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For Chinese culture to be a global hit, Beijing has to learn from Japan’s J-pop and South Korea’s hallyu

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 21/10/2021
Illustration: Craig Stephens Illustration: Craig Stephens

Entertainment is soft power. The global popularity of South Korean Netflix show Squid Game has sparked hot debate in the mainland Chinese online community on why wealthy and resourceful China has yet to produce anything as internationally successful.

But no wonder. For decades, China has pursued business and economic success while neglecting the global potential of its entertainment sector, which remains strictly regulated.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Japan and South Korea have achieved enormous success with their entertainment exports, including to mainland China. Even Hong Kong popular culture had its heyday, influencing young Chinese on the mainland far more than the reverse. Apart from some Chinese diaspora groups, mainland art productions have had little penetration in global, non-ethnic audiences.

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There are several reasons for this. It is easy to point the finger at the notorious censorship laws but this is not the full picture.

Until recently, the global growth of China's entertainment industry was limited, intentionally or otherwise, by its former top media watchdog, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which prioritised art serving socialist values. This politicised the growth of both the art and entertainment sectors, raising sensitivities that complicate global acceptance.

The culture industry, even with all its vices and controversial expressions, needs to be free and be driven by the private sector to reach its potential. Too much government meddling is simply counterproductive.

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The rise of Japanese pornography, for instance, has been annoying to many Japanese citizens and paints an inaccurate picture of them globally, but Japan has not taken any steps to restrict its growth. Rather, it is pouring more resources into positive portrayals of its culture.

Ultimately, every government has its considerations of how it wants to allow its stories to be told. It is clear where China wants to steer its entertainment sector, which leads to multiplying effects such as self-censorship.

Apart from the cultural outreach of its tightly regulated and at times controversial Confucius Institutes, Beijing has yet to clearly identify what represents - or should represent - Chinese culture for a concise global promotion effort.

Most Japanese will recognise their global cultural representatives as sushi, the kimono and sake, while South Koreans will suggest kimchi, the hanbok, makgeolli and soju.

These are what the world broadly understands about these two nations after vigorous promotions by their societies. Granted, Japanese and Korean cultures offer much more, and that is for interested foreigners to explore, based on easily grasped first impressions.

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From these common cultural concepts, the Japanese produce films, books, manga and more. South Koreans take a similar approach but with an arguably better understanding of what the world would like to experience, building on the fantastic momentum of a hallyu industry that has brought in billions of dollars in revenue - an even bigger soft-culture win than Japan's. Both these governments and societies join hands to impressively shape their global image.

But, for China, what best represents its cuisine to the world? "Mala" hotpot, Peking duck, dumplings or dim sum? Sakura, or cherry blossom, is Japan's national flower and mugunghwa, or rose of Sharon, is South Korea's but China has yet to agree on a national flower - though its giant panda is considered a national treasure.

These examples highlight the incredible identity struggles of such an impressively diverse country as China, even among its majority Han population, let alone the other 55 ethnic groups.

Deputies to the 13th National People's Congress leave the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on March 11. Photo: Xinhua © Provided by South China Morning Post Deputies to the 13th National People's Congress leave the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on March 11. Photo: Xinhua

For many Chinese, the more than 5,000 years of Chinese civilisation are hard to fully grasp, let alone for most foreigners to meaningfully understand and appreciate. To Beijing's credit, the 2008 Olympics opening and closing ceremonies tried to summarise it all in an impressive way, but it was still challenging for many non-Chinese audiences to grasp.

In many dominant Western countries, especially the United States, there is much scepticism and resistance to China's state-led efforts to promote its soft culture, and this negativity has unfortunately spread to its private-sector efforts.

This is not new. Many elderly Japanese will not easily forget US efforts to badmouth Japanese culture in the 1980s, when Japan became an economic competitor to the US, even as it remained a strategic political and military ally. South Korea is luckier. It has few economic and political disputes with the US and its soft culture rise has never really been questioned by the West.

Today's China is not only an economic competitor but also, due to a Communist, one-party rule seen as authoritarian, inevitably poses the strongest political challenge to US global interests.

Understandably, America, dominant in global politics and cultural might, is resistant. It cannot afford to lose the "culture war" to China, and so focuses on human rights issues.

US scrutiny of its allies pales in comparison, which the Chinese deem hypocritical. The result is that, while Americans may not be hostile towards Chinese people, many Americans and even some Europeans have developed reservations about the Chinese government and its intentions.

It would be a source of great pride for Chinese people if policymakers could push a more distinctive and positive representation of Chinese culture in global entertainment, especially when the Wolf Warrior trope has not helped to win many friends.

Overcoming this challenge requires openness and a much more concise and less politicised direction in telling the tales of great Chinese culture, but it is a price worth paying. Culture, after all, unlike trade, is fluid, and cultural exchanges are best achieved between open and confident societies.

Chee Yik-wai is a Malaysia-based intercultural specialist and the co-founder of Crowdsukan, focusing on sport diplomacy for peace and development

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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