Creative Industries in China is drawn from my research over the past decade on how Chinese policy makers, artists, designers and media practitioners are attempting to change a widespread perception that China is an uncreative nation. The ‘world factory’ portrayal is an uncomfortable reminder for many of economic dominance which is yet to be translated into the cultural sphere.
For this reason ‘industrialisation of culture’ has captured a great deal of policy attention since 2003. While the term ‘cultural industries’ is the politically correct usage for university research centres that solicit the support of the central government in Beijing, the term ‘creative industries’ has captured the imagination of liberal minded thinkers, small businesses and grassroots organisations.
In this book I describe three clusters of activity: art, design and media. In doing so, I have attempted to produce a book that will reach beyond the scholarly community. I assemble a diversity of sources, some from government reports, some from industry, but most from academia. The clusters are heterogeneous, crossing disciplinary boundaries.
I look at a broad range of creative sectors: painting, performance, industrial design, urban design, fashion, television, film and online video. I examine the political and institutional environments that enable and constrain innovation, for instance political factions, media regulation, censorship, copyright as well as regional variations in urban planning and cultural governance. Throughout the book I evaluate China’s attempts to renovate its national soft power, that is, China’s cultural attractiveness within the international community.
In writing this book I was presented with a methodological dilemma. Creativity obviously varies in different societies at different periods. So what kind of criteria should one use to measure it? In recognising a strong tendency to attribute Western origins to creativity and to the creative industries, my concern is to show how applicable this ‘gold standard’ is in the People’s Republic of China, a nation that is itself endeavouring to transform in to an ‘innovative nation’ by 2020.
How can we understand non-standard varieties? How many of the outputs listed in government reports in China are examples of originality or novelty? By the same token, the standard definition (of creative industries), incubated by the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in the late 1990s, has undergone significant mutation in its travels throughout Asia. I show why this has occurred and reveal the consequences of such transformation for regional governance in China.
In my recent work, and throughout this book, I have opted for a functional definition of creativity. I seek to downplay the emphasis on novelty that pervades innovation literature, which idealises heroic risk-taking creative entrepreneurs. In this book creativity is the ‘fitting of new ideas and alternative visions to existing norms, values and patterns’. Accordingly, the industries that governments like to promote as cultural and creative are frequently typified by mundane practices.
To be sure, they represent aggregations of so-called creative classes—artists, writers, filmmakers, designers and developers – but much of what is produced (and counted in reports) is the result of pragmatic variations of existing models and templates.
The term ‘creativity’ has a certain promiscuity, which allows it to be applied in many contexts. In many cases in China it is effectively harmonized, stripped of its critical elements. To understand its uptake in China I consider its dissemination within a society where freedom of expression has been devalued as a means of social organisation.
This is not to deny the inventiveness, ingenuity and imagination of Chinese artists and craftsmen – or the desire for openness. As I argue in chapter 2, cultural exchange has had a long history in traditional China, but innovators have had to contend with extended periods of Confucian (and neo-Confucian) orthodoxy. In modern China conformity to political dictates has rendered creativity a zone of uncertainty.
The upside of promiscuity is that the uses of creativity cut across different disciplines and fields of endeavour, psychology, business, aesthetics, science and education such that there are many views and many ‘experts’. To take the example of visual art, anyone can become a connoisseur by following art trends, joining art circles and reading art history.
However, as the Canadian conceptual art group the N.E. Thing Goes company showed, anything can be art; art only has to be thought by someone as art for it to be so. The question of value is another consideration. As the sociologist Richard Sennett points out, the lament ‘You do not understand me’ is ‘a not entirely enticing selling point’.
The book examines many of the selling points of Chinese culture. But more than this it looks at the sustainability of an indigenous model of creativity based on expedient adaptation. Is this the model that China should retain and risk being typecast as a follower nation rather than becoming an innovative nation?
I show how China is seeking to exploit creativity to climb the global value chain but I also demonstrate the limits imposed on creativity by a politically induced focus on quantity over quality, harmony over risk-taking, and economic development over human rights. While the government’s call for extending China’s soft power has increased productivity of its cultural sectors this has yet to impact on the most important indicator, China’s international cultural attractiveness.
Michael Keane is professor in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology. He is the author of China’s New Creative Clusters: Governance, Human Capital and Investment (2011) and Created in China: the Great New Leap Forward (2007).