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Complicated Currents

Chapter 14



Michael Keane, Queensland University of Technology

Associate Professor Michael Keane is a Centre Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI). His research interests include innovation policy and creative clusters in China; audio-visual media in China, South Korea, and Taiwan; and television formats in Asia. He has provided expertise for a number of international consultancies in relation to emerging East Asian creative economies. He has presented at many international forums including The House of Commons (UK), Yale University (US), Creative Clusters (UK), and Copenhagen Business School (Denmark).

Michael is author of Created in China: The Great New Leap Forward (Routledge 2007). He is the co-editor, with Albert Moran, of Cultural Adaptation (Routledge 2009); with Zhang Xiaoming of International Perspectives on the Creative Economy (Sunchime Film Archives Audio-visual Publishing House 2009); and with Ying Zhu and Ruoyun Bai of TV Drama in China (HKU Press 2008). Other books include New Television, Globalization and the East Asian Cultural Imagination (with Anthony Fung and Albert Moran, HKU Press 2007), Television across Asia: Television Industries, Programme Formats and Globalisation (eds. Moran and Keane, Routledge 2004), and Media in China: Consumption Content and Crisis (eds. Donald, Keane and Yin, Routledge 2002).


As various contributors to this volume suggest, the term soft power is multifaceted. In 2002 Joseph Nye, the political scientist who coined the term more than a decade previously, noted that the soft power of a country rests on three resources: a country’s culture, its political values, and its foreign policies (Nye 2002). However, several factors can be drawn together to explain China’s adoption of this concept. First, China’s economic influence has precipitated a groundswell of nationalism, which reached its apex at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This global media event provided an international platform to demonstrate China’s new-found self-confidence. Second, cultural diplomacy and foreign aid, particularly through Third World channels is seen by the Chinese Communist Party leadership as an appropriate way to extend Chinese influence globally (Kurlantzick 2007). Third, education in Chinese culture through globally dispersed Confucius Institutes is charged with improving international understanding of Chinese culture and values, and in the process renovating negative images of China. Fourth, the influence of Japanese and Korean popular culture on China’s youth cultures in recent years has caused acute unease among cultural nationalists; many contend it is time to stem the tide. Fifth, the past few years have witnessed a series of lively debates about the importance of industries such as design, advertising, animation and fashion, resulting in the construction of hundreds of creative clusters, animation centres, film backlots, cultural precincts, design centres and artist lofts (see Keane 2007; Keane 2009; Keane 2009a; Keane 2009b; Keane 2009c).

The topic of how China has adopted the discourse of soft power is likewise complex. A discussion of the above five elements would require a significant detour into the realm of political science. Due to space constraints, and in keeping with the theme of this publication, I will focus on cultural dimensions, namely points four and five above. It is important to point out, however, that success in media and cultural endeavours alone does not constitute any quantum of soft power. ‘Coolness’ is a fashionable index. International influence requires more substantial foundations. For a nation’s soft power to be effective creative outputs need to co-exist with intellectual debate. These values are conventionally framed as the marketplace of ideas and democracy in the West.

I begin therefore with some definitional outlines of the term’s application to the current climate in which China is positioning herself as an international power, albeit more so in the economic than the cultural sphere. From a strong economic base, a desire to make Chinese culture and philosophy more influential within the global community has emerged. For this reason I note former soft power – namely its periods of creative ascendancy and authority prior to the decline of empire in the late Qing Dynasty. I argue that China was influential when it was open to ideas. China espoused a moral order that became a model for other Asian states to emulate. Under the Communist regime, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), China lost much of its political influence except in international communities of Marxist intellectuals and political activists. I contrast past grandeur with current attempts to revive national creative powers as China moves further away from socialism. In doing so, I make some observations about the concept of ‘cultural soft power’ in China together with the import of Western ideas about creativity. I tie this to the recent push for massive investment in rebuilding Chinese cultural and creative industries. Finally, I show how China’s cultural export deficit is played out in areas such as television drama, animation and film, domains in which China compares unfavourably with Japan and Korea, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, a key idea of this paper is that China’s cultural soft power is paradoxically not aimed at the West, or even East Asia, but rather at the domestic market. Success in the East Asian media market will have flow-on effects that will liberate the Chinese media from non-productive, repetitive and propaganda-driven formulas and formats. What has China learnt from its engagement with Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean media?


