China’s connected society
By Michael Keane, Queensland University of Technology
In the past few years a potentially transformative idea has gathered support in policy and business circles in China. It promises to enable, by connecting those who remain disconnected, by revitalising marginalised communities that have fallen behind on the long march to progress, and by strengthening cultural traditions that have been buffeted by globalisation. It’s known as the ‘convergence of technological innovation and cultural creativity’. For many people concerned about how Chinese culture can be bootstrapped to technological progress and exert greater influence globally this idea appears to hold great hope.
The convergence of technology and culture represents the coming together (or convergence) of two quite different approaches to development. It’s not an entirely new idea however: a debate has waged for decades about the respective ‘cultures’ of science and the arts and the lack of understanding between the two camps. As the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson observed in The Social Conquest of Earth ‘what counts in science is the importance of the discovery. What matters in literature is the originality and power of the metaphor.’
This divide is narrowing. In China new kinds of connections are being thought through and applied, at least in policy, business and skills training. China is borrowing ideas—and technology—from the rest of the world and innovation is occurring in unlikely places.
In July 2014 a new entity was established under the stewardship of the national Ministry of Technology. Called the ‘Culture and Technology Innovation Service Alliance’, it currently has forty-four members including digital technology companies, training institutions and leading university research institutes. The people heading up this Alliance have a vision for China’s digital future. This is not about techno-nationalism; rather it is about connecting people to the benefits of the digital society.
In China these days much discussion focuses on how Chinese society can ‘upgrade’, particularly in regard to the millions of people with low levels of education living outside the large urban centres. Human capital is a significant challenge. Moreover, the aging of China’s population, a consequence of the One Child Policy established in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping, is having a direct impact on the numbers of people registered in work. Such a decline is to be expected over time but combined with increasing minimum wages and growing average incomes, the nation is moving inexorably closer to what economists call the ‘Lewis Turning Point.’ This occurs when the economy can no longer create wealth by adding cheap labour. As Matthew Crabbe from Access Economics points out, the challenge now is to generate added-value through increased efficiency, innovation and high-value production.
China is a more technologically connected society than ever before; it has leapfrogged stages of development by adopting and adapting technologies. In 2014 China had 646.6 million internet users. In 2012, according to Access Economics 242 million people purchased goods and services online; 55.4 million of these purchases were transacted on mobile phones. Indeed the rapid growth of mobile purchases, from ‘negligible’ in 2009, is evidence of a connected society.
In China GDP dominates everything. While economic data may often be suspect there is no doubt that the government aspires to keep GDP indicators stable. In the past this has been achieved largely by the strength of ‘made in China’ exports. But like many tales of progress, there is more than one side. Despite the suggestion that technology is now changing China and that China is moving closer toward developing a service-led economy, it is clear that the Chinese economy still relies heavily on physical infrastructure and physical labour. Hundreds of millions of people want work: without the guarantee of work China would have social disruption on a large scale. This is the fear that keeps the government on its toes.
The Culture and Technology Services Alliance head office is located in the 798 Arts Zone at Dashanzi just off the expressway to the Beijing Capital Airport. Participating organisations range from the Beijing Aeronautics University, the Shanghai Theatre Academy, the Zhongguancun Zhonghe Centre for Convergence of Culture and Technological Innovation, the Chengdu Media Group, and the Beijing Centre for Interactive Technology and Arts Research.
The reasons behind the Alliance’s formation can be traced directly to central government policy documents, the most relevant being The Outline of the Program for Innovation in National Culture and Technology, which emerged from state think tanks during the drafting of the 12th Five Year Plan for Economic and Social Development. In May 2012, the Central Propaganda Department head Liu Yunshan, then newly elected to the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, spoke about the importance of shifting the mode of cultural development and promoting the competitiveness of Chinese national culture on the global stage.
The term ‘cultural development’ has a composite and all-embracing meaning in China. It has a lot to do with the task of sending Chinese culture to the world; that is, enhancing soft power. To monitor this mission two national research bases in the east of Beijing are currently busy cataloguing the successes of China’s cultural exports and analysing how foreigners go about trading their culture. One base is located at the Communication University of China, the other at nearby Beijing International Studies University.
The fundamental logic of ‘going out’ is to package Chinese traditional culture and arts for international consumption. China’s legendary stories, its literature, martial arts and taiji (Tai Chi), Confucius Institutes, and traditional performing arts are the main representatives of cultural soft power. Cultural products are dispatched, usually in their original form, often through state television channels with government blessing and no small amount of subsidy. The political emphasis on cultural soft power in China translates to a desire to reengineer international perceptions.
