By Michael Keane
Handbooks are often quite utilitarian, for instance manuals and reference books. In academic publishing the genre is fashionable, typically offering a compilation of leading work in the field. With Handbooks it seems size often counts more than new work. The topic of the cultural and creative industries in China, in all their manifestations, moreover, would seem to be befit several handbooks. How do you demarcate this burgeoning field? At the same time, however, in considering many misunderstandings of policies, I felt there is a need for a more definitive account.
The Handbook of the Cultural and Creative Industries in China constitutes new material, covering a wide range of issues including digital literacy of the post-70’s generation, the online lives of elderly Chinese, the emergence of maker spaces and social innovation, the implosion of a ghost town in northern China, the advent of mobile reading, internet television, the surge in film co-production, as well as radio, self-help publishing, copyright, e-commerce, and independent movie festivals. There are chapters dealing with creative clusters, tourism, architecture, and fashion as well as chapters problematizing the concept of creativity.
In compiling the book I took the opportunity of including leading scholars from the Mainland, people who could provide an insider’s account of China’s attempt to take its culture to the world. The contrast between Mainland scholars and those writing outside the Mainland is evident in the degree of critical investigation of policy. For the former, policy serves the purpose of development; for the latter it restricts creative expression. This, however, does not devalue the contribution of the Mainland Chinese authors in any way, rather it shows the strong connection between government and the cultural and creative industries. As Zitong Qiu, writes in the second chapter, this Blue Book model provides government with a range of ‘remedies.’
In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), creativity and innovation remain hot topics, even despite the dark clouds now gathering over the economy. The prescription for China to transform is to innovate, to become more creative. The emphasis is now on the grassroots, representing a significant shift in managing innovation. Jing Wang’s chapter ‘here come the Makers’ captures this moment perfectly. Wang writes about how grassroots creativity has taken root, drawing on her work with NGOs. It is easy to see evidence of projects in China designed to excite the interests of university graduates, offering a chance to become ‘mass entrepreneurs’, a term that evokes a critical mass, reminiscent of the mass movements of the past. In Beijing’s Zhongguancun hi-tech area, Inno Alley, on the site of the former Haidian Book Town, offers a start-up environment frequented by Angel investors and Venture Capitalists. Indeed the amount of venture capital pouring into China’s internet and startup sector is quite staggering. Inno Alley opened in 2014, about the same time as Hangzhou’s aptly named Dream Town, a training facility near the West Lake for would be digital entrepreneurs, linked to the equally ambitious Cloud Town project, the latter offering successful projects a chance to collaborate with Alibaba.
The backstory of this digital turn is the Internet and the fact that China’s younger generation are born digital. Some like to use the expression ‘digital natives’. In March 2015, the President Xi Jinping-led government announced a new policy agenda called Internet+. In the previous two years the leaders of China’s online companies, particularly Alibaba (Jack Ma/ Ma Yun), Baidu (Robin Li/ Li Yanhong) and Tencent (Pony Ma/ Ma Huateng) had been shopping the idea of ‘Internet Thinking’ as a way of transforming China’s economy from an emphasis on physical production and manufacturing to advanced services. The goal of Internet+ therefore is to ‘reboot’ the economy. The plan is even touted as the ‘uberisation of the Chinese economy.’ The technological frontier 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.
Digital technologies are transforming the relationship between culture, creativity and innovation. Thanks to the entry of the cash-rich IT-based ‘digital champions’ into the market new forms of production, distribution and consumption have evolved for screen-based content. The new digital champions, including Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, as well as Huawei and Xiaomi, are expected to shoulder the innovation agenda and help mass innovation to come to fruition. The term disruptive innovation is worn as a badge of honour, or perhaps as a calling card to Silicon Valley. The problem is that having close links to government is a double-edged sword in regard to internationalisation. Yet there is no doubt that these companies are providing training grounds. Much of the start-up scene is comprised of former ‘workers’ from Alibaba and Baidu, who have learned to code and are now willing to take up the offers by local government and realise their Chinese Dream. In Hangzhou the government is even dispensing ‘innovation vouchers’ to successful applicants
In Hangzhou, Alibaba’s rise is itself a Chinese Dream. Founder Jack Ma is never far from the news, making deals, dispensing business wisdom, offering homespun advice to the younger generation. Perhaps his advice should be to keep copying international ideas and then add local innovations. Alibaba have established Taobao Movies (an online app for ticketing and social networking) and Yulebao (a film crowdfunding model), along with its online retail site, TMall. Alibaba has established Alibaba Pictures Group and has made its first Hollywood movie investment, partnering with Paramount Pictures to make and promote the studio’s next instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise in China. The title of Alibaba’s own book, now adopted as a university media text, tells it all – Internet Plus: from Information Technology to Digital Technology.
The cultural and creative industries in China are now emblematic of the sharing economy. With masses of people online it seems that the opportunities are endless. There is talk of crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, the Internet of Things, and apps for everything. In many respects the focus on digital innovation and mass entrepreneurship is an attempt by the government to take some of the tension out of a faltering economy, particularly as it impacts on college graduates and the demographic known as the diaosi, a term sometimes described as ‘losers’. These are young marginalised Chinese, in their millions, often well educated but often unemployed. Can these losers become winners? Will they buy into this Chinese techno-dream of wanna-be entrepreneurs, benevolent machines and mobile devices? Can new technologies solve the new social problems or will they add to the challenges facing China as more of its low cost production moves to cheaper locations? For many people concerned about how Chinese culture can be bootstrapped to technological progress and exert greater influence globally this idea about the convergence of technology and culture appeared to offer great hope, representing the coming together (or convergence) of two quite different approaches to development. New kinds of connections are now 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. Apps are the new currency, from those that enable people to find taxis to apps to allow people to purchase online, to those that allow people to watch content and engage with traditional Chinese culture. This is only the tip of the iceberg. China is setting its course for a digital revolution and it is spilling into the cultural and creative industries.
Image Alibaba University Campus, Hangzhou by Michael Keane