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.