Theatre is becoming an important part of the economy of major Chinese cities. These ballet dancers are performing at Taiyuan, Pingyao, Shanxi Province. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
China only recently has embraced the modern creative economy. China realizes that to become less dependent on others and to increase domestic consumption, it must create its own value-added goods and services and produce its own brands to sell, not only in China but also worldwide.
One of the most basic trends in the global economy is the growth in economic value attributed to the creative imagination—to art, design, entertainment, and culture in their widest sense. China, by concentrating its growth plans from 1970 to 2000 on manufacturing low-cost exports to foreign specifications, was late to take part in that trend. But the government increasingly realized that in order to become less dependent on others and to increase domestic consumption, it had to create its own value-added goods and services, exploiting Chinese brands and styles. China sees the creative economy as the premium end of manufacturing and services, adding more value than conventional businesses. China is acutely aware of the strength of brands such as Disney, McDonald’s, and Nokia and wants to produce its own Chinese varieties and sell them not only in China but also worldwide. The global economic crisis that started in 2008, and the consequent fall in export demand, gave the new policy added urgency.
The modern creative economy emerged in the United States in the early twentieth century and in Britain and the rest of Europe in the 1990s as part of the switch from manufacturing to services and from standard commodities to value-added, premium novelties. The consumer boom of the late twentieth century as well as the Internet and digital media were major factors. Everywhere the barriers that had segregated arts and business, imagination and profit were falling. Around the mid-1990s governments realized that the disparate and often fragmented arts, culture, and media sectors provided significantly more jobs and a higher proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) than previously acknowledged. Prompted by Britain’s culture minister Chris Smith in 1998, the creative industries began to be seen as “sunrise” industries just as consumer electronics had been championed by Japan and Taiwan thirty years earlier. In this process people became acutely conscious of the role of creativity as a driver of personal growth and of economic development.
The Chinese government formally endorsed the cultural industries (wenhua chanye) at the Ninth People’s Congress in 2001. Within a few years some thinkers had followed international practice by widening the concept to creative industries (wenhua chuangyi chanye). Shanghai launched its International Cultural and Creative Industries Expo in 2005. Beijing and Shenzhen followed in 2006.
Cultural and Creative Industries Linked
The linking of cultural and creative industries reflects a universal ambivalence about the relative roles of art, culture, creativity, and innovation. No theorist has pinned down these concepts or shown satisfactorily how they relate to each other, leaving governments to pick and choose according to their own circumstances. China sees culture as something historic, collective, materialist (e.g., artifacts), and more easily controllable. It sees creativity as something novel, disruptive, and more abstract. In Beijing the more conservative thinkers divide activities into a cultural box and an innovation box and leave no room for the kind of individual creativity that might drive art, design, and business with equal vigor. But outside Beijing many provinces and cities seem more relaxed about using the term creative industries.
In this attitude China reflects Asian attitudes to creativity and innovation that are largely based on tradition and collectivism, and are fundamentally different from the West’s. It is true that since the 1950s some Asian countries have been open to U.S. ideas, but China is both more resolutely determined to maintain its own national integrity and more ambitious in its international competitiveness.
As a country China has the oldest continuous culture in the world. At times it has also been the world’s most innovative culture, but its inventiveness in arts and technology declined sharply around the 1700s and did not resurface until the last few decades. The creative economy that now shapes China’s arts, design, media, and entertainment is profoundly influenced by this history.
China exemplifies the Asian values of authority, hierarchy, and tradition. It tends toward centralized rulers, whether an imperial dynasty or the Communist Party. For centuries rulers permitted independent thought only if it supported their worldview and could be administered by local bureaucracies. This authority accumulated tradition. One result is the love of learning by rote and by copying, and of putting the new copy back into the public domain (some Chinese thinkers therefore disdain an author’s intellectual property rights as being antisocial). Some Western commentators have picked up this Asian trait and decided that Asians are not creative, but this conclusion is too crude.
A new idea must be shown in advance to have beneficial social effects before resources are committed. Harmony is all. A Chinese official wanting to launch a new TV channel will refer glowingly to his city’s ancient history and the need for harmony before discussing the business plan. The Chinese tend not to believe that worthwhile ideas might come from people working on their own, especially someone at the margin who does not subscribe to government thinking. Governments do not want individuals creating their own ideas, symbols, and narratives, making their own meanings, or establishing a community of interest with consumers. To this extent China’s creative process is directly opposed to the Western process in which people choose their own path and ask their own questions. This difference, and its effects on both China and the West, will have profound effects on global cultures and international business in future years. China is the only country capable of challenging U.S. assumptions about how to do business. It is hard to foretell the outcome, which will depend on whether and by how much China and the West modify their practices.
The influence of local politicians at provincial, city, and district levels is another important factor. In China a local official’s decision to invest public funds, allocate land, and facilitate contracts has considerable impact on which businesses and individuals thrive. The success of Beijing’s initiatives therefore depends on local politicians, who often have little sympathy with or understanding of creative business. These politicians have much more influence than do Chinese entrepreneurs and managers. In the West, in contrast, many new ideas and companies come about because local businesses have raised their own money and taken action.
Although it is difficult to generalize, these principles usually have their greatest effect on mass markets (TV, radio, publishing, the Internet, video games, advertising, and film) and are less constricting in sectors that affect small groups (art, fashion, and high-end architecture, and interior design).
