a Theory of Urbanism in the Information Age. In B. Sanyal (Ed.), Comparative Planning Cultures (pp. 45–63). New York: Routledge.

The American Wall: Spatialization of Inequality

Laura Poitras, Academy Award winning Director of Citizenfour and others at Field of Vision stitched together 200000 Google satellite images to create Best of Luck with the Wall, a video of the US-Mexico border, where the American government proposes to build a wall to keep out Mexicans.

Over the last 15 years, Space and Culture has published multiple articles on the Mexico-US border as a division, a trade corridor and space of mobilities, a lived cultural experience, and as a liminal space betwixt and between the two countries.  These included Remembering Laredo (Mehnaaz Momen 2007), Road Signs on the Border (Lee Rodney 2011) and Speed and Space within a NAFTA Corridor (Jane Henrici 2002).

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Washington-Moscow: A New Geopolitical Bilateralism?

Trump has emphasized the bilateral in his thinking and approach.  This is in contrast to the multilateral world of the globalization era that is now at an end.  This includes an end to multilateral trade in favour of a network of focused bilateral economic interactions.  As a thought experiment, imagine that a Trump United States seeks to align itself strategically with other powers, ie. with Russia, even against the interests of its citizens (henceforth expendable in the interests of a monarchic state) or past allies (inconvenient obligations).  In this vision, the US and Russia would be economically similar, as highly divided countries, rigidly ruled.

A US-Russia partition of global interests would be echoed regionally, suggesting balanced tensions between proxies in each arena that dominate international interactions, for example Israel-Syria in the Middle East.  Such states would seek to profit as not only proxies but champions for their respective sponsors in each competition.

However, what of China faced with this bilateral duopoly?  There are opportunities to innovate.  Perhaps China is the banker of this dialectic?  Closer China-India ties be a better strategy for both as it  may lay the basis for a future, post-carbon economic bloc.  India is otherwise too weak to influence the course of events.

As for Europe, it is now retired from the geopolitical stage as it is too internally divided.  2017 thus also marks the end of the long-duree of European colonialism.   The peripheral states produced by European empires as suppliers of raw materials, whether Australia, South Africa, Congo, Algeria, Brazil or Canada, become more unstable because tied to one of the duopolistic major players and held captive to what they are willing to pay.

Bilateralism would suggest rather different international institutions.  It certainly is not neoliberalism with its corresponding international institutions.  Promoting a reduction to market logics  seem to have destroyed civility, allowing tyranny to take root.

If such a thought experiment were to be realized, it would entail a massive forgetting of the 20th century and the lessons of the recent past.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)



Tax Havens-R-Us: Digital non-geographies and the financial gaming of distance and difference

In today’s world of off-shore tax havens,i quantitative easing,ii high frequency trading,iii and rampant global asset and real estate speculation it seems that a sort of gamified monetary space-race is going on and that it’s advancing with increasing speed. This monetary space-race game is one that is partially defined by both off-shoring and “on-shoring,” by both making assets disappear behind the legal shrouds provided by nation states that profit by providing secrecy to wealthy international clients and conglomerates, and by making virtual assets material in the form of, for example, international real-estate speculation.

But this immaterial/material financial binary is not adequate if we are to identify more comprehensively the space and spaces – the game dynamics – being put to work in service of global finance capital. For example, as but one expression of this monetary space-race, the recent tax haven scandals surrounding Panama’s Mossack Fonseca (which after two weeks of headlines is barely discussed anymore) is not so much about securing or profiting from locating capital in distant geographical spaces – tax-free islands, sandy beaches, and sun-drenched shell-company postal boxes, as it is about taking advantage of new and emerging forms of: 1) interstitial temporal spaces; 2) immaterial or undetectable digital spaces; and / or 3) invisible spaces that, as far as the public is aware, simply do not exist. That is, despite superficial appearances, the new monetary space-race is less about physically off-shoring capital and currency, than it is about staying ahead of the embittered and comparatively impoverished masses and the increasingly indebted governments ever more desperate for funds by hiding, or making invisible, digital money that’s been stored in “the cloud,” on the internet, or on an array of hard-drives. In other words, generating financial distance between wealth and the tax-hungry governments who would love access to it is not achieved through the separation offered by geographical space, but through the creation of new spaces, non-spaces, unknowable spaces that may or may not be physically located in a data-centre or business park next to you in Canada, London, New York,iv or Delaware.v

