China’s TV And Film Industries: Unexploited Soft Power

A report crosses this Bystander’s desk from Oxford Economics, a consultancy commissioned to quantify the economic impact of China’s film and TV industries. The commission comes from the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood’s lobbying arm, and the China Film Distributors and Exhibitors Association. It is, no doubt, intended as an opportune prod in the direction of more opening of China’s domestic film and TV markets by emphasizing the potential for growth at a time when boosting cultural industries and “going out” is to the forefront 0f Beijing’s mind.

The reports lays out quite how significant, fast-growing, and promising the industry is — as would be expected in a country with a large population, strong economic growth and rising incomes. Oxford Economics tots up for 2011 a 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) contribution to GDP, 909,000 jobs and 22 billion yuan in tax revenue from the industry directly.

Taking into account the multiplier effect across the rest of the economy, the report boosts those numbers to a 272 billion yuan contribution to GDP, 4.5 million jobs and 57 billion yuan in tax revenues. That later GDP number is equivalent to 0.6% of total GDP, similar to the contributions of  the computer and telecoms equipment industries. Where the film and TV industries are much different is in their level of exports. Total exports in 2011, Oxford Economics reckons, were 2.3 billion yuan, 90% of which was accounted for by film. The telecoms equipment makers did more than 10 times as much each quarter.

Cultural exports are these days a central part of a country’s soft power — as Hollywood’s bear testament, just as much as do China’s tight quotas on foreign film imports. While the leadership in Beijing is now paying more attention to this aspect of China’s global projection of itself, China has not been able to convert its popular arts and culture into an arm of diplomacy in the way that, say, its neighbour South Korea has. Hallyu,  a mix of popular South Korean films, TV, food and K-pop music culminating in the Gangnam-style phenomenon, has proven to be an extraordinary calling card for the country. South Korea has risen to 11th on Monocle magazine’s annual ranking of soft power, a list on which China doesn’t make the top 20.

It has also made South Korea a destination for cultural tourists, particularly from the rest of the region. What little film and TV tourism there is in China is local and localized. That is a hugely untapped opportunity, the Oxford Economics report suggests, treading safe ground rather than venturing into the deeper waters of exporting cultural values and projecting soft power. In the same vein, it casts the impact of hallyu in the light of domestic tourism within South Korea.

The unsaid part highlights another difference between South Korea and China, whose state-planned cultural exports have focused on traditional high-culture aspects of China’s arts and heritage, as might be expected of programmes devised by government officials and intellectuals. South Korea’s cultural image is very much a reflection of its contemporary and popular culture, which is driven, for better or worse, by a commercial market. China, where even popular TV is sanitized for social correctness, doesn’t have such a readily accessible and identifiable non-political contemporary culture, or the rambunctious marketplace to nurture it.

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