For many in China the term soft power has come to symbolize the ‘going out’ of national culture in the second decade of the 21st century. Significantly, this decade echoes a period called the New Culture Movement, a hundred years previously, when scholars liberated from the requirements of being public intellectuals during the last days of the Qing Dynasty began to wonder about how Chinese culture could be renovated. The answer now, as it was then, is deeper engagement with the outside world.
Historically China had soft power. It had great influence in the world, particularly in East Asia during the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. Even in the Qing Dynasty China was respected for its cultural influence, as far away as Europe. China was the middle kingdom, as the literal translation of Zhongguo implies.
The sense of cultural superiority that attached to middle kingdom status unravelled when the foreign gunboats revealed a superior knowledge of technology. The question that some reformers chose to ask was: To what extent was Western technology underpinned by culture?
Over the next hundred years Chinese intellectuals and leaders reassessed the nation’s cultural roots: Was Confucianism the way forward or was it a backward looking model? How could it take the best from the West? In the end China chose Marxism, a Western philosophy.
In 1956 Chairman Mao, often associated with China’s disdain of markets prior to the 1980s, remarked:
In the industrially developed countries they run their enterprises with fewer people and with greater efficiency and they know how to do business. All this should be learned well in accordance with our own principles in order to improve our work.
Despite the rhetoric of cultural borrowing China remained wedded to Marxism. A decade or so after the demise of Chairman Mao, China’s new reformers discovered that a key problem was management. In his memoirs of the Open Door Period from 1978 to the mid-1980s the former vice-premier Li Lanqing writes that many enterprises did not know how to run their imported production lines: ‘As a result many imported installations could not perform efficiently, and some enterprises even became laughing stocks because they could not operate the foreign things properly.’
While the same criticisms cannot be directly applied at China’s cultural sector there is an element of truth. A lack of cultural management expertise bedevils many of China’s cultural industries: they often try to introduce international best practice but new practices can’t perform efficiently under the weight of existing market and political institutions. Central government policy plays a key role in constraining innovation in China. However, this is not to say that there haven’t been positive reforms.
China is facing a great challenge to export its culture, far greater than many policy makers in China probably realise. There is a belief among some academic circles that China has a great civilization and the world will acknowledge this once they are exposed to it. But this is putting the cart before the horse.
China needs to find a source of originality and this is difficult in a nation where risk taking is restrained by conservative policy makers and ineffective market institutions. The way forward means closer engagement with its East Asian neighbours rather than a preoccupation with international markets.
China’s proximity to East Asia explains much about the cultural insecurity of its producers and cultural officials. China’s insecurity is heightened by the relative success of its East Asian neighbours. Chua Beng-Huat, a leading writer on East Asian Pop Culture, believes that China is important, but only as a market and a production centre for Asia. He doesn’t believe China can be a cultural exporter.
My own view is not as pessimistic. China can achieve a measure of success; however, there are several stumbling blocks.
The transition from a restrictive media-propaganda model devised in the 1940s to the more open industrial model necessitated by entry into the WTO has brought many challenges. Echoing the demise of the Qing dynasty a hundred years previously, the opening of media markets in the 1990s represented a career change for many workers previously employed by the state. Liberated from the task of recycling propaganda, they were free to set up cultural and media companies. Indeed, they have been encouraged, in many instances given special financial advantages.
But despite exhortations by the state to be more creative the bulk of these enterprises have moved into low value activities, duplicating, replicating, adapting, re-versioning and recycling. Moving from the low road (standardised production and exploitative cloning) to higher roads (greater value-add through original content and brands) is not an easy transition.
Long before Chinese Communist Party strategists developed the current national soft power campaign, China’s East Asian neighbours were disseminating their versions of cultural soft power. For more than a decade Japanese and Korean popular culture has won over the hearts and minds of China’s youth. Japanese manga (cartoons) and anime (animation) epitomise the idea of ‘cool’ in East Asia.
In South Korea soft power has activated cultural nationalism. By 2004, exports of Korean TV programs were double the value of imports. Korean pop culture products made initial forays into China in 1997 with the popularity of the television serial drama What is Love All About? The term Korean Wave (hanliu in Chinese, hallyu in Korean), symbolised the way that Korean popular culture was flooding into the Mainland, enrapturing not only mainstream Chinese TV drama audiences but creating a buzz about Korean fashion, food, lifestyle and celebrities. Korean pop music, video games and movies quickly gained popularity with Chinese youth.
