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Why is there no "made in China" television dramas outside China?

By Jeonghyun Oh | | Updated: 2017-06-05 17:48

Despite the nationwide anti-Korean sentiment triggered by Seoul’s THAAD deployment, many Korean restaurants in China are still crowded with Chinese people enjoying chicken and beer as did qiansongyi in "My Love from Another Star(laizixingxingdeni)" a few years ago. Apparently, a TV drama has power to be deeply permeated in a foreign society and survive even in a rowdy period, which is probably why China has set expanding its soft power across the world as a focal agenda.

Since Hu Jintao called for enhancing Chinese culture in the context of soft power at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party in 2007, China has invested an unprecedented amount of moneyon it, drawing massive global attention. Beijing’s alacrity in its “going global” policy indicates that China now views its culture not only as a means of ideological propaganda but also as an industry that can create added value. A number of its projects, such as Confucius Institute, Beijing Olympics, and scholarship programs, have been evaluated to be highly successful. Beijing’s pursuit to be a regional or global leader in media entertainment industry,or TV drama (dianshiju) industrymore specifically, however, has not yet broughtmuch positive outcome. Although China’s TV drama export did experience a relatively big increase from 2008 to 2009, the total export value was still a lot less than the import value. Moreover, the increase in the export value was rather a figurativechange than an actual one, mainly having derived from governmental financial policies such as fund support and tax reduction. Unfortunately, the development driven by governmental financial support is unlikely to be so successful in culture-related fields as in other industries. As Shambaugh pointed out in China Goes Global. The Partial Power (2013) , soft power cannot be obtained in the way high-speed rail is developed. A mere input of money is not the sufficient condition. A naive money-driven strategy is doomed to fail in any country.Beijing’s approach to promote its TV drama export should go through meticulous study and planning.

Underdeveloped Culture Industry

Generally speaking, viewing culture in a market perspective is relatively a new concept in mainland China. As a developing state, Beijing’s priority had been on heavy industry andinformation technology which have been traditionally regarded as common means to generate a country’s export income. There was not much space for culture to be developed. It was only in 2004 that Beijing took an active action to raise the competency of Chinese dianshijus by stipulating the Regulations Governing Television Dramas, when imported products began to expand their shares in domestic television,almost harbingering their cultural and industrial invasion. Yet, The regulations which should be a spur to the growth in productions and relevant technologiesdid not fulfill these duties. They remained defensive and protective, instead of being promotive and competitive. The amendment is then revised in 2008 and 2009 putting all the dianshijus, whether produced in mainland China or not, to be under control of the state if aired in China.

This is in a stark contrast to Korea’s governmental policies that have lessened their control and supported competition and diversification of TV entertainment programs via various measures such as the revision of media law in 2009 which gave birth to four big so-called TV Channels of Comprehensive Programming. The leeway given to the broadcasting companies led to the rapid technological development and the quality improvement.In case of China, the television dramas are not yet widely seen as something that has to go through free competitions and technological innovations, and thus the policies have not much stepped toward accelerating the development.

Undefined Cultural Identity

Whathinders the exports ofdianshijus is more contingent on each dianshiju’s content per se. The television dramas produced in China are under the supervision of theState Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China , which announced 31 categories such as violence, pornography and the content which may incite ethnic discrimination or undermine social stability to be prohibitedin 2009.It is hard to expect the programs produced within such framework weaved for domestic citizens to be appealing to foreign audience.Furthermore, later in 2011, SAPPRFT released a directive aiming at stopping the over-emphasis on pure entertainment programs on satellite television channels, which drew increasing domestic fandom.

Such state control has brought impact on the attitude of both local and overseas audience; local audience has turned to overseas programs that are more diverse and sensational, while foreigners find it hard to draw sympathy with Chinese media products. Local Chinese people’s apathy is apparently shown in their contrasting reviews on Chinese and foreign movies. In the largest online movie ticketing website in China (Tianjin Maoyan Culture Media), for example, the number of mainland Chinese movies between 2000 and 2010 that received 9.0 out of 10.0 points or higher was only one, where as it was thirteen for American movies.

The SAPPRFT’s amendment in 2009, albeit clarifying the importance of combining economic effects into the social efficiency, still stipulates that the television dramas must contribute to socialism with which foreign consumers are not so familiar and thuscan hardly sympathize. As Vogel elaborated, entertainment is what people consume for their leisure time. What composes a drama should be an interesting storyrather than a propaganda message . In fact, according to annual Hallyu (Korean Wave) report by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Korea, the second most reason why Hallyu consumers watch Korean TV dramas was ‘interesting and fun story’ (56.5%), next to the attractiveness of the actors (60.0%) .

Although the themes in Chinese television dramas have been very clear as they have been given by the state’s office for the sake of Chinese culture and political stability, the contents that can attract foreigner audience have not been cultivated yet.Even though it is understandable to view television dramas as culture product that need to be protected and as a means to convey some messages to the public, a daring innovation is inevitable in order to attract foreign consumers.

Culture alone cannot become soft power. It requires a means, or a channel that can grind, polish and finally transform the gemstone into soft power. As proven for millennia in traditional China, China does have gleaming gemstone of its culture. Traditional China spread out its culture throughout East Asia. Ming Dynasty was even called shangguo, meaning cultural great power in ancient Korea.As several centuries have passed since the fall of Ming Dynasty, the way Chinese culture can or should be proliferated to outside the continent has also changed. It is high time for Beijing to adopt the new way to transform the gemstone to a jewel consumed across the world.

Jeonghyun Oh is a master’s student in School of International and Public Affairs, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Before joing the master’s program, she worked as a real-time TV news caster in Seoul, Korea. (

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