The role of the Alliance is different. Its agenda is to connect Chinese society by drawing on cultural resources, including of course traditional culture. It’s significant therefore that the Alliance’s founders were curators of the lantern display in the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony.
The Alliance aims to bridge the gap between culture and finance, between creativity and technology, between economically advanced and developing regions, and between state-owned and private sectors. In effect the recognition of convergence implies that cultural resources can become more creative and innovative. In the less-developed mid-western regions, policy makers see informatization and digitalization as a way to turn traditional cultural resources into development opportunities, for example in tourism and in cultural heritage preservation.
A particular problematic area across China for China’s digital society is intellectual property. As a signatory of the WTO, China is obliged to manage violation of intellectual property. Commercial digital service providers such as Youku Tudou, Netease, Sina and Tencent are taking down pirated content from their sites, realising that international collaboration and investment depends on observing the rules of the game. China’s smaller-scale enterprises also realize that they have to break away from the model of simply replicating by learning to monetize the IP generated from the content or technology they create.
This Alliance’s approach to ‘cultural development’ is evidence of how information technology is integrating with culture and the arts. This technological layer includes next generation information networks, core electronics, high-end software and new information services. Particularly in coastal cities such as Beijing and Shanghai the emerging technologies of mobile internet, cloud computing and big data are driving the ‘upgrade’ of cultural and creative industries.
China has a number of ‘creative technology’ projects currently in operation including the Tsinghua Science and Technology Park in Zhongguancun, Beijing, sometimes referred to as China’s Silicon Valley, as well as parts of the Zhangjiang Science and Technology Park in Shanghai. The broader landscape is populated by wanna-be digital parks and clusters, some focused on digital outsourcing such as Ningbo Digital Technology Park, Chengdu Tianfu Software Park and the Wuxi National Digital Film Industry Park and some on ‘big data’ such as Xi’an Fengxi Xincheng. Of course there are also hundreds of cultural clusters that purport to advance the cause of cultural development but which are in most cases means to acquire land for commercial development.
The connected society in China
While technological convergence is undoubtedly changing China, policy makers are yet to really grasp its significance. Furthermore, businesses are struggling with change and the task of managing intellectual property in rapidly moving digital sectors; labour markets are changing as consumer spending increases with millions buying commodities online rather than from bricks and mortar shopping arcades; meanwhile TV programs, films and games are more accessible online than through state-owned media outlets and many of these media sectors are cashing in despite high rates of piracy.
On the physical front the factories have not gone away; of course some manufacturing has moved to Vietnam and parts of Africa; elsewhere in China many factories are directly ‘connected’ to the outside world. They produce goods that are distributed to consumers online through Taobao, China’s equivalent of eBay. The factories symbolize China’s industrious revolution. As people move online to purchase goods retailers become ‘etailers.’People from countries around the world source cheaply-made products from factories in China, even while the ‘end of cheap China’ is imminent.
This leads to the question: Is the convergence of technological innovation and cultural creativity just a slogan or does it have the capacity to produce meaningful change? Are we seeing a transformation or just a restructuring of the economy?
Evidently, there is cause for optimism. According to a report by McKinsey & Company there are 6 million e-merchants listing products on Taobao. This is having a strong impact on private consumption while at the same time accelerating innovation in services, in advertising and marketing, payment systems, warehousing and IT systems. This surely is a manifestation of the creative economy however defined—and it is driven by technological innovation.
Digital technologies are transforming the relationship between culture, creativity and innovation. This is further exemplified by the so-called BAT grouping of companies: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Thanks to the entry of these cash-rich IT-based companies into the market new forms of production, distribution and consumption have evolved for screen-based content. In this instance convergence, and the greater latitude provide to new media than to traditional media by China’s regulators, have allowed incumbents to experiment with form, content and business models. The developments in media content that are now happening in China reflect global changes. BesTV, Youku-Tudou, iQIYI, PPTV, Netease, and LeTV are China’s answer to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Google TV. They are commissioning and buying original content on an unprecedented scale.
These technologies are transforming Chinese culture and society and people’s ways of interacting with information. While dramatic changes have taken place in the way that people in China live, work, play and interact with government, employers, peers and family members, the fact remains that the development master plan is underpinned by a deep seated acceptance of the need for social order; for instance new regulations issued by the media regulator State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio and Television (SAPPRFT) early this year require all content streamed on video sites to undergo scrutiny.
There are still many challenges ahead. A well-ordered and connected society is antithetical to a creative one.
Image credit:when i was a bird