The history of China’s creative economy emerged out of the reform movements of the 1970s. One source was the obvious n
eed for design and advertising to stimulate modernization. China Central TV (CCTV) and Shanghai TV started showing advertisements in 1979. Another source was the spread of systems thinking and digital technology. Chinese intellectuals and artists, often working with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, vigorously explored the new theories of knowledge and network thinking and their role in economic development, leading to intense debates. The slackening of censorship encouraged semi-independent magazines to publish news, stories, and essays (although fiction remains a minority niche). The statistics bureau started to publish data on arts and culture in 1985.
Key events in national policymaking were the Ministry of Culture conference in Qingdao in 1991 and the ministry’s first reference to “cultural industries” in 1993. The Fifteenth National People’s Congress (2000) permitted small-scale businesses, including design, TV, animation, and publishing companies. The Tenth Five-Plan (2001–2005) prioritized knowledge and information and referred to “cultural industries,” by which it envisaged state-led manufacturing innovation rather than independent thinking. In 2002 the Sixteenth National People’s Congress said the Communist Party should enhance the cultural industries’ strength and competitiveness. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences began publishing its annual Blue Book on China’s Cultural Industries in 2002. The Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2006–2010) gave more attention to arts and culture and began to speak of the creative economy. By 2007 cultural and creative industries were common topics in the national dialogue on the future of China, although considerable confusion existed about how creativity fits within the Chinese model of development.
By 2008 the top four municipalities and most second-level cities had proclaimed themselves to be creative cities, albeit with interpretations different from city to city. Although obviously intrigued by Britain’s promotion of its creative industries in 1998, China, like other countries, has been selective in what it imports. Many cities used the phrases “creative cities” and creative industries” loosely to indicate any activity or urban site that has echoes of Western-style branding, retailing, and the arts. Shanghai is notable for converting about seventy warehouses and factories into creative clusters. Many state-owned enterprises that own buildings that are no longer viable want to turn them into a “creative space,” although their reasons are often to follow Beijing and increase their property’s value rather than to meet demand. A few succeed, such as Beijing’s 798 and Shanghai’s M50 art complexes, but many others are less certain of their markets. Too often such development is driven by property speculation rather than the ideas and needs of potential users. The label creative is often applied indiscriminately to both production (e.g., animation production companies) and to retailing (e.g., a shopping mall).
No national census of China’s creative sectors exists. Many cities have published their own research, although unfortunately each city uses a different definition, often driven by its desire to optimize the importance of its own sector relative to that of other cities. Some cities include exhibitions, tourism, and food and beverage. Shanghai uses five categories: (1) culture and media, including art, performance, film, TV, and radio; (2) architectural design, including architecture and related skills such as structural engineering and interior design; (3) research and development design, including industrial design, software design, fashion, and advertising; (4) planning, including market research, some financial services, and conferences and exhibitions; and (5) leisure, including photography, sport, and tourism.
Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chongqing, and Guangzhou (Canton) claim that 7 to 10 percent of their GDP is attributable to the creative economy, which means they are on a level with major Western cities. Elsewhere the figures are smaller.
In terms of markets the creative sectors may be split into four groups: sectors that most visibly express China’s history and culture (traditional art, museums, crafts, poetry, calligraphy, and traditional performance); sectors that reach the mass market (radio, TV, newspapers, and books); sectors that appeal to sophisticated urban populations (design, fashion, and magazines); and the infrastructure industries (architecture, interior design, furnishings, electronic communications, and online services).
The Internet plays a vital role, especially among young people who access it through mobile devices and computers. Chinese youth are as keen as their Western contemporaries to talk, share, blog, and post. Content-software is widely available, usually pirated, and numerous websites support online communities such as Neocha ?? and Douban ??. Although the government monitors these sites, it seems generally relaxed so long as users do not challenge Beijing’s politics. The main themes are art, design, music, and fashion, and although the focus is China, the references also cover Europe and the United States.
This analysis of China’s creative economy has to reconcile the country’s enthusiasm for creativity as a magic potion for economic growth and its uncertainty about what creativity is and to how to manage it. Some conservative thinkers take refuge in creativity as historic culture, but this usage, however impressive, will never be sufficient to transform a whole economic system, as is China’s ambition. Given China’s social and economic strengths and its vast population, it is likely that domestically its creative economy will grow rapidly and substantially. The more interesting question is this: What will be China’s effect on the West’s understanding of what creativity means and how to use it? The West assumes that its approach is the best one and shows little inclination to change, but the competition between the two models will be fierce.
Blue book of China’s creative industries media. (2007). Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press.
Howkins, J. (2001). The creative economy: How people make money from ideas. London: Allen Lane.
Keane, M. (2007). Created in China: The great new leap forward. London: Routledge.
Keane, M. (2009, March). Understanding the creative economy: A tale of two cities. London Journal of Creative Industries, 1(2) special issue on China’s creative economy.
Li Wuwei. (2008). Creativity is changing China. Beijing: Xinhua Press.
Source: Howkins, John, & Chen, Xu. (2009). Creative Economy. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 512–515. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Creative Economy (Chuàngyì j?ngjì ????)|Chuàngyì j?ngjì ???? (Creative Economy)