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Piracy/Privacy: The Despair of Cinema and Collectivity in China
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boundary 2 31.3 (2004) 101-124

The Despair of Cinema and Collectivity in China

Laikwan Pang

China's "barbarous" copyright offenses are generally considered one of the manifestations of the country's emerging threat to the established world order. According to some estimates, 91 percent of desktop software used in China in 1999 was pirated, and 95 percent of transactions in audiovisual materials were carried out in the black market. The millions of copies of pirated intellectual property sold in China can easily be translated into American dollars to represent the alleged loss to the copyright owners. According to a report in the New York Times, pirated video compact discs (VCDs) of Dr Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas were found all over China within a week of the film's debut release in the United States, and pirated copies of Titanic outsold legitimate ones by about thirty to one. "The [piracy] trade has made it almost impossible to sell legitimate video discs [in China], and dampened the lure of Hollywood films in movie theaters." The common understanding in the international business world is that this piracy is nothing but robbery, which the Chinese government tacitly ignores, and which the Chinese people fervently and shamelessly support.

In this article, I examine the participation of the Chinese State and the Chinese people in the flourishing movie piracy market, but not with the aim of endorsing the stereotypical view of the Chinese people's uncivilized disrespect for intellectual property. Rather, I aim to challenge the notion that piracy is an ethical issue, and I will take up the question of whether intellectual property is simply a matter of individuals' rights and assets that must be protected at all costs. As both concept and reality—cutting across divergent social, cultural, political, and economic discourses—movie piracy in China is largely the result of the global diffusion of consumerism under an unequal distribution of world wealth, on the one hand, and the result of a specific national politics, on the other. Focusing on China's movie piracy as a case study, I will discuss two larger cultural problems: the internal contradictions of globalization manifested in contemporary Chinese culture, and the impact of movie piracy on a collective identity, or Chineseness, which has been forged in cinema as a national representation and public event.

My purpose here is not to add another sweeping generalization to the current globalization discourse. Rather, in this essay, I want to investigate one specific cultural manifestation of the conflicts between the global and the national through a careful study of the recent development of Chinese cinema. Two concepts may need clarification here. In terms of globalization, I refer specifically to China's integration into global media consumption, which is contingent upon the tensions between the call by the World Trade Organization (WTO) for an open market and the Chinese State's will to control information flow. The notion of China as a collective agency is, I believe, a widely circulated assumption and description about contemporary China in scholarly and journalistic discourses that has not been substantiated by careful analysis. While the West continues to see China as a unified cultural "other" for easy comprehension and political polarization, Chinese intellectuals and politicians also need this formulation of a united Chinese people to substantiate a collective agency to realize various national/nationalist projects. Chinese cinema's metamorphosis from a collective public event to a piracy-privacy activity, from a highly controlled mode of production and distribution to a completely underground operation with numerous sites of power and systems of distribution, is one recent social transformation among many that brings the set of cultural problematics created by the dynamics between globalism and nationalism into focus.

Under such dynamics in the new global age, the impossibility of conceptualizing a national cinema, in reference to both production and distribution, implies the increasing difficulties of conceptualizing "Chineseness" as a unified notion in other areas. Following Rey Chow's call for a productive erasure of the concept of a unified Chineseness, I hope to reconceive a contemporary China that is no longer a totality moving along a linear historical trajectory. While piracy demonstrates how difficult...

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