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Quicktake: Softpower and cultural exports

Jointly released by 27 government departments, a new policy roadmap for increasing China’s cultural exports unabashedly seeks to generate soft power, increase interest in Chinese cultural symbols, and establish China as a global cultural power.  There’s nothing odd about a government supporting the export of the nation’s artistic and cultural works, but the wide range of government departments involved in this policy suggests its greater importance.

Critically, the promotion of cultural works and services not only includes expanding traditional markets for film, television, printed works, and related services, but also the globalization of Chinese internet platforms. Unlike a book or movie, which, no matter how influential, is ultimately a single product to be consumed, platforms are ongoing, interactive collaborations with their users that collect and generate vast amounts of data and have the power to shape the content of the discourse that appears on them.

Given the intense international scrutiny of all-things-China, it’s inevitable that questions will be raised as Chinese companies continue to penetrate the online ecosystem:

  • The relationship between the state and business: Are Chinese businesses truly independent, inseparably tied to government, or otherwise beholden to share data with the Chinese government?
  • Content Restrictions: Will China-based international platforms censor content as required by China’s domestic laws or promote Chinese propaganda?
  • Shaping of international norms: What impact will China’s growing engagement have on international rules systems in areas such as data security, intellectual property, algorithm regulation, and privacy?

As its name suggests, the primary focus of this new document is on promoting industry development, but these questions should be kept in mind when considering its content.

The bulk of the document aims at building the capacity and international competitiveness of the domestic culture industry. This includes leveraging existing government support programs, tax incentives, and new financing and overseas payment methods to help the industry develop. It also calls for further domestic networking of cultural market resources to facilitate industry connectivity in areas such as funding, recruitment, translation, and legal advice for overseas markets. This ties in to a broader national cultural digitalization strategy which calls for establishing a national big data system for culture.

In some cases, reforms are aimed to remove current barriers to full participation in the global market. Pilot projects are planned on easing approval requirements for online content, including for the beleaguered video game industry. Regulation of the cultural industry is also intended to shift from burdensome ex-ante models requiring arduous permitting before start-up, to ongoing regulatory models, allowing new businesses to more quickly begin operations.

Foreign cultural trade is a form of global engagement, and in an era where Covid and political tension have greatly diminished China’s external connections, moves to open channels for more engagement are a bright point in the plan. Members of performance groups are intended to more easily obtain travel authorizations, and a broader range of foreign cultural works are to be imported.

In going abroad, the buzzword is “cooperation”: expanding cooperative publications, joint film productions, and working with overseas media resources to create channels for cultural trading. Cooperation also expressly includes active participation in the formulation of international rules and standards related to cultural trade, such as for the protection of intellectual property, and working to internationalize Chinese standards.

It needs to be noted that the goal throughout is not purely economic, and it’s no surprise that the central publicity/propaganda authorities take the lead on many of these efforts. Integrating the “social and economic effects” of cultural trade is emphasized, meaning increasing appeal and goodwill for Chinese culture while opening new markets. Exported audiovisual materials, for example, are intended to consider regional target audiences to better tell China’s story and share Chinese voices. The incorporation of characteristic Chinese elements into all cultural products and services is encouraged to create interest in and familiarity with cultural heritage such as Chinese food, medicine, and clothing; and classic works are to be adapted as digital productions.



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