Culture, creativity and soft power in China

As Michael Keane puts it in his comprehensive survey of the “creative industries”, the idea that creativity is essential for China’s continuing development is uncontroversial in Chinese intellectual and political discourses. But, although indigenous design and innovation is acknowledged as a source of added value and “the key to breaking out of the low cost production trap” (p. 150), creativity invokes political suspicion and is narrowly bounded. Politicized intellectual debates about liberalism, individualism and China’s development under the stewardship of the Party are manifest in tensions between cultural security, tradition and protectionism (both economic and in terms of Deng Xiaoping’s warning and 1983 campaign against “spiritual pollution” (jingshen wuran)) on one hand, and creative freedoms, expressions of popular culture and novelty on the other. Traditional thinking suggests that  “creativity generates ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’ outcomes: it harmonizes” (p. 52), but, as many creative individuals in China can attest, where creativity produces outcomes that are judged by the state to be lacking in these qualities, they are themselves ‘harmonized’ (beihexie), a common euphemism for censorship, control and repression. The party justifies such constraining interventions by invoking its role as (self-proclaimed) protector of (self-defined) standards of public morality, tastes and spiritual health.

Circumspect and uncertain about how to deal with ‘creativity’, the state has acted with greater resolution in its focus on culture. Culture is conceived as a public resource and something from which party and nation can derive strength from. The term ‘soft power’ entered the official Chinese lexicon in 2006 when President Hu Jintao, in his address to the 17th Party Congress, called for the need to “bring about a new upsurge in socialist cultural development, stimulate the cultural creativity of the whole nation and enhance culture as part of the soft power of country”. Distinct from the protectionist impulse signified by the debate over ‘national cultural security’ prior to entry into the WTO in 2001, soft power was consistent with the ‘going out strategy’ that Chinese businesses had been encouraged to embark on since the 1990s.

The desire to enhance Chinese soft power has been heavily influenced by the success of China’s East Asian neighbours, particularly Japan, Korea and Taiwan, whose movies, music and other products have been enthusiastically adopted by Chinese citizens. It is no secret that China has under-performed in this ‘soft power competition’. Attempts to portray China’s ‘great civilization’ have generally fallen flat, even with audiences in China. Traditional cultural products, which fit party sanctioned great civilization narratives, have been revived in commercial forms, but spectacular motion pictures portraying Confucius, classic literary works and ‘Red Classics’ have failed to resonate with Chinese audiences enthralled by Korean pop, Taiwanese dramas and the like. By contrast, artists, filmmakers and other creative individuals like Jia Zhangke and Ai Weiwei have received critical acclaim outside of China, where there is generally a premium on work that challenges the status quo, but they have failed to reach audiences in China due to ‘harmonization’. As early as 2005 there was an acknowledgement, by way of an editorial in the official People’s Daily, of a ‘cultural trade deficit crisis’. In 2011, Keane reports, 38% of China’s cultural industries’ exports were the result of outsourced contracts where the creative element was supplied from outside while the production happened in China (p. 82).

Culture has been conceived as playing a crucial role at “the high altar of soft power” (p. 2) and because of that the state has implemented various strategies to fast-track progress. In some areas, laudable efforts have been made to ‘invigorate forms that are deemed essential cultural treasures but have been unable to sustain themselves in the age of globalization’ (p. 138). One of the best examples is the renaissance of kunqu (崑曲) theatre. Other examples include the Disneyfication of the Shaolin temple resort in Dongfeng. But the lesson that soft power cannot be engineered in top-down fashion has not been learned. As Keane puts it, “East Asian pop culture is dynamic, youthful and devoid of overt political posturing: This is not the soft power formula that currently pertains in mainland China” (p. 193).

In his work on the competition for soft power in East Asia, Chua Beng Huat argues that China is losing because of a lack of imagination, know-how and political freedom. Indeed, Keane’s work here and previously, shows that many policies and practices are stuck in the first stages of the cultural innovation timeline, namely standardized production and imitation, with their bottom line mentalities. Given China’s “structured uncertainty” (p.184) imitation represents a safe choice reducing risk both economically and politically.

But Chinese are not just blind imitators. Consider for instance Renren, Weibo, QQ, Alibaba & Taobao, Youku & Tudou. These platforms are all illustrative of Chinese expertise in imitation and adaptation. Yes, these services began as clones of existing (western) services, but in each case they have modified and created new features to account for conditions in China, improving the original, certainly from the Chinese user’s perspective. Keane calls this ‘second generation innovation’ (p. 117), and is very sanguine about the potential for grassroots innovation or shanzhai plus.

The culture of shanzhai (山寨) was born in Guangdong where a lot of manufacturing capacity was located in the early reform period. Shanzhai started as cheap knock-offs and clones (kelong) of various products, the most successful of which was the mobile phone. As technology has become cheaper and more accessible shanzhai phones added more and more features tailored to the Chinese market. Shanzhai mobile phones are one reason for the astonishing growth of both mobile phone ownership and the mobile internet in China (around one third of the internet population gets online exclusively via internet enabled phones). Estimates from 2008 suggest that upwards of 20% of the entire phone market was shanzhai.

The question of interest is whether shanzhai manufacturers will forever be limited, for example by the economic incentive structure, to making knock offs, or whether it represents a potential evolutionary path for indigenous innovation. Keane is optimistic, suggesting that “many shanzhai companies go from the informal to the formal with more investment in R&D and brand building once they have gained scale” (p. 122). He concludes that the shanzhai model holds potential “to integrate made in china and created in china” (p. 124), and cites the experience of Dafen, a very special village situated in the booming city of Shenzhen. Dafen is the art copy capital of the world (copies of great masters can be ordered online and painted to order). Dafen employs an industrial model where copyists, usually migrants from the countryside, specialize in the individual components of a painting, e.g. skies, houses or people. Every year there is a copying competition in which the winners are rewarded with an official hukou, allowing them to live legally in the city and register for welfare, education etc. Now, Dafen is producing original art.