Cosmopolitanism as a Resource

Cosmopolitanism as a Resource
Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Today, we continue the series “Zone of Dissent: Spaces for Criticism in China from the 1980s to Now.” After three articles explaining the historical and spatial background for the expression of criticism in China, this last article proposes to unveil how new forms of cosmopolitanism empower critical initiatives in China.

Gravitating around transnational socialization, digital tools, and influences of world cultures, this syncretism of the world's ideas in a collective is fueling critical minds navigating through the Chinese authoritarian context, surveillance grid on society, and rampant censorship.  

Since the 1980s, global ideas and influences have steadily flowed into China. These ideas have reached audiences through various channels, including information networks, intellectual exchanges, the Internet, and the circulation of cultural goods such as books, CDs, and artwork. 

However, the authorities closely monitor and control these drivers of globalization. Despite this surveillance, intellectual media and cultural products continue to enter the country, from books swapped in student dormitories to broken CDs salvaged from censorship bins.[1] These resources, offering a window to the world, are fueling a new wave of cosmopolitanism in China. 

This sometimes ranges from shaping aspirations to nurturing independent spaces for critical thought oriented against the destructive race to economic development and the impossibility of taking a stand against it. [2] This article will explore the openness of some parts of China's urban population.

Despite the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to stifle critical thinking, some people still manage to cultivate it. While reflexivity is more challenging in an authoritarian context, we examine how cosmopolitanism is a crucial resource for fostering critical minds. 

Multifaceted Cosmopolitanism in China

Cosmopolitanism is the process of incorporating global ideas into a place, a space, or a person. It unfolds over a long period of time and through various channels.

Our extensive research, particularly through biographical reconstructions, reveals significant insights. One major finding is that a segment of the Chinese population experiences intense socialization influenced by global openness.

Ties with friends and family who have emigrated abroad, international travel, and exchange student programs expose a substantial portion of the current Chinese middle class to foreign people, ideas, and cultures. [3]

China's openness has also transformed its cities, infusing them with international influences and trends. Major Chinese cities have become global hubs, fully integrated into the flows of globalization. Thus, cosmopolitanism in China is dual-faceted, propelled by both individuals and the places it permeates.

Even in professional environments, an increasing number of Chinese companies, foundations, and organizations are operating on a transnational scale.

Business trips abroad, academic exchanges, or artist residencies contribute to the cosmopolitan everyday life experienced by part of China's urban population. The creative class, central to my research, is particularly open to the world. They encounter diverse cultures and develop a genuine appreciation for transnationalism.

Just as the "techno-cultural contagion" affects young people worldwide, some urban Chinese are also experiencing a "cosmopolitan awakening."[4] This phenomenon is sparking curiosity about global ideas and cultures. The online discovery of cultural goods, ideas, and trends often fuels critical thinking. Exposure to diverse perspectives can lead individuals to seek a deeper understanding of global events, sometimes prompting a reevaluation of the narratives they have been taught all their lives. This shift is exemplified by one of our interviewees:

“ I noticed in an article online that there is this independent space existing in my city, Guangzhou. I decided to check it out. I met people there who told me about the history of struggle, the history of youth movements and artists in China. I realized that I didn't know this history at all. I discovered that there are lots of people who have encountered the same difficulties as me, who share the same questions, who are organized, who have struggled, and that there is a heritage. I'm told about the Tiananmen massacre, I'm told about the stars movement, I'm told about what's being done here and what's being done there. I'm accessing a history that we weren't taught at school, that my family didn't tell me about, that's been a huge liberation.” [5]

Interview with a young artist, Guangzhou

As this artist explains in this quotation, online access to international resources can lead people in China to discover initiatives that resonate with their critical aspirations.

Despite living under the Great Firewall, Chinese netizens still find ways to satisfy their curiosity. Many use VPNs to bypass censorship filters and access foreign websites and platforms to get access to sensitive information or simply enjoy cultural goods from abroad.

Indeed, a significant amount of cultural content—movies, books, songs, etc.—is labeled as too "sensitive" by the censorship filters and doesn't reach a Chinese audience. Through this online cosmopolitanism, people consume cultural goods to curate their identities by selecting what resonates with their critical aspirations.

Connecting Through Cosmopolitanism

These post-internet identities connect different, remote, and unknown individuals based on shared aspirations, troubles, and concerns. Regarding resources, the individual cosmopolitanism in everyone fuels the ability of Chinese critical thinkers to produce public initiatives.