In his summary report to the nation’s Seventeenth National Congress on 15 October 2007 the Chinese president Hu Jintao provided an important message about China’s lost creative spirit:

In the present era culture has become a more important source of national cohesion and creativity and a factor of growing significance in the competition for overall national strength ... We must stimulate the cultural creativity of the whole nation and enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country to better guarantee the peoples’ basic human rights and interests, enrich the cultural life in China and inspire the enthusiasm of the people for progress. (Hu 2007)

Hu’s speech is particularly significant for the insertion of the term ‘soft power’. Appearing only briefly in this document, its usage is directly associated with culture and creativity. This significance becomes apparent when we consider that the term has a wider currency within Chinese political discourse. Appearing first in 1997, the term is usually translated as ruan shili.1 It began to be used fairly regularly after 2001, the year China joined the World Trade Organisation (Wang and Lu 2008). In the following years it was adopted by Chinese political think tanks as part of a broader conceptual package called ‘comprehensive national power’ (Ding 2008; Leonard 2008), an effort to rationalize China’s re-emergence as a great power. While the initial take-up of the term can be attributed to the translation in 1992 of Joseph Nye’s book Bound to Lead (Nye 1990), its sinisation incorporates several traditional elements from the Warring States Period, notably Mencius’ moral concept of the ‘kingly way’ (Qi 2004), and the military strategist Sun Zi’s guides to subjugating the enemy without a fight (Sun 2004). For these reasons Wang and Lu contend that the Chinese idea of soft power is much broader than the usage attributed to Nye in that it can refer to nations and organizations as well as individuals (Wang and Lu 2008: 427).

China’s fascination with soft power is as much a matter of expediency in latching on to an idea already circulating in East Asia as identifying a way to further stimulate the growing sense of the nation’s emergence from backward and technologically deficient to potential superpower. As many scholars have shown, a strong sense of Chinese cultural revivalism is being generated (Shambaugh 2005; Wang 2004; Murray 1998; Ramo 2004; Keane 2007). Furthermore, there are historical antecedents for China’s yearning for global influence. At the end of the first millennium China was the world centre of civilization, invention, resourcefulness, and good government (Needham 1954). Scholars such as Wang Gungwu have noted periods identified with China’s greatness as being the Qin-Han reunification (third century BC to third century AD), the Sui-Tang reunification (AD 581–907), the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) and the early Qing period during the reign of the Emperor Kangxi and his grandson Qianlong (Wang 2004). In terms of China’s most intellectually creative periods, moreover, we can identify the Warring States Period prior to the Qin Dynasty, and the Song Dynasty, which followed the Tang. For various reasons, mostly to do with a resistance to change and a propensity for its rulers to govern bureaucratically, China’s intellectual and cultural creativity gradually declined, stagnating by the later Qing Dynasty (circa 1800–1911).

This decline accompanies what economist William Baumol (2002) calls the rise of ‘the free market innovation machine’. This Western ‘machine’ generated an unprecedented surge of invention, investment, production, and intellectual property assets. The reasons for the West’s success were institutional – a mix of personal freedoms, educational reforms, scientific inquiry, trade cartels and private capital. The West added technology, infrastructure and enterprise management during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As John Howkins has noted, by the end of the twentieth century, the world’s dominant thinking in research, business and finance was American and European (in Keane 2007). In popular culture, one of the key barometers of soft power in this volume, the US leads the way thanks to the global reach of Hollywood and the cultural transparency of its content industries – the fact that Hollywood formulas can be easily interpreted in many countries (Olsen 1999).

