Juilliard improves tone of China’s urbanisation

June 29, 2012

By John Foley
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The tone of China’s frantic urbanisation may be changing for the better. The Juilliard School, one of the best known U.S. music and fine arts colleges, has picked the city of Tianjin for a new institute. The host city is unlikely to be motivated only by a love of the performing arts, but it matters little so long as China’s urban jungle gets more liveable.

It’s not hard to see why Juilliard picked Tianjin. The city will offer the U.S. school a brand new campus rent free, according to a person familiar with the situation. At present the new site, in the wannabe financial centre of Yujiapu, is an hour’s drive from Tianjin. But high-speed railway lines should cut that leg to mere minutes, making Beijing also accessible within an hour or so.

Financially, that could make it a big win. The campus should be in easy reach of a formidable population of rising middle classes. Greater China already supplies around a tenth of Juilliard’s U.S. music students. Classical music is hot: a fraught Juilliard audition even makes an appearance in Amy Chua’s controversial parental memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”.

Tianjin’s motives may not be purely artistic either. Big cities are clamouring for Western trophies to show their global credentials. Think NYU’s Shanghai campus, due to open next year – or the signings of international soccer players Dario Conca and Dider Drogba to Chinese teams.

While there’s room for discord – Chinese President Hu Jintao has complained Western influences are too prevalent in the media – it should be minor. By avoiding theatre and dance, Juilliard shouldn’t fall foul of China’s censors, and by not offering formal degrees, it also won’t need to worry about the equivalence of qualifications. The school is sticking to what it knows too – there’ll be violin lessons, but no-one will be studying the erhu any time soon.

China is building cities at an alarming rate, around 20 a year, and should account for 38 percent of the global increase in urban floor space between 2010 and 2015, according to McKinsey. That’s a lot of sprawl. Any idea for making city living more harmonious deserves an audience.

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