Tuesday, 10 January 2012

China's war against Harry Potter

Thanks to my colleague Robin Brown for drawing this excellent article to my attention.


I agree with Robin's comments on this piece (http://pdnetworks.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/hu-jintao-and-cultural-construction-in-china/#comment-491). Creativity has always been a problem for China, and there is a wonderful collection of essays addressing this issue - Culture in the Contemporary PRC, edited by Julia Strauss and Michel Hockx (CUP 2005). The contributors address the problems facing China's burgeoning creative industries and offer some interesting perspectives on why the Chinese tend to imitate rather than innovate. Hunan TV's Super Girl (or to give it its full title, Mongolian Cow Yoghurt Super Girl Competition) was a milestone; not only did it bring X-Factor-style reality TV to China, but it also depended on the audience participating and voting to save their favoured singer. It has since been pulled from the airwaves ...

I had some experience of this Chinese penchant for imitation when I lived in Ningbo. At a time when only four or five Harry Potter books had been published, hawkers were selling Harry Potter 7,8,9 and even 10. (The Harry Potter I saw at the cinema was censored - Harry's first kiss was deleted.) Moreover, I saw a Chinese version of Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire, but with contestants playing for prizes instead of cash. Instead of buying formats like other countries (so we have Indonesian Idol, Indian Idol, American Idol etc - all looking exactly the same), China takes the original concept and Sinifies it, something that we should not criticise (after all, this is what Mao did with Marxism-Leninism).

Robin and the author of the article, Stephen Walt, are correct; you can't legislate to make a population more creative. As Walt says: 'Government leaders don't create new and innovative art; it springs up from unfettered human beings, and often from fringe elements in society. And as Hu surely knows, some of the most creative artists are dissidents.' Certainly the most creativity in China is found on the internet and is subversive, satirising the party, its fiats and its way of working - see http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/06/chinese-bloggers-riff-off-worst-ever-doctored-propaganda-photo/241295/. Such creativity is inspired and inspiring, and is a serious challenge to all those inside and outside China who see only staid, controlled and censored media and communications platforms.

The problem is with a new directive that Chinese television should broadcast fewer 'vulgar' programmes and more news and programmes with virtuous moral content. But who decides which is which? And authoritarian regimes pull popular entertainment programmes from the schedules at their peril. One of the reasons the Romanian people turned against Nicolae Ceausescu at the end of the 1980s was because he pulled from the airwaves a popular British serial from the 1970s, The Onedin Line, and replaced it with North Korean-inspired propaganda. The Romanians turned to Hungarian TV via illegal satellite dishes for entertainment (Hungarian TV was far more liberal and even satirised the Hungarian regime and its Soviet masters). When Romanians saw on Hungarian TV the revolutions sweeping through Eastern Europe, well ....

The Chinese Communist Party needs to be careful. By removing popular entertainment programmes, the regime may actually be driving the people to seek out the kind of foreign programmes that Hu Jintao's new rant against 'cultural imperialism' opposes. Be careful what you wish for ...

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