Michael Keane: Can China’s digital revolution incubate a new wave of cultural soft power?


As slogans go, the ‘Chinese Dream’ is a call-to-arms, urging Chinese nationals, including indigenous minorities, to collectively imagine a great future. While this mantra is directed at what media scholar Benedict Anderson once referred to as an ‘imagined community’, it is clear that the Chinese national community is fragmented, both within the nation state itself and dispersed across many nations.

The term ‘Chinese characteristics’, which is frequently used within China to describe how China absorbs and adapts international ideas, loses its original meaning in the era of dispersed communities. In coining ‘Chinese characteristics’ in 1992, Deng Xiaoping was referring to a ‘market economy with Chinese characteristics.’ The changes he presided over affected the whole nation. In today’s China we see numerous characteristics: for instance, distinctive regional development models, diverse market segments, and restless ‘national’ minorities. Various interpretations of the ‘Chinese dream’ exist.

In an increasingly diverse China, the role of the media is more complex: it informs, entertains and educates those living in the Mainland; it reaches out to Chinese nationals living abroad, and nowadays, it attempts to speak to non-Chinese about China’s achievements.

In particular, the international mission of China’s media is spelt out clearly: ‘go out’. The government plays a facilitating role here. Hotel guests may be surprised to find a buffet of Chinese language channels, from drama to arts, all provided by the national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). I am not talking about Chinese hotels; these offerings appear in many hotels in many cities around the globe. Moreover, many channels are not subtitled or dubbed. Of course, this demonstrates the reach of China’s state media. But the question is: Is anyone really watching?

The short answer is: content that is determined to be representative of China’s ‘soft power’ by the government, such as the CCTV channels, is not attracting great interest. Government endorsement is in fact a kiss of death, particularly in overseas communities where Chinese communities have a choice of hundreds of commercial channels streamed through set top boxes or satellite dishes.

The most popular Chinese television program overseas is a reality TV-style dating show called ‘If You are the One’ (‘Feicheng wurao’), which was first developed in Australia as ‘Taken Out’. The format was later sold by Fremantle Media to Hunan Satellite TV station in south China, before being cloned by one of its competitors, Jiangsu Satellite Television. Somewhat ironically considering the Antipodean origins, Jiangsu’s version screens with subtitles on Australia’s SBS Television channel where it has attracted a cult following. ‘If You are the One’ is successful because it is commercial and entertaining. At the same time it tells the viewer much about contemporary China.

New media players and new audiences

Two years ago I visited an electronics market in Hong Kong’s Shan Shui Po where I noticed a device for sale called a TV PAD. The advertisement in English on the brochure read:

"TVpad is the most popular TV box which allow (sic) you to watch 100+ Chinese TV channels, it looks exactly like a Roku or Apple TV. Has HDMI, USB, TFcard, Network connect and can stream up to 1080p, more and more Chinese use it as a TV overseas. It is also a great gift for Chinese!!"

This IPTV platform, like many others now available on the market, is making Chinese television accessible to overseas audiences. I wondered: could this be a window for China’s soft power? Could digital platforms like this reconnect Mainland and overseas audiences?

In China the domestic television audience accounts for more than 1 billion people or as US media scholar Ying Zhu puts it in her book of the same name, ‘Two billion eyes.’ Chinese people are now consuming media in many ways; furthermore, Chinese people living or studying overseas are watching.

However, much of the content that Chinese citizens choose to watch in the comfort of their living room or on their computer screens comes from other national sources. This is happening because new media companies in China are busy procuring content that was unavailable to terrestrial channels because of quotas imposed on foreign content.

In recent years the number of non-traditional media companies has expanded in China, echoing the global media environment. China’s answer to Netflix, Hulu, Google TV and Amazon have names such as iQiyi, BesTV, PPTV, Youku Tudou and LeTV. These companies are competing for a huge younger audience, many of whom have acquired a taste for foreign content previously accessed from download sites. When the government closed down these sites in 2008, the online media companies that emerged in the vacuum began to compete for the market.

TV has evolved rapidly in the Mainland and its audiences have become more sophisticated. Much of the population is watching TV and viewing movies on small screens: laptops, tablets and mobile phones. Younger audiences have adopted digital media and spend little or no time in the living room. According to a comparative study conducted in 2012, online TV has the highest viewership in China – possibly due to consumer interest in viewing foreign programs that may not be available via the traditional TV medium.

As audiences have become more fragmented and selective the Chinese television industry has had to reconsider its mode of operation. Television was, and to some extent remains a government mouthpiece, but its effectiveness as propaganda has diminished. With multiple channels available and a diversity of online streaming platforms audiences can easily shift their attention.

Reaching out… but to where?

As for the government’s attempts to connect with new audiences abroad and sell the message of a modern and more open China, the news is not so good. Chinese television programming does not move comfortably beyond its national boundaries. China’s success in overseas sales to date has come from adaptations of the four classics of Chinese popular literature: ‘The Journey to the West’, ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’, ‘The Dream of the Red Mansions’ and ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, as well as historical serials featuring emperors, eunuchs and court intrigues. Yet this advantage has conspired to produce a glut of second-rate productions; even home audiences have turned away from the genre in large numbers, precipitating edicts from the State Administration of Press Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) to rebalance production slates towards more contemporary stories.

Meanwhile state supported media reaches out, colonising international hotels and infiltrating the schedules of third world countries. The rationale undergirding the government’s intentions to reach its media into international markets is purely political. There is no compelling economic argument for Chinese media to go out: the domestic market is large enough to accommodate all players. Further, no compelling economic rationale exists to suggest that China will become a major cultural exporter of content. Chinese films do better internationally, but only marginally, and those that achieve success abroad are co-productions. Economic success in the home market does not equate to success abroad; critical success abroad, as in the case of cinema, does not necessarily translate into economic success at home.

Apart from the critical success of historical stories such as Zhang Yimou’s ‘Hero’ and ‘House of Flying Daggers’, as well as positive reception of independent film and documentaries, mainly in art-house festivals, the world is not responding: it is more a case of the world ‘coming in’ than China ‘going out.’ The Mainland media market is seen as a new frontier: ‘foreigners’ who were once critics of China’s political regime are bringing their productions to China, happily writing new endings for screenplays, editing problematic topics, and providing cameos for Chinese actors.

There is another side to this story, however. As international film, television and documentary producers look to co-produce content in China, and to partner with Chinese production teams, creative conflicts are common. The kind of stories that pass the gauntlet of regulators in China must conform to ‘core socialist values’, however this catchphrase is defined. Herein is the essential weakness of Chinese cultural soft power. The success of Hollywood internationally, as well as the films of China regional neighbours, Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong, is due in no small part to the freedom of expression that allows film makers, documentary makers and TV producers to express views that may be critical of the political status quo.

The downside of working in China is that the kind of critical production values that have resulted in great works of art, are traded away for access to the Mainland audience. Moreover, the belief that Chinese film and television might attain critical success in world markets by co-producing with Hollywood is built on weak foundations. The insertion of Chinese actors and Chinese locations in blockbusters such as Iron Man 3 is a superficial solution, more designed to ingratiate Chinese audiences than win over international ones. This is ultimately a fragile form of soft power.

19th August 2015

Michael KEANE is Professor of Chinese Media at Curtin University, Australia, and director of the Digital China Lab. He’s the author of “Creative Industries in China: Art, Design and Media” (2013) and “The Chinese Television Industry” (July 2015).