Continue reading Tax Havens-R-Us: Digital non-geographies and the financial gaming of distance and difference

Tax Haven Financescapes: an elite spatialisation?

A layered global spatialization divides the world not just into haves and have-nots, but between a tax-avoiding elite that operate in the flows of a worldwide financescape of tax havens and economic free trade zones and “the rest” bound by taxes in outflanked territorial states.

The geography of the space of flows is distinguished by island tax havens: in the Caribbean, Bermuda, Panama, The Seychelles, the Channel Islands and Isle of Man for which Switzerland and its banks may be a global command and control centre.

The geography of offshore tax havens reflects the spirits of hoarding, self-enrichment, expropriation and mean-spiritedness. The leak of Mossack Fonseca’s archive via the ICIJ International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the US Centre for Public Integrity, reveals the identity of individuals and families that have cached away wealth to avoid taxation by national governments. As The Guardian put it today,

what has broken out of the vaults of the offshore legal specialists is “the sense that normal rules do not apply to the global elite. In a new gilded age, taxes would – once again – appear to be for the little people…. Slowly but surely… the world has learned that the banks that busted the global economy were also consumed with … rigging rates, ripping off customers and laundering Mexican drug money.” It reveals the “tax-dodging lengths that private wealth will go to in order to keep public coffers empty.”

The amount avoided in taxes would solve many countries budget deficits. Budget deficits are debts piled on to our children by tax avoiders.  The temporal aspects, in which money made in the past is inherited tax free in the present, taxes not paid in the present then lead to debt by others in the future, make this a distinct topology.  Its like the elite and the rest live on different financial planes.  These two worlds, two planetary financescapes, have points of intersection but otherwise conceived as independent.   The reality however is that the elite are living in a virtual reality, of course, and usually find out to their cost that they are dependent on the acquiescence of the many to this situation.  Social consent can easily by withdrawn.

Protests in Iceland at the revelations in the Panama Papers (Daily Mail Online 4 Apr. 2016)
Protests in Iceland at the revelations in the Panama Papers (Daily Mail Online 4 Apr. 2016)

daily mail iceland protest 32D82CAF00000578-0-image-a-10_1459798826336

Countries less able to monitor financial industries and collect taxes are particularly vulnerable, as the map create by Offshore Net  suggests.  USD21 trillion was their 2010 estimate.

Offshore wealth flows (Map:
Offshore wealth flows (Map:

A study of the American top 100 publicly traded companies by U.S.PIRG, as measured by revenue, shows 82 maintain subsidiaries in offshore tax havens. Collectively, the companies report holding nearly $1.2 trillion offshore, with 15 accounting for two-thirds of this (see diagram).

“When corporations use tax havens to dodge the taxes they owe, the rest of us pay the price, either through higher taxes, cuts to important programs, or a bigger deficit,” said Dan Smith, U.S. PIRG Tax and Budget Advocate and report author. “It also puts small businesses without expensive tax attorneys at a big competitive disadvantage” (Offshore Shell Games).

To these sites, one can add free trade economic zones that are tax free so that companies are not taxed on the value added to products in these zones that are way-points between producers and consumers.  Olivier provides one of the always excellent maps from the Le Monde Diplomatique archived on World Resources SIM Centre:

Tax Havens and Free Trade Zones (Le Monde Diplomatique 2000)
Tax Havens and Free Trade Zones (Le Monde Diplomatique 2000)

-Rob Shields (University of  Alberta)