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A View to the East: China's Culture Industries

    In the first of a series of blogs about China's political and technological landscape, Professor Hugo de Burgh of the China Media Centre at University of Westminster writes on China's culture industries. 

    A recent Daily Telegraph cartoon depicts the promotion poster for the new James Bond film; the smoothie with the gun is poised to save the world in free-fall. But the new twist was that the face of Bond was the face of Hu Jintao, President of China.

    What a change from 2008 when, despite grudging respect for her economic achievements and glorious Olympics, the Western political and intellectual elites pretty well unanimously despised China because of what they perceived as China’s political and moral failings! This view was based upon prejudices and ignorance; just as our politicians’ failure to understand other cultures and countries has got us into trouble in the Muslim world, the same approach to China may have even worse consequences in the years ahead.

    How little we know about how China works is really quite extraordinary, when you consider that it is generally acknowledged that China is already influencing us and will do so more and more. There is a whole raft of assumptions about China that my compatriots carry in their heads – soon expelled by the smart ones when they visit it. As Director of the China Media Centre I have enjoyed taking various prominent Brits on their first visits to China – Boris Johnson, David Willetts, Nick Davies (usually credited with having exposed the NOW hacking scandal), Steve Hewlett who presents The Media Show and other leading figures from the media. They would not contradict my saying that they found a society infinitely more open and diverse and free than they had assumed.

    But before dilating on that, there is a more immediate topic to cover: China’s culture industries.

    Last month the 4 day annual meeting of the Central Committee took place with the theme of enlivening the ‘cultural system’.

    Chinese culture, in the sense of publishing, artworks and the appreciation of historical artefacts is developing very richly without any need of the Central Committee. New schools and universities are being launched while existing ones expand and clone and introduce new ideas and new pedagogy. So what is there for the Central Committee to discuss?

    Two things. What significance the ‘culture industries’ have for China’s economic development and what role the very important institution, the Culture Establishment or culture xitong, will play.

    The concept of the ‘culture industries’ was invented in Britain but has been seized upon by Chinese intellectuals and policy makers (usually with acknowledgments to its parent) to emphasise the importance of the softer industries. Most officials in China will by now know that they are to be judged not just on how many miles of road are built or factories put up under their watch but on the concert halls, artist villages, animation companies, museums and so forth they can initiate.

    Whereas money put into universities to work on the creative industries in the UK would doubtless result in the recruitment of more people to write turgid papers which nobody would read except the colleagues judging the writers’ ranking in the next Research Assessment Exercise, Chinese universities seem to be getting stuck in to their own projects with the local communities and individuals, spawning enterprises and workshops. There is a good deal of interest too in how you initiate and incubate creativity. One university plans to bring out some British psychologists and teachers to run a workshop on just that and my own organisation has been briefing broadcast executives on how small British companies are so productive of ideas that the UK is the world’s largest exporter of programme formats.

    Some scoff at the Chinese as potential innovators, damning their ‘authoritarian’ political culture and ‘memorising’ schooling as impassable barriers. Like Bill Gates, reported to have said that ‘no-one was ever creative who didn’t have his basic maths and grammar right’, I’m not so sure. Any society whose food is as varied, evolving and imaginative as China’s is innovative in the deepest sense that they can apply their creativity to everyday life. Our summer school students,usually 2nd year undergraduates,  astonish British lecturers when they are sent out to direct, shoot and post produce short videos and again when they have to think up ideas for television entertainments and get them judged by British Commissioning Editors. They are nothing if not imaginative and, what’s more, they realise their imaginings with enterprise, energy and the ability to apply themselves and master new skills, both dispositions learnt in a very demanding education system.

    In the luxury design side of the culture industries Chinese consumers are buying Hermes and Burberry and Vuitton now because they are the best, but regular visitors to China daily witness new products and new brands which are applying internationally proven methods to their own workmanship. It's just a matter of time and trouble...

