Moving Towards a Creative Society

By Shaun Chang

The Quest to Construct a Harmonious Society
At the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, thousands of performers formed a large Chinese character – 'harmony' – with traditional Chinese printing tools. The Chinese government's current mission is to create a 'harmonious society' in the face of social changes and globalization. The opening ceremony was a spectacle with elements resembling the Mass Games of North Korea. In the world of one dream, we dream the same dream of a world of harmony.

As China rapidly embraces market socialism, Chinese society has started to recognize the importance of creativity and individual expression. However, the terms 'creative' and 'individualistic' are not neutral terms in China. 'Creativity', or chuangyi, is associated with artistic sensibility and practice in China. Breaking the rules and thinking outside the box do not fit well with what the government wants for a 'harmonious society', or with traditional conservative values of a patriarchal society.

In contrast to most other countries who have chosen to adopt the terminology 'creative industries' – from the 'Mapping Document' issued by the UK government's Department of Culture, Media and Sports – the Chinese government prefers the term 'cultural industries', emphasizing 'culture,' or wenhua, over 'creativity'. The mission to develop cultural industries is necessarily for the enhancement of Chinese culture. Its ultimate goal is not only to resist the consumption and dominance of Hollywood or Western culture in the domestic market, but to export its own cultural products overseas and spread its influence. Thus put in terms of political economy, cultural industries in China can be understood as a combination of cultural nationalism and a form of nascent cultural imperialism.

Developing cultural industries involves a process of cultural modernization demanding a whole series of economic, legal and socio-urbanistic structures within which these industries can thrive. And as we have seen in many Asian countries, the opening up of the market to foreign cultural industries not only allowed a wider relaxation of content control in the home country, but also an overall relaxation of authority. The Chinese government, in contrast, is determined to develop a Chinese model without relinquishing its ultimate monopoly over content. The extent to which this can be regulated in online settings, however, is open to debate, no matter how secure the so-called Great Firewall of China may be.

The language of the central government's cultural industry reforms has not, however, been uniformly embraced by local government. Examples of this can be found in a conference organized by the Chaoyang District of Beijing in 2005 entitled 'International Symposium on Cultural & Creative Industries in Chaoyang District' – the Shanghai government adopted the term 'creative industries' while the Beijing government often uses 'Cultural & Creative Industries' (Wenhua Chuangyi Chanye). But again, the word 'culture' was placed ahead of 'creativity', indicating the importance of the former over the latter.

From Harmonious Society to Creative Society
The Chinese government officially recognized the importance of developing 'cultural industries' at the Chinese Communist Party's 15th Central Committee in 2000. With the help of a series of cultural industry reforms, China is gradually shifting to a more creativity and knowledge-based economic structure. The reforms of the cultural industries have created a more open environment for local cultural entrepreneurs to provide creative content to their audience.

But the process of partial privatization of cultural institutions has resulted in intrinsic contradictions, with a party-control framework trying to function in today's market environment. The Chinese government can no longer fully control the content the public is allowed to access, thanks to the convergence of media. The explosion of short video clips available online reflects the Chinese audience's growing dissatisfaction with government-approved content. Political ideology can no longer dominate today's consumer market; Chinese audience's behaviors and tastes drive the cultural production of the new market.

Fans of a television reality show winner demonstrated the emerging consumer power by changing the unbalanced power structure between audience and government. Tens of thousands of a Chinese pop star's fans, nicknamed as 'Corn', demanded to see their idol Li Yuchun appear on Central China TV's annual spring festival program, the most-watched television show in China. Despite Li's popularity, their request was turned down. Instead of remaining passive, the 'Corn' demonstrated their collective power by telling the mouth-piece of the government what they want to see, giving voice to the once-invisible masses.

The 'Corn' are cultural producers remixing images and texts of their idol, creating a popular online 'Corn field' with endless creativity and imagination. These 'textual poachers' produced tens of thousands of fiction stories and video clips with images of Li. Online and offline fan practices have strengthened group ties and helped producing a spectacular 'Corn culture' .They further demonstrated their creativity and deep involvement with media through self-produced 'Corn literature'.

With the help of the internet and user-friendly technology, the audience is gaining more control. As an old Chinese saying goes – 'giving wings to a tiger', the internet helped the audience become a tiger with wings. Fans of Super Girl Li Yuchun told state-run media what they wanted to see. The 'Corn' search for Li cut across different media platforms and between offline and virtual spaces. Online fan clubs are a home-base for 'Corn' where their collective power is demonstrated by the highly effective 'high quality Corn' campaign. Urging members to buy legitimate albums to demonstrate the popularity of their idol is one example. The collective power of an active audience changed the contemporary Chinese mediascape.

As content is playing a more influential role in the knowledge economy, the Chinese government faces a difficult task of maintaining a balance between creativity and control while trying to ensure social stability and harmony. The main concepts of the 2008 Olympic Games were 'Hi-tech Olympic, Green Olympic and People's Olympic'. We witnessed the speedy technological developments at the Games. The Chinese society has since set on the path of a more diverse and creative future with the help of technology and globalization. As a tiger with wings, Chinese people are able to advance a creative society while the government tries to maintain a harmonious society based on social stability.

Shaun Chang is a writer from Taiwan, she received her PhD in New Media studies from China’s Tsinghua University. She is an adviser to the Beijing-based International Creative Industries Alliance and an international production company Infocus Asia.