While Hollywood became the Dream Factory, Chinese life was far removed from such pleasures. By the mid-twentieth century, threats posed by Western capitalism eventually led to complete isolationism under the Communist regime. China’s struggle with imperialism, civil wars, warlords and peasant rebellions, and man-made national disasters such as The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, has been well documented. China was officially closed off to outside influence, except for Soviet cultural and scientific exchange, between 1949 and 1978. When the Open Door Policy was finally announced in 1978 after decades of isolation, the nation once again became a receiving culture; people consumed new ideas and sought to make up for enforced cultural deprivation.

Beginning in 1978, the nation changed course. The new leadership under Deng Xiaoping dispensed with the idea of socialist equalisation and opted for a gradual liberalization of the economy and society. By 2008, thirty years after the reforms began China was looking confidently into the future, in spite of the repercussions of a global economic meltdown. As the troubles of the past fade into a vision of an Eastern hemisphere modelled on ‘harmonious society’ (hexie shehui), the mood is positive. China’s integration into the world economy, its iconic Olympic architecture, and its recent diplomatic influence in the developing world, all contribute to its soft power. The key question is, however, how real is this?


The Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony on the evening of 8 August 2008 was without doubt the most impressively coordinated launch of any major global event. Superbly choreographed by the film director Zhang Yimou, the spectacle was filled with colour, symbolic meaning and historical references. While the synchronized presentation of the 2008 Confucian drummers might have reinforced a stereotype of socialist compliance for many, the digitized scroll on which China’s historical achievements were performed was sublimely imaginative. International media reports were quick to link the Beijing Games opening ceremony to the idea of ‘soft power’. This association in turn drew approval from Chinese leaders, a vindication of both the capital spent on the Games and the political investment in developing the slogan of national soft power.

The Chinese scroll, and its representation on giant screens around the stadium and in the city of Beijing, was almost universally regarded as a creative triumph. Yet, contrary to most international perceptions of China’s staged propaganda events, this installation was not the outcome of a cultural committee, but a concept created by a local digital media company called Crystal Stone. Founded in 1995 by three persons working in architectural design imaging, it now employs 2200. Crystal Stone operated ten digital video displays at the Olympics, in the process establishing its own Olympic record in the category of longest duration of display, the biggest video screen, and the largest quantity of data with the most 3D and digital special effects. In identifying the importance of creative skills in digital content applications, Crystal Stone has been able to use 3D imaging to broaden their market base. The use of 3D digital imaging technology in the Beijing Olympics led to innovations. 3D digital technology is now familiar in many epic history documentaries produced for China Central Television. Building on its technological assets and its human capital, Crystal Stone has moved into video animation production through a joint capital investment with the computer giant Lenovo (Li 2008).

If the Beijing Olympics provided the vehicle for ‘cultural soft power’ to emerge as an intellectual concept in its own right, as distinct from the diplomatic associations of soft power, the publication of a book entitled Creative Industries are Changing China by Li Wuwei in December 2008 added another layer of persuasion. Li Wuwei is the Vice-Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (NCCPPC) as well as Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang Revolutionary Committee. His is a significant voice, expressing unorthodox ideas in a way that contrasts with the sloganeering of conservative Ministry of Culture officials in the nation’s capital, Beijing.

Li’s ability to take the slogan ‘soft power’ and give it credibility in the world of business has a lot to do with his growing influence. Moreover, his vision of a more creative China sits well with Hu Jintao’s prescription for a ‘harmonious society’. Li brings the term creativity into the debate about soft power. This in itself is a significant step, taking into account the reluctance of Ministry of Culture officials in Beijing to countenance the idea of the ‘creative industries’ (see Keane 2009a). Indeed, in recent years this foreign idea has caused a degree of disruption to the status quo.


