Imagineering Place : The Branding of Five Chinese Mega-Cities

Abstract: Cities, regions, nations and other places have in recent decades become active participants in the global competitive economy, and now operate in a global marketplace, competing with other places all over the world for investors, tourists, residents and workforce. As a result, places use marketing and branding strategies and practices to gain reputation and competitive advantage. Chinese cities have, over the past decades, increasingly engaged in branding activities, and even taken the role of spearheads for China in its positioning in the global economy, seen for example in the organization of mega-events. The branding of Chinese cities nevertheless exhibits some differences compared with city branding in the West. The aim of this dissertation is to contribute to our knowledge of the internal-political aspects of place branding, using field studies of the imagery used in city branding practices in five Chinese mega-cities, namely Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chengdu and Chongqing. The focus is on the images and language used in the cities’ branding, and on key political aspects involved in the branding of Chinese mega-cities. The theoretical lens incorporates concepts tied to images, language, imaginaries, ideology and power, and the study relies on an ethnographic, multiple case study approach, including longitudinal fieldwork in China. The findings consist of rich illustrations of the branding of the five Chinese mega-cities, and include an analysis of similar imagery found in all five cities, grouped into economic, international, cultural, social and environmental imaginaries. This shows that city branding in Chinese mega-cities is focused on creating international and competitive cities, while also paying attention to the environment, culture and internal target groups such as residents. A central contribution of this dissertation is the development of the concept ‘imagineering’, used in this study to conceptualize key political aspects of city branding in Chinese mega-cities. Imagineering contains three main elements, namely local adaptations of national directives, policies, plans and concepts; a strong future orientation while also accentuating selected elements from the past; and a focus on local populations with the creation of stability and harmony as a central goal. Imagineering is also conceptualized as a policy instrument exercised by a powerful élite, closely intertwined with urban governance, and used to influence people, values, places and, ultimately, city futures.

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