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Cultural Industry Goes Global
Chinese firms big and small eye overseas art and entertainment markets
By Tang Yuankai | NO. 16 APRIL 21, 2016

 

The Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe stages The Butterfly Lovers in Bangkok, Thailand, on September 13, 2015 (XINHUA) 

China is now the leading global exporter of culture products, according to the latest report released by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), on March 10. China's cultural product exports amounted to $60.1 billion in 2013, more than twice that of the United States, which exported $27.9 billion. Silvia Montoya, head of UIS, said in a Xinhua News Agency article that in 2013, cultural product trade worldwide reached $212.8 billion, more than doubling that of 2004, which attests to the cultural industry's important role in today's global economy.

Cultural exhibitions, advertisements and products sold online are the fastest growing cultural items. Other major exports in this field include acrobatic performances, copyrights, digital publications, game machines, handicrafts, movies, musical instruments, operas, songs and dances, and television plays.

 

The China Philharmonic Orchestra performs in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, on August 8, 2015 (XINHUA) 

Artisan and advocate 

China's outbound investment in the global cultural industry has also soared. According to a paper authored by Lai Youwei and Zhang Xiaolu of the Development Research Center of the State Council, from 2007 to 2013, China's foreign direct investment in cultural, sport and entertainment industries surged from $5.1 million to $31.09 million, representing a 61-fold increase. Cultural exports not only promote industrial structural upgrading at home, but also boost a country's cultural influence and international competitiveness abroad, Lai said.

Thirty-four-year old Cai Qun, who now serves as a deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC), the legislative body of China, was a migrant worker before returning to her hometown in Zhijin County of southwest China's Guizhou Province to start a company producing batik and embroidery products. Batik and embroidery are typically used in the traditional attire of the local Miao ethnic group.

Pointing at a piece of batik work that she brought to Beijing, Cai showed how it was made. "To produce such a pattern, [an artisan] needs to paint melted wax onto the fabric with a wax knife stroke by stroke, and then embroider the pattern stich by stich. It takes two to three days to make a face towel," she said.

The company employs more than 300 embroiderers and its products are sold to countries and regions such as the United States, South Korea and Malaysia. According to the company, last year they received overseas orders totaling 800,000 yuan ($123,839). This sum, although only a small portion of the company's total sales, represented the fastest-growing sector of the company.

"Our domestic sales were more or less the same [as the previous year], while overseas sales grew by 50 percent. So we must attach importance to the overseas market," Cai told Beijing Review. Cai was born in a village inhabited by Miao people, where traditional batik and embroidery skills have been passed down from generation to generation. As the daughter of a well-known batik artisan, she learned wax printing and embroidery at an early age. Wax printing as an art form is included in China's national intangible heritage list.

Growing up in a poor family, Cai dropped out of school and did farm work to help out the family. In July 2000, she followed some other young people from the village into the city, where she did miscellaneous jobs including working as a waitress and a worker in a shoe factory. While on duty at the factory, she lost the little finger on her right hand to a machine in an accident caused by fatigue.

In 2005, as life back in her hometown started to improve, Cai decided to return. Utilizing her own batik and embroidery skills, she opened a workshop at home with her savings. Then in 2006, she won a provincial-wide competition for her work, was honored as a skillful craftswoman of Guizhou, and certified as a provincial-level successor of intangible cultural heritage.

She co-founded the batik and embroidery company with support from friends. In addition to help from the village, they recruited more than 50 Miao women and developed more than 10 varieties of batik and embroidery products, marketing them nationwide. To retain traditional craftsmanship, Cai's company hand-makes its products unless customers specially require machine-made ones. Their exquisite workmanship has been well-received. Today the company boasts annual sales close to 9 million yuan ($1.39 million).

"Guizhou Province has many excellent traditional cultural resources to be utilized. Small cultural businesses will not only protect and pass traditional culture down, but also alleviate poverty," Cai said. She also believed that the preservation of traditional culture should be linked with the market economy, which is an important way to invigorate traditional culture.

The company's products entered the international market by chance. When customers from countries such as the United States were on sightseeing trips in their county, they spotted beautiful batik and embroidery products in her shops, and then contacted her.

"I had thought to promote the Miao culture abroad, but I cannot speak any foreign languages, nor did I have any contacts," she said. Even after rather remarkable success, Cai is still vexed that she has limited channels to market her products overseas.

This is a common problem for small business in any industry, including those selling artisanal wares, and often serves as a bottleneck for growth. According to a report by Xinhua News Agency, this dilemma particularly affects boutique firms in the western parts of China.

Cai was insistent that the situation must be changed, and suggested the government should build exhibition, exchange and trading platforms to promote cultural products overseas.

 

A woman of Miao ethnic origin from Guizhou Province demonstrates her batik skill on June 25, 2014, at a folk cultural festival held in Washington, D.C., the United States (XINHUA) 

National priority 

During the annual NPC meeting this March, Cai joined other NPC deputies in Beijing to finalize and approve China's 13th Five-Year Plan. The plan, officially released on March 17, is the blueprint for China's social and economic development for the 2016-20 period. It includes content on increasing the country's cultural openness level, which suggests that cultural trade has become part of the national strategic plan. The blueprint also states that China will boost cultural and people-to-people exchanges, provide new avenues for cross-cultural communication and expand new models for this type of work.