The ‘creative industries’ reached China in early 2004. In the preceding years this policy prescription for urban renewal, creative clusters, intellectual property exploitation, and the fostering of small independent media and cultural companies had travelled from its home base in the UK to Asia, settling in Singapore and Hong Kong (Kong et al. 2006). The term had come from the UK with a mysterious and powerful invocation: ‘Those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property’ (DCMS 2001: 4). The creative industries were quickly championed by local and city governments in China.

The most interesting dimension of this imported concept was the power of creativity, an idea so diffuse and mysterious that it quickly assumed the status of a ‘super-sign’. According to Lydia Liu (2004: 13) a super-sign is ‘a hetero-cultural signifying chain that criss-crosses the semantic fields of two or more languages simultaneously and makes an impact on the meaning of recognizable verbal units ...’ While the creative industries were causing ripples in China’s large cities, the national government was contemplating its own response. The creative industries were problematic at a national level in so far as this was a Western idea which was undermining the hegemony of the Ministry of Culture’s chosen designation, the ‘cultural industries’ (Keane 2009a).

Meanwhile, as I have described above, the idea of ‘soft power’ had been circulating in academic discourse. Although its origins were American, it was readily translatable into China’s diplomatic-speak, and could be attached to a number of initiatives. However, by the time the ‘soft power’ discourse was officially launched in 2007, the creative industries had grabbed the limelight. As I have argued elsewhere, the irresistible power of this super-sign was soon apparent (Keane 2007). An idea once deemed redundant and bourgeois by China’s revolutionaries, creativity evoked China’s lost soft power. Creativity was now seen as something that China needed to invest in to catch up with Korea, Japan and the West. In addition, the creative industries came in a ready-made international format, which added to their appeal. As opposed to the dank smell of museums, cheap souvenirs and the cultural relics of traditional culture, the creative industries format included incubators, lofts, digital content studios, and most of all, intellectual property. The creative industries also came with new ideas about wealth creation and increasing returns.

Li Wuwei’s intervention in the soft power debate was timely in the wake of the Beijing Olympics and in the run up to the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. As well as wearing a political consultative hat as Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Li is Director of the Shanghai Creative Industries Association. Shanghai was the first city in China to embrace the creative industries, establishing an annual Creative Industries Week in 2006.

Li argues that ‘cultural creativity’ is a component of ‘cultural soft power’, which in turn is an element of comprehensive national power (CNP). He further argues that cultural creativity is the ‘mind power’ of industrial development whereas the industries are the ‘body’, the industrial resources that allow production on a global scale. In this vision, cultural creativity is not confined to the media and arts but also plays a leading role in related and associated industries. These include marketing and advertising, as well as tourism services (Keane 2009b).


The soft power debate in China was brought to life by China’s near neighbours Japan and South Korea, each of which choose to use the term: Japan in relation to its ‘Gross National Cool’ and Korea in relation to the ‘Korean Wave’ (see other chapters in this volume). These countries had been able to successfully generate cultural exports, often by mixing traditional aesthetics with postmodern pop cultural sensibilities. In the years preceding China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 a great deal of debate ensued about the impact of foreign media culture on China’s youth. However, the already strong influence of Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Korean TV dramas further heightened expectations of a soft invasion.

In 2005, China’s ‘cultural trade deficit’ suddenly became troubling news. At a press conference convened in April of that year Ding Wei, an assistant to the Minister of Culture in the State Council Information Office, announced the nation’s deficit in international cultural trade. Figures published in the 2004 Yearbook of China’s Publishing Industry revealed that the ratio of imports of cultural products to exports stood at 10.3 to 1. In 2003, China had imported 12,516 copyrighted books and had exported just 811 (see Keane 2007).

Following the State Council Information Office announcement, the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Culture’s marketing department, Zhang Xinjian, admitted that the share of Chinese cultural products in the US was close to zero, except for internationally financed cinema successes like Zhang Yimou’s The House of Flying Daggers, which recouped US$12.5 million in America and US$10 million in Japan. Zhang said, ‘Cultural trade dominates in today’s international culture market. We have to adapt’ (China Daily 2006).