By 2005 China’s exports of TV serials to Taiwan and Hong Kong had begun to depreciate in value due to competition from Korea. Japan and Korea have highly developed commercial content industries. Sony’s background in electronic entertainment technologies gave Japan a competitive edge. In the early 1990s massive investment from state-linked conglomerates such as Daewoo and Sampsung stimulated Korea’s cultural ascendency. In the late 1990s the government set up the Korean Culture and Content Agency (KOCCA) with the aim of expediting the export of Korean culture. In 2009, this agency was subsumed under a larger umbrella organisation, the Korean Creative Content Agency.
A new timeline
To illustrate how media and cultural industries have evolved in China I use a cultural innovation timeline analogy. The timeline illustrates the extent to which Chinese media industries have broken free of the shackles of state control; its shows how media businesses, large and small, have sought out opportunities in economic time and space, and how space is currently being reconfigured.
|Stage/ theme||Strategic form|
|Standardised production||Subcontracting (fashion, animation, software, toys, furnishings, electronics)|
|Imitation||Import substitution, local versions and cloning (shanzhai)|
|Collaboration||Co-production and various forms of sharing knowledge|
|Trade||Beginning of soft power strategy; breaking out of domestic constraints|
|Clusters||Attempts to harness soft power by industrialising culture|
|Creative communities||Borderless social network markets; reaching domestic and international online audiences (including shanzhai)|
The timeline shows that much of China’s cultural production falls into standardised and outsourced production; in other words the factory model of the industrial economy has been transplanted into the cultural and creative economies. Almost 40% of China’s cultural exports are work performed for foreign companies. If you visit to arts communities in many developed countries you see this clearly; shops are filled with goods and artefacts that are made in China. Shiploads of these make their way overseas.
Many Chinese companies are doing work for others in animation, software and design industries. In attempting to break free of OEM and outsourcing many have opted for imitation, which in some cases takes the form of shanzhai, a term often used to describe opportunistic knock-offs. Moving into the realm of collaboration is important and is a way that China might stimulate its cultural trade. Some of these collaborations occur in clusters, stage 5 of the model but there is the danger that clusters, parks and zones fall back on non-creative outsourcing. The sixth stage is the online world, which aggregates the collective intelligence of more than 500 million net users. How this informal collective intelligence might invigorate the formal economy remains unclear.
While the timeline analogy suggests that China is catching up, as it has done in technology sectors, there are some key weaknesses in media and film sectors.
China’s search for originality continues. Media industries require originality or at least clever versions of existing formats. However originality (and risk taking) is not rewarded in China as it should be. Producers are used to taking directions. The scripts of Chinese films, even many of the Sixth Generation directors, are too predictable. Much can be learnt here from Korea (and from Korean partners).
The cluster has become the default model of cultural development (wenhua jianshe). However most clusters in China are under-performing and are more concerned with real estate speculation. Based on my research over several years I have found that the majority of cluster participants are not sharing knowledge because they are competing for outsourcing contracts. Even big film bases like Hengdian World Studios in Zhejiang are based on low cost production. China needs to rethink its clustering strategy.
China should realise that its true markets are in Asia. There is a political view that China should confront the ideological power of the US and Europe (i.e. this is the China Century). This may work in diplomacy and it may makes sense in the economic domain more generally but Chinese culture will always struggle to make large inroads because it is too contextually tied to history- both recent history (cold war politics) and traditional (the longevity of value systems). Countries like the US (and Australia) are immigrant nations; these countries have welcomed ideas and talents from the world and given people the freedom to express and refresh these ideas.
Build a Chinese Hollywood
Can China have a version of Hollywood? The answer is no. Hollywood is a one-off. For the reason mentioned above it has become the centre of global film making. Other places in the world have established strengths in other sectors: Japan in anime, Nashville in country music, Paris in fashion and so on. But there will not be another Hollywood.
China needs to reform many of its market institutions. This is easier said than done. The impetus seems to be coming from online and digital media where the content is less political and where there is a major shakeup of players due to the impact of copyright rulings. Sharing of rights means equitable recognition for people who do the creative work. This is not happening, especially not in animation. Film and TV industries are still shackled by excessive intervention by censors. Sometimes I think that the censors (SARFT, MoC) should be recognised in the credits!
Content industries are so named I believe because they deliver content audiences want i.e. content is king. China continues to do history but the world market does not want endless historical movies. It continues to do gongfu (kung fu) and this reinforces stereotypes of China. The reason China does history is fairly obvious. Historical stories are easier to make—China has the sets and the locations—and these stories are less risky than contemporary themes. However, the successes of Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have come not from historical themes but from pop culture and stories of modern life.