October 17, 2012
Last week, Part 1 of this article explored the history of South Korea’s rise as a global cultural force, and the attendant soft power benefits that country has enjoyed. These benefits include disproportionate global influence for Korea relative to its size, and enhanced respect among its neighboring countries, including China. Here we’ll take a look at the paradox of why China, despite having 30 times the population of South Korea and very similar cultural “DNA,” has failed in its efforts to achieve the global cultural influence it craves.
China has poured billions upon billions of dollars into state-of-the-art production facilities in hopes of achieving the international respect that Korea seems to win so effortlessly. But this investment has returned discouragingly limited results, for several reasons:
- While China has invested heavily in hard assets for cultural production—soundstages, production equipment, post facilities, and the like—it has never placed much stock in the value of soft assets, that is, the unquantifiable human skills and experience that are the lifeblood of creativity. Few Chinese investors understand or respect the vital importance of the creative spark, and as a consequence they don’t reward it. Film and TV projects are treated as industrial enterprises that require the firm hand of a dictatorial director. There is precious little support for training and development in the fields of screenwriting, songwriting, and other ‘intangible’ arts, and so China’s talent pool in these areas is extremely shallow.
- China’s state arts and culture investment occurs in an environment and under a political regime that is deeply antagonistic toward true artistic expression. On the one hand China’s communist culture czars exhort artists and writers to “uphold the spiritual torch of the Chinese nationality and produce a greater number of excellent works” (President Hu Jintao) while they simultaneously smother the efforts of their country’s greatest artists. It’s emblematic that China’s most famous artist, Ai Weiwei, is the global poster boy for Chinese oppression and intolerance of independent thought. While Korean writers and producers are continually attracting audiences with distinctive, often daringly original stories and styles, over in China popular television programs are routinely thrown off the airwaves for being “excessively entertaining.”
- The story-telling styles promoted by China’s central government don’t lend themselves well to the creation of globally commercial, crowd-pleasing hits. The Chinese Communist Party’s historical emphasis on the collective over the individual has for decades rewarded stories about group achievement. Most favored are those plots about individuals who subordinate their desires and conform their behavior for the common benefit of the people. Ensemble stories that have no single identifiable hero are common. Unfortunately for China, the stories that are most popular around the world tend to be those that are precisely the opposite, ones that draw from the American mythos about maverick individuals who buck the system and flout the rules in order to succeed.
- Censorship, as we’ve noted here before, is a major obstacle to China’s pop culture success, but censorship in and of itself is only part of the problem. After all, China’s current censorship rules are not all that different from the old Hays Code restrictions that governed Hollywood movie production from the 1930s through the 1960s, a period during which Hollywood achieved many of its greatest artistic and commercial achievements. China’s bigger issue is the arbitrariness of its rules and the mercurial, sometimes bizarre nature of their enforcement. Censorship was just as politically motivated in old Hollywood as it is in modern day China, but there is a crucial difference: under the Hays Code rules, filmmakers were pretty much free to operate within the constraints that had been laid down, and creativity was allowed to flourish so long as one played by the rules. But in China, the specter of government interference haunts every step of the creative process, burdening the artist like a set of heavy chains that continually saps their strength. Chinese censorship is a government tool for controlling the people, their thoughts and their impulses, and when applied to pop culture it unfortunately tends to squeeze every last original idea, every recognizable human truth, from the fabric of the content.
- China’s educational system also discourages idiosyncratic expression, and generally aims to stamp out ‘undesirable’ creative tendencies at the earliest ages. The Confucian philosophies that have guided Chinese society for many centuries put a premium on obedience to authority and strict adherence to elaborate rules of behavior. Anyone who dares to be different is swiftly put in their place. In the Confucian construct, artists and performers are at the lowest level of the social hierarchy, a rung or two below beggars and prostitutes. China surely has at least its share of the world’s creative talent, but most of it goes unrecognized because the system requires its suppression.
Despite all these challenges—and doubtless additional ones that I’ve failed to consider—China’s prospects for exporting its culture and gaining soft power influence needn’t be so bleak. It wasn’t long ago that South Korea faced all these same challenges and more. In Part 3 of this article we’ll take a look at the specific and very deliberate actions Korea took to support its culture industries that led to the “Korean Wave”, and the lessons that China can draw from Korea’s experience.
Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at email@example.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com