The cultural trade debate took many Chinese nationalists by surprise. The figures seemed too bad to be true. Indeed, they were alarmist. Somewhat unexpectedly, a report by the United Nations, an organization that had hitherto expressed limited interest in East Asian media culture, changed the national mood. In early 2008, The UNCTAD Creative Economy Report was released. By 27 October that year, coinciding with the 3rd International Cultural Industries Forum in Songzhuang outside Beijing, a Chinese version of the report was offered for sale, published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The good news of the UNCTAD report was that China now had little to worry about: it was ‘the leading player in the world market for creative goods’ (UNCTAD 2008: 46). This re-evaluation was welcome news for many in the Ministry of Culture. The Creativity Economy Report was widely circulated and extensively mentioned in the media. This rapid move from a nation whose culture was under siege in 2006 to world leader in 2008 confounded the data experts.

While there were underlying criticisms of the report, the mood in policy circles nevertheless remained mostly triumphant. Although the size of the creative economy seemed to be grossly under-reported by UNCTAD, China was dominant. This seemed to vindicate the idea of an emergent Chinese soft power, particularly in the wake of the Beijing Olympics. A closer examination, however, reveals a story of partial success. Despite acknowledging the essential intangibility of the term ‘creative economy’, UNCTAD opted for an approach which would translate into returns from developing countries. The UNCTAD report did not attempt to capture intellectual property components of audio-visual data, relying instead on trade estimates: ‘the physical auditing of imports and exports of goods across national borders’ (UNCTAD 2008: 94). The report admits, ‘what many regard as the core of creative activity – the creation of intellectual property (rights) – is not directly measured for the simple reason that IPRs are increasingly disembedded from material products’ (UNCTAD 2008: 91). Consequently, the report, properly considered, is about material products, that is, the number of items and their stated trade value in customs audits.

Accounting for creativity in this way, Italy was, quite surprisingly, the leader among developed countries in 2005, with exports of US$28.01 million, followed by the US with a mere US$25.54 million, and Germany with US$24.76 million. When one considers the size of the US film and TV industries, these figures start to look shaky. China, which is regarded as a developing country by UNCTAD, comes out on top of the world, with creative exports totalling US$61.36 million, although the categories where China performs well are in products that might be considered craft, such as yarn and textiles, where there is certainly more mechanical production and sweatshop labour than creative inspiration. Hong Kong SAR, which is surprisingly listed as a developing region for some reason, ranks second with exports of US$27.67 million. In the category of audio-visual products Hong Kong has only US$3 million, but rates in the top ten audio-visual exporters among UNCTAD’s definition of ‘developing countries and regions’ in this report: India is first, followed by Mexico, the Republic of Korea, Thailand and Argentina. Neither China nor Taiwan is present in the top ten, although Singapore comes in at number ten.

A key question is how does one reconcile China’s success as a world leader in creative exports in these data with the admission from the Ministry of Culture that in 2003 China imported 12,516 copyrighted books and exported just a mere 811 (China Daily 2006). How does one accurately account for the value of cross-border trade? In order to gain a different perspective, we can look at data compiled by China’s own industrial bean counters in the film and television industries, those sectors in which China is seriously seeking to counter the influence of Japanese and Korean ‘soft power’.

