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The strong nation: digital cultural power rising

Significantly, the rhetoric of cultural empowerment following Xi Jinping’s rise to the Party presidency marked a period in which China rapidly upgraded its online network capabilities, leading to the launch of the Internet+ development blueprint in 2015 and the inclusion of the digital creative industries in the 13th Five Year Plan.4 The government’s active encouragement of the digital economy, notably via the slogan ‘mass entrepreneurship, mass innovation’ (dazhong chuangye, wanzhong chuangxiri) signalled to the world that China is a connected nation, both domestically and internationally.

Chinese people’s take-up of digital affordances and low-cost production technologies have led to an unprecedented abundance of media content, both domestic and imported (Keane, 2016). In addition, there is a belief that new distribution channels will take Chinese-made content to a wider audience of admirers, not just those in the Asian region or the faithful in the diaspora. In this sense, the older model of soft power, in which Confucius Institutes, CCTV channels and overseas delegations were designated national cultural flagbearers fades somewhat; the digital distribution model is contingent on the power of platforms, which allow instantaneous sharing and frequent downloading of content. Digital power engages Chinese speakers and persons of Chinese ethnic origin around the globe; they are connected to the motherland, the home nation, by digital resources.

Notwithstanding its limited global appeal in the global Internet ecosystem, China has more people online than any other nation. In 2018, China had more than one billion Internet users and, according to industry accounts, this figure is projected to grow to 1.14 billion by 2022.’ In this sense the term ‘digital power’ becomes relevant. Online distribution has transformed the media industry in China largely thanks to improvements in video compression technologies and the state-supported provision of fast broadband, making personal viewing - and sharing - of content on mobile phones, computer terminals and tablets a viable and popular option. The Internet has been a game changer, not only for traditional (state-owned) media industries but for commercial media companies, consumers and regulators. In effect, the technological capacity to express and compress words, images and sound in digital form has transformed the costs of making and transmitting culture, the kinds of skill-sets that are valued in the market, the relationship between professionals and amateurs, as well as the formats and genres that (online) consumers now anticipate.

While the Western hemisphere is dominated by Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (FANG), China and Chinese speakers are connected by BAT. The B of BAT is Baidu: its most popular content platform is iQIYI, an entertainment distribution platform that was acquired in 2013. Like its US competitor Netflix, iQIYI provides users with direct portals to all its video programmes available on the Internet. iQIYI’s video search ‘brain’ utilizes algorithms, arguably providing its audience with the most accurate recommendations. Youku Tudou, now owned by Alibaba (the ‘A’), represents a combination of professionally generated content, user-generated content and self-made content. After acquisition of its majority shareholding by the Alibaba group in 2012, Youku Tudou was able to integrate enormous online resources to a single platform, and set up the biggest video search engine - Souku, while having China’s largest e-commerce company as its parent company. The final member of BAT is Tencent, which is developing what it calls a pan-entertainment ecosystem. Judging from its scale in overseas collaborative partnerships with HBO, Time Warner and Paramount, it is establishing a supermedia platform that will place it at the top of the pyramid.

However, a recent report on domestic consumption of media content in China attests to little or limited international ‘connection’. In a New York Times article entitled ‘A Generation Grows Up in China Without Google, Facebook or Twitter’, Wen Shengjian, a 14-year-old boy in China told the reporter that he knew the names of Google, Facebook,Twitter and Instagram but had no use for them (Yuan, 2018). An 18-year-old young man from a southern Chinese city of Liuzhou is a fan of basketball, hip-hop music and Hollywood superhero movies and plans to study chemistry in Canada but has never heard of Google or Twitter. China’s ‘blockade’ in the past decade of Google, Facebook,Twitter, Instagram, the New York Times, to name a few, has led to a generation of Chinese growing up unconcerned about being connected virtually to a world outside of what is permissible by the party’s censorship apparatus. Beijing’s Internet regulator, the Cyber Administration of China, shut down or revoked the licences of more than 3,000 websites it deemed inappropriate for Chinese users. Complacency and aversion to politics might be at work here but being exposed to only homegrown apps and online services has led to a generation of youth who appears ‘uninterested in knowing what has been censored online, allowing Beijing to build an alternative value system that competes with Western liberal democracy’ (ibid.).

Beyond the kingdom known as BAT are new contenders, most notably Bytedance, which relies on Al technologies (algorithms) to learn individual preferences for targeted recommendation of news and other content, as well as targeted ads and offers; it also uses Al to help content creators and curators to craft viral videos. Founded in 2012, the company launched Douyin in 2016 and its international version,TikTok in the following year. In 2020,TikTok exploded in a global scale. The irony is that most international users are unaware that this playful video sharing app is owned by a Chinese company, which restricts content topics for people in the PRC, while allowing its international version to flirt with licentious and even litigious content (Li, 2019). Within China, Douyin has been contributing to the great rejuvenation by encouraging its users to generate ‘positive energy’ (zheng nengliang), while exuding‘transcendental Chinese patriotism’ (Du, 2014: 5; also see Xu et al., 2020).

Though Chinese apps have‘gone viral’abroad, Chinese cultural and entertainment content remains domestically bound, with little traction beyond China.The draconian Chinese government policy that compulsively vets content and reduces content to a mere echo chamber for Party directives remains one of the major obstacles towards making Chinese content appealing globally. Nevertheless, numerous reports are conducted in China each year about why China’s cultural power is not as potent as Hollywood’s. The blame is usually laid on a misunderstanding by audiences and producers alike; in other words, foreigners don’t understand China and are unable to appreciate its culture; and Chinese producers don’t understand foreigners’ tastes. The elephant in the room left unaddressed is government censorship.

 
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