Culture mandarins promote 'soft power'


China’s cultural tsars hailed the country’s efforts to open up the world of cinema, books, TV and performing arts while all the time spreading its “soft power” message overseas.

“We have followed scientific measures of development in all areas of culture; we always insist on political responsibility, social responsibility and cultural responsibility,” said Tian Jin, party secretary of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, China’s entertainment ministry watchdog.

China is keen to match its formidable economic strength with diplomatic and political influence, and institutes such as the Confucius Institutes are central to Beijing’s efforts to promote this “soft power”.

The country has been trying to balance the desire to allow the cultural sector to thrive and promote the country overseas with the need to keep a tight muzzle on domestic media to ensure they do not send out any counter-revolutionary messages.

“We will develop cultural productivity to achieve rapid cultural development,” said Mr Tian.

He was speaking at a news conference at the 18th Party Congress in Beijing, which is currently organising a leadership transition to take place later this week.

Last month, a government sponsored writer, Mo Yan, was awarded the 2012 Nobel literature prize, which was seen as a major coup for him and answered China’s long term wish for one of its own to achieve major commercial success internationally.

However, China’s human rights record complicates its efforts to promote its image abroad. Writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is in jail for subversion, while artist Ai Weiwei is held under surveillance.

While there are regular calls to reform and rationalise the creative industries, there is no prospect of strict censorship rules being revoked to allow people in the culture industry to work freely.

The Congress dealings at the weekend went on behind closed doors as delegates engaged in horse-trading about how to divide up the power in China.

Earlier this month, the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and Shenzhen Securities Information Company set up a “culture index” aimed at evaluating the performance of 50 listed companies in the cultural sector.

The panel of leading Communist Party cultural figures gave out a list of statistics about how much cultural output China had managed last year – 558 feature films in 2011 compared with 140 in 2003, with 9,200 movie screens versus 1,953 in 2003.

The country also has 43 listed cultural sites, 2,115 free-of-charge museums, as well as 600,000 rural reading rooms.

Film industry

In February this year, under pressure from the Hollywood studios and the World Trade Organisation, China increased the number of foreign films shown by 14 films, to about 34, including 3D and Imax movies. The initiative came from Xi Jinping, who is expected to be named leader at the congress.

“The dominance of domestic films in the Chinese film market has been shaken. This has brought handsome profits to the American film industry,” said Mr Tian.

He repeated statistics showing Chinese box office had reached €1.65 billion at the end of October, up more than 40 per cent and more than all of last year, while the domestic share of box office had fallen

to 41 per cent from about 60 per cent due to the rise in imports.

He said domestic films were facing great pressure and the business needed to be more competitive.

“Following the principles set out at the 18th National Congress, we will work to enhance the creativity and impetus of the film production. We will also aim to produce films that are excellent both intellectually and artistically,” said Mr Tian.

He rejected the idea that there were “blackout” periods aimed at clearing the screens of foreign movies to encourage people to view domestic fare. This statement came across as disingenuous, given that people within his own office have previously said the blackout period does indeed exist.

In August, The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man opened on the same day, to their respective studios’ chagrin.

A key factor in promoting Chinese culture abroad are the Confucius Institutes, which aim to promote language and culture from China internationally.