The key areas of competition, or at least the areas where Chinese audio-visual exports are weak, particularly in comparison to its East Asian neighbours, are in TV drama and animation. In animation the export story is particularly bleak. Due to a government decree that animation production should serve to increase China’s ability to win the hearts and minds of children in the face of competition from Japanese, Korean and US product, state support is siphoned into animation companies making stories about cute animals and China’s minorities, themes that reflect national values. Animation derived from comics (C. manhua; J. manga) that might be directed at mature audiences is virtually non-existent, at least in the designated national animation production bases, which now number seventeen. As I have discussed elsewhere (Keane 2009), the animation industry in China concentrates more on producing ancillary products such as merchandise. In 2006, China exported eight animation series to Europe and four series to Korea; other markets included Taiwan and Southeast Asia. The leading exporter was Hunan Sunchime Cartoon Group, whose product The 3000 Whys of Blue Cat and Naughty Mouse (Lan mao taoji 3000 wen) ranks as the most successful Chinese animation, despite its characters’ close resemblance to Tom and Jerry. Hunan Sunchime earned nearly US$5.5 million from its sales in 2006 alone (State Administration of Radio Film and TV, hereafter SARFT, 2008); however, critics of Blue Cat have been quick to argue that this economic success should not be regarded as a creative landmark.

As well as setting up animation bases and providing preferential policies to fast track the industry, quotas have limited the distribution of non-Chinese animation. Imported animation programs cannot occupy more than 25 per cent of the total of children’s program time and cannot exceed 40 per cent of the total cartoon program time of any channel. In addition, ‘foreign’ animation has to receive SARFT approval. By 2006, policies were extended to banning ‘foreign’ animation from Chinese peak hour programming slots, namely 5 pm to 8 pm; by 2008, the protected space for domestic animation had extended to 9 pm. Notwithstanding these attempts to protect the industry and force-feed domestic content, most Chinese consumers of animation still hold a low opinion of Chinese content and a high opinion of Japanese anime. One survey conducted in 2004 showed that 60 per cent of respondents preferred Japanese animation, 11 per cent preferred Chinese, while the remaining 29 per cent preferred US and European animation (China Economic News 2005; see Zhang forthcoming).

China’s success story since 2003 is undoubtedly cinema. In 2006, for instance, Chinese films released in international markets made US$280.2 million (RMB1.91 billion), while imported films managed US$172.8 million (RMB1.18 billion) in Chinese markets (SARFT 2008). In 2003, the leading film in box office sales was Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which also garnered the majority of earnings in that year’s total exports of US$80.6 million (RMB0.55 billion). In the following year, a surge of interest in Chinese films saw Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers recoup US$12.5 million in the US and US$10 million in Japan. By 2008, China’s film export revenues had jumped to US$370.85 million (RMB2.528 billion) (Fan 20082).

Production has also increased dramatically. In 1992, 170 feature films were released; in 1998 this figure had fallen to 82 – the lowest since 1979 – but by 2007 the number of feature films produced had jumped to 400. Of this number, however, many were low budget films that received limited distribution and success. Nevertheless, the data shows the film industry steadily gaining momentum and Chinese films competing with international productions. Prior to 2003, Chinese productions accounted for only 10 per cent of the total box office revenue, with Hollywood and Hong Kong films accounting for the other 90 per cent. Since 2003 the bulk of the box office takings in China have gone to Chinese films, notably big budget films co-produced with Hong Kong. In 2005, the Chinese cinema market was dominated by Hong Kong or Hong Kong/Mainland co-produced films, despite Chen Kaige’s The Promise (Wuji) leading in box office takings that year (RMB146 million). The strategy of engaging with Hong Kong expertise rather than trying to compete makes sense. However, in the main, these ‘co-productions’ are taking advantage of low cost production in China rather than the creative skills of Chinese directors and writers.

