restricted access Keeping Up with the Neighbors: China's Soft Power Ambitions
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Keeping Up with the Neighbors:
China's Soft Power Ambitions

On the evening of August 8, 2008, viewers of the Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony witnessed the most impressively coordinated launch of any major global event. Superbly choreographed by the film director Zhang Yimou, the lavish spectacle was infused with color, symbolic meaning, and reminders of China's creative past.

Yet the creative success of the Opening Ceremony was not matched by economic success. The number of international tourists failed to meet expectations, and the massive investment in infrastructure has saddled Beijing's "Olympic economy" with a legacy of debts. Still, the Games, and particularly the opening ceremony, are remembered in terms of China's "soft power." This in itself is not a new idea. Coined by Joseph Nye in the early 1990s, the concept of soft power has been applied broadly in the field of international diplomacy.1 One of the key elements of soft power is cultural exports, and in this respect China is following a path paved by its Asian neighbors. Japan has expressed its influence through popular culture (its so-called Gross National Cool) and South Korea has exploited the Korean wave, its emergence coinciding with another global sporting event, the 2002 World Cup.

China's soft power has become a key issue in the reform of its cultural, media, and creative industries. In the past two years a number of conferences organized by major universities have attempted to clarify the concept, linking it to the larger strategic political idea of [End Page 130] Comprehensive National Power (CNP).2 In late 2008, the efficacy of soft power received an injection of life when the newly appointed Vice Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Li Wuwei, published Creativity Is Changing China.3 An economist by training, and Director of the Research Centre for Creative Industries at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Li argues for a renovation of China's media and cultural industries—and the broader economy as well—via a transformation of China's industrial structure. Li calls for a shift from infrastructure toward human capital—from "made in China" toward "created in China."4 In his prescription, "cultural soft power" opens up a more international sphere of activity. In contrast to a Beijing-centered concern about "cultural security" (wenhua anquan)—essentially a call to arms against the forces of globalization—Li talks about the power of "border-less industries."

So what does this mean? Can China create its way out of the economic crisis? Certainly, this is a key element of Li's vision. However, Li's position comes up against a community of scholars and policymakers who believe that China is doing very well already in managing its media industries, and who believe China should stick to churning out movies and TV aimed at educating the masses. For such conservatives, reinforcement of "cultural security" through distinctively Chinese ideas is the key to soft power. Moreover, they believe that an attempt to emulate the cultural export success of Korea and Japan might compromise the strategy of building and maintaining national identity.

Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus that China should become a regional player. Many are now asking if success in regional markets would trigger a wave of national pride. Indeed, increasing box office returns in China's film industry, both domestically and internationally, have led to calls for new markets in other industries including television, animation, and video games. Herein lies a dilemma for producers, writers, and investors in China's audiovisual industries. In the past, China's "small screen" industries responded obediently to the government's call to target the domestic market. However, the domestic market does not reward originality, and even though the audience is huge, television companies generally receive a standard broadcast fee from China Central TV regardless of the quality of their work.5 Moreover, producers, such as animation shops, are charged first and foremost with the responsibility of educating the children of China and resisting the impact of foreign competition.6 The pleasures of the viewer and the profitability of the product must take a back seat to such concerns. [End Page...