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China Film: “There Will Be Culture”

Posted in China Film Industry

By: Rogier Creemers

The following is a guest post by Rogier Creemers. Rogier is a post-doctoral Research Officer in Oxford University’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy.  Rogier “wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the relationship between media piracy in China, intellectual property law and media regulation, and globalization. His main research interests include the nexus between media policy and political change in China, with a particular focus on the processes of cooptation and confrontation between the vested regime and potential challengers.”  We thought Rogier’s expert take on China’s attempts to export its culture through film would make for an interesting post.

So without further ado, here’s Rogier’s post:

Amidst the flurry of cultural policy documents being flung at us since last autumn’s Communist Party plenum, a new export guidance catalogue for cultural products and services was published in the beginning of February. Like the draft Film Industry Promotion Law, which featured on this blog earlier, it is part of a push to get Chinese cultural industries to “march out,” so as to increase China’s soft power and its international competitiveness.

In the Chinese view, soft power seems to be something that is part of a zero-sum game. In the chaos of the international scramble for influence, good public relations can build up a desirable image, which in turn enables a country to weigh more on international decision-making. At least, that’s the theory. In reality, the billions that China has pumped into Confucius institutes, cultural exchanges, events like the London Book Fair, handing out free copies of China Daily, and State-sponsored highbrow films, have not been terribly successful in gaining international mind-share. As a painful example, when a screening of the Chinese film The Founding of a Republic, a China State-sponsored epic about the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war, was organized in New York, literally no-one showed up.

China’s new export catalogue essentially promises more of the same. It lists 29 categories of cultural products and services, and obliges all participating central ministries to approve and support a number of programmes and enterprises in international market expansion. The only criteria for this support listed in the catalogue are a certain minimum export value, international market potential and having products with Chinese characteristics. In other words, large Chinese media groups can get a lot of money for producing books about Peking Opera and films about large historical events in China. But what about international market potential?

One big problem here is the leadership’s insistence on the focus of Chinese culture, or at least the culture administration’s version of that. Generally, international audiences are not acquainted with the themes, plots and storylines that come obvious to any Chinese viewer. But perhaps most importantly, the export catalogue betrays a tendency of the culture administration to assume that what they want to say is what audiences want to hear. Recent cultural policy documents reiterate the paternalistic line that content should be “healthy and upward,” and should first and foremost have a “desirable social effect,” which essentially refers to treading the Party line. Until audiences are truly listened to and respected, Chinese cultural products will remain largely marginalized. Nonetheless, given the large amounts of money put in and the fact that profit from these ventures often isn’t taken into consideration, there may be interesting opportunities for foreign cultural and media enterprises for investment from China.

But even more importantly, the Chinese leadership treats cultural products in the same way it treats the highly homogenized, commoditized manufacturing goods industries which drove the first wave of Chinese growth. It hopes to ensure success for Chinese cultural products by improving inputs, optimizing processes, standardizing structures and procedures, and providing education and training to cultural specialists. Unsurprisingly, this results in highly homogenized, and frankly, rather boring Chinese films and television programmes, which do not strike a chord with foreign audiences. Cultural products aren’t assembly line products, and the greatest successes in Western film, television, literature and the arts often come from dark horses. JK Rowling, a single mother living on welfare would, in all probability, not have been able to write and publish Harry Potter in China.

A vibrant cultural sphere needs freedom and openness. It also needs to accept the freedom to fail; the recent Disney flop, to the tune of 200 million dollars shows that even the biggest names don’t have a fail-safe recipe. This is not to say that China doesn’t have great artists, writers, filmmakers and actors. Obviously it does, but a look at the domestic cultural market actually displays many of the same traits: a top-down mode of content production that alienated significant portions of the audience by insisting on values and historical narratives that do not take audiences into account. Still, there are independent Chinese film directors who manage to become successful. In its opening weekend, the low-budget film, Love Is Not Blind, grossed more than three Hollywood blockbusters combined, and out-earned the Party-supported Beginning of the Great Revival by more than 50% in its first week. Its secret? A certain, targeted audience, clever marketing and an engaging story. CCTV reported that the reason for low-budget success is the script. I’d go even further, regardless of technological dazzle and production values, in the end, all that matters, is the story.

  • Lucifer

    One things that the author forgot to mention was most of the Chinese films that had some degree of success int he West, or Won awards at Western film festivals were basically banned in China altogether. The Chinese audience never got to seem (on a movie screen of course).

    • http://www.joyceyland.com/ Joyce Lau

       This is a good point. It’s very hard to discuss these issues without discussing censorship, too. It’s the one issue that undermines everything.

      There are brilliant Chinese artists, writers and thinkers recognized by the world. But the ones that are lauded with awards, major museum shows, publishing contracts, etc., tend to be the ones who have been criticized — or, in extreme cases, persecuted or exiled — by the Chinese government.

      There are interesting websites, indie films, rock bands, magazines, etc. coming out of China with the potential to hook in the world’s youth, even despite the language barrier. But the cutting edge ones are constantly looking over their shoulders to see if they will be blocked. (Or, in some cases, they try to operate out of HK or Taiwan).

      Instead of manufacturing more culture, the Chinese government should just loosen up on the wonderful culture that the Chinese people are already making.

  • Roberto

    Superb post. 

    And I liked this: ”As a painful example, when a screening of the Chinese film The Founding of a Republic, a China State-sponsored epic about the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war, was organized in New York, literally no-one showed up.”

    Event organization 101: if you suspect, even remotely, that turnout for your event may not be as hoped, prepare The North Korean Option, i.e. hire buses, and lay on enough free food to be sure you are able to get asses into the seats.

    The problem the government has is that to gain any sort of power, you have to be a loyal Party member, which means unfailing adherence to the party line. Which means that expressing any sort of doubt that party storylines might not be the most compelling … is not the road to career success. 

    Catch-22, with Chinese characteristics.

  • Twofish

     Quote: In the chaos of the international scramble for influence, good public
    relations can build up a desirable image, which in turn enables a
    country to weigh more on international decision-making.

    I think this is absolute true, but I think that ultimately, you aren’t going to change people’s views of China through a public relations campaign.  PR is important, but ultimately substance is more important than image.  The best you can do with public relations is 1) not to make you look worse than possible and 2) maybe do some things at the margins.

    Also, I think the OP is “missing the game.”

    1) One thing about the PRC’s international efforts at outreach is that a lot of it is designed to get the loyalty of overseas Chinese, particularly expatriates from Taiwan and Hong Kong.  Here I think it’s been wildly successful in that overseas Chinese generally now do not *hate* the PRC.  There is no wild love for the Chinese government, but getting a group from *hate* to *neutral* is a lot of progress.

    2) The Communist Party propaganda film “The Founding of the Party” was a 90th anniversary birthday cake.  It wasn’t supposed to make money.  However one thing that it did do is to get a lot of “celebrity endorsements” for the Party.  Even though no one watched it, you did have an all-star cast in the movie, and that creates an endorsement of the Party by the people in the movie.

    3) Someone is doing something really clever with China Daily.  No one reads the China Daily or takes anything it says seriously and even among government newspapers, China Daily is low on the pecking order.  However, they are buying up advertising in the Washington Post, so when WaPo writes an editorial bashing China, and then see an ad from China Daily or Russia Today, that kills the editorial.  If the Chinese government really is as bad as you say, then why are you taking money from them?

    4) Confucius Institutes have been quite successful.  The model for Confucius Institutes are the German Goethe Institutes.  The issue here is one of money.  US universities and colleges want to teach Chinese, but they are strapped for cash, and so you end up relying on Confucius Institutes for resources to teach Chinese.

    Public relations is hard because you are operating under a lot of constraints.  If you are trying to do public relations for someone that is a saint, that easy.  More often you are doing public relations for something or someone that isn’t good.  If China were Canada, it would be easy to come up with a PR strategy, but China is China.

    Personally, I think it’s impossible to make people in the United States *love* China.  It’s a one party authoritarian state that’s a potential superpower competitor.  No PR strategy is going to change that, and it’s foolish to try.  What I think a PR strategy can do is to not have Americans *hate* China.  You aren’t going to turn China into Canada.  The most you can do is to not have China be either Iran, North Korea, or Pakistan.

    One other interesting thing is the Gallup polls on images of other countries.  China has a generally unfavorable view in the United States.  But what’s interesting is that it’s very much age correlated.   The older a person is, the more likely they are to view China unfavorably, and in the 18-30 category, there is a 60% favorability rating. 

    My hypothesis is that there are things that China is weak on (human rights) and things that China is strong on (economics), and people in college today (in sharp contrast to people in college ten years ago) just do not care about human rights in other countries.  They are too worried about getting a job to care what happens in South Africa or China.  Ultimately that’s going to have a much more dramatic effect on attitudes toward China than movies.

    • 罗宝亮

      Bloody excellent is all I have to say. Spot on. 

  • Dan (another Dan)

    I know the author is trying to make his point, but me being a little picky here; there were people at the movie screening. Like a dozen at the most did show up, so it’s not literally no one,  but that’s not important. That film was kind of all over the internet, and like despite the celebrities, I don’t think people realistically expected too much from it. 

  • MHB

    PRC’s PR campaign has really missed a trick – what is the biggest advert for China that Westerners will see? How can Westerners understand China better and learn to love it, in part at least?

    Chinese students. 

    Extreme example: I (a Brit) met my wife (Chinese) at a UK university, and have fallen in love with China. She was outgoing – an exception among PRC students abroad.

    CLB had a popular post on Chinese students at Western universities a short while ago, with some very negative comments. If the Chinese government wants to make friends with foreigners, it’s citizens abroad need to do the work, whether they are backed by an institution or not.

  • sternhead

    Their centrally planned capitalism has worked quite well so far, so they must think centrally planned culture is the logical next step.