In television the story is similar. A number of co-productions have taken advantage of East Asian talent in recent years. Chow and Ma (2008) write about changes in the production practices of Hong Kong television serial drama producers as they relocate their work to the Mainland, in effect looking for a better bottom line rather than a creative edge. They argue that ‘the flexibly aligned Mainland production team, mobile experts and labour, grand studio complexes, exotic locations, natural landscapes, and cheap production support in mainland China constitute a web of “alliances and resources”’ (Chow and Ma 2008: 205). In the process, however, there have been exchanges of skills. Hong Kong directors such as Chik Kei-yi have admitted to changed perceptions of their Mainland cousins and of China itself – no longer backward, ‘primitive and corrupt’ but a land of inspiration. Echoing Iwabuchi’s theme of a yearning for a lost Asianness (Iwabuchi 2002), the division of cultural labour, ostensibly designed to capitalize on location, is played out as a redemptive identification with history and culture. The story is similar with Korean co-productions. Many Korean stars have been cast in Chinese dramas, following the inroads made by Korean popular culture in China during the past decade. Some specialist companies have been established to co-produce dramas, often with the Korean side providing the finance, directors and key production staff while the Chinese provide locations and local sponsors. An example of a Sino-Korean co-production is 2004’s Beijing, My Love (Beijing wode ai), which was mostly shot in China. It concerned a cross-cultural love triangle. Here, the complexities of national politics came into play, producing dissonant readings of the relationships between the two nations. In the end, the serial failed in Korea and had little real success in China (Lee 2008). Co-productions between Taiwan and the Mainland have been more successful, probably due to closer cultural ties. The most successful Taiwan–Mainland co-productions to date have been Princess Huanzhu (Huanzhu gege 1998), and April Rhapsody (Renjian siyue tian 2000) (Chen 2008).

While co-productions have helped Chinese television improve its markets and injected new ideas, China’s TV industry still struggles to export its brand. The question of why China’s TV exports have languished is an interesting one. Since the mid-1980s, China’s exports have been reliant on costume serial drama. Sales in Asian markets in the 1980s included Tales of the Red Mansion (Honglou meng) and The Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan). In the 1990s the epics The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi) and a remake of The Water Margin performed strongly, notably in Taiwan and Hong Kong. China achieved significant success in exporting its historical dramas, particularly to Taiwan in the years 2001 to 2005. These successes included Swordsmen (Xiaoao jianghu), Kangxi Dynasty (Kangxi wangchao), Yongzheng Dynasty (Yongzheng wangchao) and Grand Mansion Gate (Dazhaimen).

The main markets for Chinese TV drama have been Taiwan and Hong Kong. Other markets, roughly in order of sales volume, include Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, the US, Indonesia and Thailand. By 2003, however, China’s revenue from serial drama exports to its core markets in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia were hit by the popularity of South Korean dramas. By 2005, with the high point of the Korean Wave, the price per episode for Chinese dramas had dropped by up to 50 percent in Taiwan (Keane 2008). Moreover, the proportion of TV serial drama in total TV exports dropped from over 80 per cent in 2002, to 50.2 per cent in 2003, and 58.7 in 2004. In effect, the markets are volatile and rely heavily on a few big hits. In 2005, the value of China’s TV exports fell to US$9.96 million (RMB67.86 million) (National Bureau of Statistics 2006). In 2006, it had surged back to US$24.85 million (RMB169.39 million), only to fall to US$17.86 million (RMB121.74 million) in 2007.

In 2007, imports of TV programs accounted for US$47.17 million (RMB321.5 million). Still, the value of imports of television drama, as well as total broadcast hours, has fallen overall in the past few years; in 2005, for instance, the value was RMB401.6 million (SARFT 2008; National Bureau of Statistics 2006). Undoubtedly, this has much to do with the 1994 SARFT regulation (Rules for the Administration of the Import and Broadcast of Foreign Television Programs Article 8) limiting the amount of foreign programs a station can purchase. Allocations are decided at the beginning of each year and vary depending on locality and reports submitted by the stations. In 2000, this regulation was superseded by a newer decree, known in the industry as File no. 5. Its intent was to further restrict overseas programming by limiting purchases to 20 episodes of foreign drama per station and reducing the broadcast time of foreign drama to 15 per cent of prime time, unless special dispensation was granted by SARFT. Nevertheless, foreign drama, particularly from Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong was much sought after. The stations with the most to gain from importing TV drama are the wealthier satellite TV channels, such as Hunan Satellite Television (HST), which are usually affiliated with a provincial media group.