"Cultural trade has become an effective way to promote Chinese culture to the world," Li Jiashan, Executive Vice President of the National Institute of Cultural Development at the Beijing International Studies University, said at a seminar on the 13th Five-Year Plan in Beijing in March. She thought it was important that the 13th Five-Year Plan emphasized cultural trade innovation, and that the plan and other relevant policies offer opportunities to boost trade in cultural products.

This sector was once a weak link in China's export portfolio. In recent decades, however, a large number of international cultural exchange activities have been implemented in order to strengthen connections and provide networking opportunities.

In 2003, the Ministry of Culture set up a special agency to promote the export of cultural products and services through commercial channels. In 2006, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Commerce and the General Administration of Press and Publication (now known as the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) produced a catalogue on the export of cultural products and services. Later, the government also recognized companies excelling in exporting cultural products and services. In 2009, the Ministry of Culture officially set up a cultural trade division.

China also continues to deepen its cultural system reform. In 2013, several state-run art and cultural institutions and media outlets, which had been originally established for public interests, were reformed as enterprises. This helped give rise to a large number of cultural market players, invigorating the market.

Meanwhile, relevant government departments have given companies export assistance in the form of marketing tips and customs clearance. Cultural trade pilot zones have also been set up in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Hua Jian, Director of the Cultural Industry Research Center of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, paid close attention to how cultural trade was mentioned in the latest five-year plan. "The upgrading of China's cultural trade conforms to the general trend of global cultural trade. The coming five years are an opportunity that should be seized by China to become a very influential cultural trader," Hua said.

Getting accepted 

Unlike regular commodities, it is not easy to boost cultural product exportation simply by cutting prices. Many people want to export their cultural products, but find that these are not well received in other countries. For instance, some Chinese films showed overseas only enjoyed a few days of box office success, even several domestically popular blockbuster movies have failed to impress foreign audiences.

"In the past few decades, we have been introducing excellent foreign cultures into China, and we will continue to do so. Yet now, a more challenging thing for us is to promote our culture to the world," Zhang Yu, Chairman of China Arts and Entertainment Group, a company dedicated to paving the road for Chinese cultural products to be exported in higher numbers, told Beijing Review.

The aim of "going global" should not be to transplant culture, but to communicate with other cultures, cautioned Ding Hegen, a professor with the School of Journalism and Communication, Nanjing University. "A precondition for successful communication is shared values," Ding said, "so we should maximize consensus during cultural communication."

Only products based on the traditional culture of a nation and that reflect the trend of the times can be received internationally, Wu Weishan, Curator of the National Art Museum of China and Vice Chairman of the China Artists Association, said at a panel discussion of the annual session of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's top political advisory body, in March.

Jin Jing, a reporter with the Beijing-based Economic Daily, agreed, arguing that the law for cultural product exportation is to respect the market and audience's choices. "The key lies in how much the audience can understand and identify with the stories," she said.

A famous dance piece well-received abroad is The Butterfly Lovers. In 2013, The Shanghai Ballet Company staged 28 performances depicting the beautiful but tragic love story while the troupe toured the United States. The piece, based on a Chinese folktale version of Romeo and Juliet, was warmly welcomed by American critics and audiences alike.

Such success may hinge on the ability of foreign audiences to relate to the main themes of the performance. Hua explained that the heart and soul of cultural trade are ideas and content that reflect human ideals and wisdom, and cultural trade is not simply to export products, but to achieve further cultural integration with the world.

Investment uptick 

Not only are Chinese cultural products starting to gain traction internationally, but there has also been a surge of investment in recent years both in the country's cultural industry, and from Chinese firms investing abroad.

Shenzhen Huaqiang Industry Co. Ltd. has drawn on its strength in culture and technology to actively promote its animations, 4D movies and theme parks to overseas markets, making China the second biggest exporter of theme parks behind the United States. Meanwhile, Tencent Group, which is also headquartered in Shenzhen, has made several mergers and acquisitions in the game industry in the United States, South Korea, Europe and East Asia.

In 2012, the Dalian Wanda Group Co. Ltd. spent $2.6 billion in purchasing AMC Cinemas, which has the second largest share in theater market in the United States. On January 21, 2015, it signed a contract in Beijing to acquire a 20 percent stake in the Atlético de Madrid football club in Spain, paying 45 million euros. This is the first time that a Chinese firm has invested in a top European football club.

Also in January, the Wanda Group announced the purchase of U.S.-based Legendary Pictures for $3.5 billion, which is the largest investment that a Chinese firm has made to date in the overseas cultural industry. Some analysts predicted that the next several years will see a new wave of overseas mergers and acquisitions by Chinese firms in the cultural industry.

"In the next five years, the Chinese cultural industry will generally grow despite an economic slowdown across the board," said Wei Peng, a professor with the Cultural Economy Research Institute of the Central University of Finance and Economics, to Beijing Review. Wei commented this is because the cultural industry is very attractive to investors.

Yet the industry still faces a variety of challenges in its efforts to really "go global" in the full sense of the term. To start, the quality of its products and services, innovation ability and international influence all need to be improved.

"We should build an influential international cultural trade platform, nurture a batch of internationally competitive export-oriented cultural enterprises, and create competitive cultural products and internationally famous cultural brands, so as to facilitate the cultural industry's 'going global' drive," said Li with the Beijing International Studies University.

Hua with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences added that both domestic and foreign cultural resources such as information, talented people, contents and technology should be integrated to improve China's status in the international cultural market.

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell 

Comments to tangyuankai@bjreview.com 

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