One of the major findings in our research on independent spaces was the predominant role cosmopolitanism plays as a resource. Inspired by diverse local and global influences, these spaces are shaped by the knowledge, organization, and practices that each member brings to the collective. This creates a dynamic group emulation where new cosmopolitanism emerges, linking these spaces with foreign influences, people, and ideas.

These spaces are embedding new ways of being together and mixing foreign influence and local concerns. By engaging their creators to interact, share, and discuss, they form “public arenas” that connect with other arenas across the country and abroad, fostering a rich exchange of ideas and initiatives.

“Individuals who have been privatized, atomized and serialized politically, but who have maintained bonds of solidarity in their daily lives, rediscover their ability to speak before a restricted audience, and thus to think and judge, and put their collective power to the test (...). ) These enclaves are opened up, delimited and maintained by the interactions and conversations of people who transgress political prohibitions and give themselves a freedom of engagement that is denied to them on the outside, or who experiment with alternative relationships that run counter to the dominant canons of class, gender or race.” 

Daniel Cefaï. Publics, public problems, public arenas... What does pragmatism teach us? 2016

The uninterrupted connection via digital tools places the various collectives in a permanent and instantaneous neighborhood. The result is the emergence of a critical daily life marked by discussion, debate, and information exchange.

This virtual co-presence with committed people from all over the world was observed in spaces in China. In their everyday life, global trends fuel an online and offline discovery of events that resonate with the protest aspirations of its members. Thus, the internal organization of the spaces, inspired by what was being done elsewhere, adopted a democratic framework. Discussions were held, and joint decisions were made, with each member having his or her voice.

Topics for discussion are set up based on the shared concern about global phenomena challenging human rights. In these spaces hidden in China, subjects such as the anti-nuclear struggle in Japan, the situation of migrant workers in Beijing, the civil war in Myanmar, or protests in Hong Kong can be discussed and debated.

A Transcritical Archipelago: Networking Socially Engaged Artists in East Asia

In June 2019, we observed another aspect of cosmopolitanism within independent spaces in China. On the eve of the massive protest in neighboring Hong Kong, the primary space we investigated in Guangzhou became a spontaneous rallying point for activists from various countries. 

In an unconcerted momentum, activists from different cities in China, as well as from Japan and Taiwan, converged on an independent art space on their way to Hong Kong to join the protests. This illustrates how such spaces in China can serve as temporary rally points that resonate with political situations.

When activists converge in response to an event, the cosmopolitan character of these spaces reveals the affinities, connections, and solidarities they foster. These independent spaces in China demonstrate their potential as hubs for international collaboration and support, highlighting their critical role in the broader landscape of global activism.

The Transcritical Archipelago in East Asia serves as a framework for disseminating knowledge and practices for socially engaged activities. People's mobility and the circulation of cultural objects and ideas along the network's rhizomes connect different spaces, accompanied by the critical spirit of those involved.[6]

Aspirations to challenge authority and create critically informed lifestyles emerge from these dynamic exchanges. The identities, norms, objects, and practices developed within this transnational network are spread through these mobilities. These exchanges commit the various collectives in the network to share the knowledge and practices they develop via different media and platforms, fostering a vibrant, interconnected landscape of critical engagement and social activism.

In conclusion, exploring independent spaces in China reveals the profound impact of cosmopolitanism as a resource for young critical minds. These spaces serve as hubs for exchanging knowledge, ideas, and practices, fostering a dynamic environment where individuals challenge authority and engage in socially transformative activities.

This East Asian network exemplifies how cosmopolitanism enables the dissemination of critical perspectives and encourages collaboration across borders. Through mobility, circulation of cultural objects, and exchanges, young activists within these spaces harness cosmopolitan ideals to confront power structures and shape alternative narratives.

As the interconnectedness of global networks continues to grow, cosmopolitanism remains a vital tool for nurturing critical thinking and driving social change among China's youth.


  1. Nathanel Amar. The Lives of Dakou in China: From Waste to Nostalgia. Études Chinoises, 2018, 38 (2), pp.35-60.
  2. Truong, O. (2024, July 3). Independent spaces: the last bastion of criticism in China. The Vietnamese Magazine.
  3. According to experts, the middle class in China consists of between 300 and 400 million people.
  4. 'K-pop, soft power et culture globale' (Puf, 2022)
  5. The Stars Art Group is an artistic movement founded in the late 1970s by Ma Desheng and Huang Rui. This group of artists is highly emblematic of an avant-garde reinventing art practice in China around individualism and freedom of expression. The Stars Art Group is still a reference for many artists in China.
  6. We are referring here to the Deleuzian concept of rhizome to describe how networks today are expanding in several directions, like a bamboo forest.

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