In cases where a station’s purchase of a foreign TV serial drama has exceeded its allotted quota, it is common practice for a cashed-up station such as Hunan to buy the rights from another station. In 2004, new restrictions were enacted, the so-called File no. 42, which extended the restriction on TV programs from drama to other forms such as sports, entertainment and certain features. These new market protection policies were aimed at controlling the surge in imports. Their effectiveness is borne out by the decrease in imports in the past few years, although it should be pointed out that this fall has not been matched by consistent improvements in TV exports.


In this chapter I have argued that China is moving gradually into a new creative era. Looking back at China’s former soft power, during periods when its cultural exports were influential, it is clear that these were also times when China was open to ideas. In the past, periods of great innovation and influence were preceded by contending schools of thought; as Collins (1998) has noted, periods of stagnation and declining influence were marked by the bureaucratisation of thought.

The contemporary idea of soft power now provides an alternative direction for China’s new wave of enlightened propagandists. It can be argued that the creative economy is opening China to greater media reform as governments – central, municipal and local – pursue the idea of economic returns from culture. Sloganeering has also entered the age of the creative economy. For instance, the official English translation for the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party is now rendered as the Publicity Department. Chinese Communist Party General-Secretary Hu Jintao’s vision of ‘harmonious society’ (hexie shehui) also reads well in this new age, evoking an idea of economic progress with moral underpinnings. The related mantras of ‘independent innovation’ (zizhu chuangxin) and ‘innovative nation’ (chuangxin guojia) leave no doubt that China is revaluating its image as world factory. Conferences have been mounted in regional locations pointing out the roadmap for ‘creative’ prosperity. In December 2008, the ‘Creative China, Harmonious World International Forum on Cultural Industry’ was held in Chengde, Hebei Province. This followed a conference a few days earlier in Shenyang called ‘High-end Vision, Scientific Development, Being Bold in Innovation and Meeting the Challenge’.

To some extent, the post-2005 period is the most open period in China since the 1940s. There are new liberalizations and social freedoms. Artists are now considered productive members of society, encouraged to contribute to local wealth creation by attracting international tourists into the many art zones that now exist. In this brave new world of creative industries Chinese-style culture has become a resource. However, to make the world interested in Chinese ideas will require more than just the commodification of tradition, the construction of eye-catching architecture, or the occasional breakthrough film. It is in the realm of ideas that China needs to meet the challenge.

China stands at the dawn of a new era. It has welcomed the idea of creativity, at least in a material form, and hopes that the creative industries will convert tradition into economic prosperity. It is perhaps too early to say whether this yearning for creative development will result in a superficial form of soft power or a deep transformation of society based on an underlying desire to influence with the force of ideas.


Thanks to Bonnie Liu and Tingting Song for assistance with some of the data.


1   A more literal translation sometimes used is ruan liliang (Ding 2008).

2   See also:


Baumol, William J. 2002. The Free-market Innovation Machine: Analysing the Growth Miracle of Capitalism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Chen, Yi-Hsiang. 2008. ‘Looking for Taiwan’s competitive edge: The production and circulation of Taiwanese TV drama’. In TV Drama in China, edited by Zhu, Ying; Keane, Michael; Bai, Ruoyun. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press: 175–186.

China Daily. 2006. ‘Cultural deficit cause for concern’. [Internet]. Accessed 28 April 2009. Available from:

China Economic News. 2005. ‘Chinese animation, Japanese territory?’ [Internet]. Accessed 28 April 2009. Available from: content_5049215.htm.

Chow, Carol; Ma, Eric. 2008. ‘Rescaling the local and the national: Transborder production of Hong Kong TV dramas in Mainland China’. In TV Drama in China, edited by Zhu, Ying; Keane, Michael; Bai, Ruoyun. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press: 210–217.

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Cite this chapter as: Keane, Michael. 2010. ‘Re-imagining China’s future: Soft power, cultural presence and the East Asian media market’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 14.1–14.13.


©Copyright 2010 Michael Keane

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Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita