From If you are the one to Kung Fu Panda, China is an increasing presence and power in global culture, Michael Keane writes.
What do Confucius Institutes, China Central Television (CCTV) channels, and Chinese acrobatic troupes have in common?
The answer: they are visible examples of Chinese culture ‘going out’, a term the Ministry of Culture in Beijing ascribes to its ambitions to create and promote the idea of a ‘strong cultural power’. Often funded by the public purse, the overseas exploits of such state-owned and (largely) state-funded enterprises are measured not so much by market share but by their ‘being there.’ They are meant to tell the world about China. Some estimates have put the amount of support for ‘overseas publicity work’ as US$10 billion a year.
China’s cultural and media companies, and their various products have gone global in increasing numbers in recent years. The government encourages all domestic enterprises to internationalise: hence the term ‘enterprise’ extends to both public and private entities. Both the central government in Beijing and provincial governments, allocate subsidies and overseas market support services, so why wouldn’t one take advantage?
In addition to public entities, Chinese filmmakers and TV reality shows are shooting in overseas locations, Chinese film, cultural and book festivals are expanding into new territories, film producers are seeking co-production opportunities (and compelling stories to tell), and cashed up Chinese companies are listing on the stock market and buying international brands and media infrastructure.
Statistics and news reports tell us that Chinese cultural goods and services have made greater inroads into world markets in the past few years. Yet China still operates a cultural trade deficit and has done so since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. This deficit may be rectified thanks to two developments. The first is the increasing number of collaborations with foreign production and investment entities, once the ‘enemy’; the second is the government’s new Internet+ policy.
Culture + collaboration
International consumers are encountering more Chinese ‘hybrids’. These include international cultural products, formats, brands, media infrastructure and services that are invested in, owned by, or co-created by Chinese nationals. The penetration of global television formats like The Voice into the protected Chinese media space is a convenient way for foreigner copyright owners to enter the market. The Voice of China, China’s Got Talent, and the X Factor China illustrate that Chinese television is increasingly international, in appearance at least.
Procuring infrastructure is an alternative strategy for Chinese culture to ‘go global.’ Undoubtedly, Dalian Wanda’s acquisition of AMC in 2014, Hoyts cinema chain in 2015, as well as its recent purchase of Hollywood’s Legendary Pictures are providing global outlets for Chinese content. Similarly, LeTV’s 2015 partnership with Netflix to reformat the TV drama Empresses in the Palace entails a strengthening of commercial strategies abroad.
The acquisition in 2013 by Australia’s SBS2 of the popular TV dating programme If You Are the One is an illustration of how the ‘going out’ project takes shape. Incidentally, this venture provides Australia with positive media exposure in China. The news that Australians are tuning in enthusiastically to the show is just what the Chinese media likes to hear, even though If You Are the One is not an officially endorsed ‘going out’ project. At the same time, overseas location shooting of the reality shows Where Are We Going Dad? and Running Man illustrates how domestic producers in China are sensing the opportunities provided by the ‘going out’ strategy.
Increasingly Chinese cultural projects involve collaboration with ‘foreigners’: these include theatrical performances, theme park construction and festivals. The film industry, however, is the main target of co-productions: while most successful projects are with Hong Kong and South Korea, there is a sense that Western producers now have a window of opportunity.
But this raises the problem of attributing origin: what is a Chinese cultural product? For instance, to what extent is the Shanghai Oriental Dreamworks Kung Fu Panda 3 a Chinese product? For now, at least, it counts as a big win. Such questions of origin figure in the pitching of projects to the China Film Co-production Corporation (CFCC): how does one ensure that the end product displays the requisite amount of ‘Chinese characteristics’? If such characteristics are too manipulated, audiences are inclined to be cynical, as was the case with Michael Bay’s Transformers 4: Age of Extinction.
Despite some successes, the ‘going out’ of Chinese culture is proving no easier than the ‘coming in’ of foreign media, except that foreign media forces have been strategizing longer and have gradually built consumer awareness within China. The key problem is that international recognition of Chinese culture is fragmented, compared with Chinese perceptions of global, particularly US or European culture. While Chinese traditional culture is generally regarded positively in world markets, the global view of the Chinese government is mostly critical. And when the government gets involved in sending Chinese culture out, by selecting and endorsing certain representations of China, the end result is likely to be counter-productive.
The latest stage in China’s going global campaign is harnessing the cultural power of the Internet. Rather than seeing the Internet as a site of subversion, a problem to be contained, the Chinese government is recognising the rapid emergence of creative online culture as a means to expand global influence. Internationally the UK, US, Japan and South Korea have leveraged significant cultural trade advantages through their reputations as creative or innovative nations. South Korea, in particular, has achieved market success within China, as well as a reputation for creativity.
In 2006, the State Council, the principal executive organ of the Chinese government launched an ambitious plan to strengthen China’s science and technology (S&T) development. China would become an innovation-oriented nation by 2020. Creativity gained support as a transformational idea, and soon government think-tanks turned their attention to the ‘convergence of technological innovation and cultural creativity’. Then in March 2015, the President Xi Jinping-led government announced Internet+, following a well-publicised visit by Premier Li Keqiang to a prominent grassroots maker space in Shenzhen
Within a week of this policy announcement, the Alibaba Research Institute in Beijing released an Internet+ ‘how-to manual’. Powerful front running Internet companies such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, known collectively as BAT, have unsurprisingly supported this initiative. With significant financial assets and ties to government, they are the intermediaries most likely to benefit.
Internet+ offers a big-picture reassessment of China’s digital capabilities. Its objectives are to integrate mobile Internet, cloud computing big data, and the Internet of Things with modern manufacturing. In addition, it aims to encourage the development of e-commerce, industrial networks, and Internet banking, and most significantly perhaps it aims to get Internet-based companies to increase their cultural activity in the international market.
There is currently a sense of optimism with cultural policy circles that the power of the Internet, combined with the increasing financial power of Chinese digital companies will make a difference; already Chinese consumers overseas are connected to the online pipelines, consuming culture in real time. The question remains: can this digital strategy succeed in reaching out to sceptical ‘foreigners’?
Without doubt, digital affordances and applications are changing the ways that Chinese culture ‘goes out’. However, Internet+’s close ties to government regulatory agencies means this ‘uberisation of the Chinese economy’ will not be seamless. The central government in Beijing has made it clear to the world that it will ‘manage’ the Internet as it sees fit. And herein lies the problem. The visible fingerprints of the government on the Internet+ blueprint may doom it to failure.