    What does this matter to us? We have to face it that the comforting idea, that where brain and sparkle are needed we Westerners can always stay one step ahead even if all our basic necessities are produced more cheaply and efficiently in China, needs rethinking. Of course most of China’s exports are still made up of things designed by Westerners but this won’t last forever. Little by little Chinese are going to be doing their own conceptualising, research and designing. The government is also determined to reduce the exposure of China’s economy to the influence of the West, by powering the domestic market. If Chinese consumers can be spending enough to marginalise foreign buyers and if the things that Chinese consumers want are mainly to be conceived as well as produced in China then where does that leave the West? Ok, this is a reasonably long-term scenario, but it is one that our political leaders need to be thinking about.

    And what about the Chinese government's ability to realise its policy aspirations? Far from having a dysfunctional political system, as almost every foreign correspondent seems to think, China may have the edge on us institutionally too.

    The Culture Xitong – the Administrative Framework for Culture – is led by the Central Propaganda (Information) Department.

    There is a presupposition widely adhered to in Chinese society that culture must be supportive of authority and that it is one of the duties of government to use such media as are at its disposal to educate and inform the public as it see fit.

    This approach has a number of facets which can seem to outsiders, at least to those from the Anglosphere, remarkable. For example, every city government will have a section responsible for spiritual development and civilised comportment, which will promote cleanliness, courtesy and good behaviour among citizens, through campaigns, competitions and public events. Communist media theory aside, officials who are as attentive to detail as this understandably also regard it as their duty to ensure that opinions are guided and that information that is subversive of interpersonal morality or good administration is excluded from publication.  Regulating public communication is tasked, because of the legacy of Communist organization, to the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) of the CCP (MacGregor 2010: ch8).

    As an illustration of the power of the CPD it is notable that, in early 2011, when it was widely reported that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had visited petitioners at the State Bureau of Letters and Calls [国家信访局] to show his concern that petitioners against injustice were not being treated appropriately by many local authorities, Chinese observers reported that the Central Propaganda Department had criticised the Prime Minister for so doing, a surprising but not unprecedented revelation. The year before it had been reported that parts of Wen’s speeches had been censored on ‘at least four occasions in recent months’ (Moore 2010). These incidents give an idea of the authority attributed to the Propaganda Department. 

    Quoting a Party publication, Shambaugh comments that its definition of the CPD

    means that virtually every conceivable medium that transmits and conveys information to the people of China falls under the bureaucratic purview of the CCP Propaganda Department. This includes all media organs, all schools and educational institutions, all literary and art organs and all publishing outlets.’ (Shambaugh 2009: 107)

    The CPD is responsible for:

    1. issuing instructions on content
    2. the professional development of content managers (editors, publishers)
    3. monitoring the content of communications to ensure that they do not transgress the official line on topics that the Party considers important.

    It has units at every level of administration of which local newspapers and broadcasting channels must take account. The CPD answers for the xitong of information and cultural institutions to the most powerful decision-making body in China, the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CCP.

    It guides and supervises the xitong members (Perry 2001: 27-8), which include: the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, the State Administration of Press and Publication, the State Council Information Office, the Ministry of Culture, Xinhua News Agency. It shares with the Ministry of Public Security the task of filtering and monitoring the Internet. Each of the organisations will have provincial and local branches. There is in other words a comprehensive structure through which to influence 'culture'.

    While my description above may imply that the powers of the CPD are all negative, all about exercising control, that is not necessarily the case today. New ideas about how culture can be developed both to enrich everyday life and to create new industries are shooting through the xitong; enterprising officials are encouraged and professional development courses and workshops are held to vitalise local committees and stimulate entrepreneurship. While it may be the case that ideology and hierarchy will have a stultifying affect, as China’s critics assume, this is not necessarily so.

    The Central Committee believes that officials in Beijing can kick into fast gear a renaissance in culture that creates modern industries and diverts people from admiration for European culture into applying modern technologies and commercial skills to their own. The Central Committee may not be so wrong.

    Hugo de Burgh BA(Hons) MA PhD FRSA is Professor of the Study of Journalism and Director of the China Media Centre. He is one of a small number of academics which has pioneered the study of the Chinese media outside the Chinese world.

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