China looking to export its culture the same way it does gadgets and gizmos

Studio 360

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama reminded us that China’s turbocharged economy is outstripping our own.

But when it comes to the global culture war for hearts and minds, the United States remains the unrivaled superpower. For now. If China can make iPads and televisions, why can’t it make the content to fill them?

Last month, President Hu Jintaoannouncedthat his government was investing heavily in homegrown, exportable cultural programming. And yet, just days later, the government shut down two-thirds of its domestic satellite television shows — many of them frothy variety shows and reality programs — forundermining Chinese values.

“Culture is ultimately the clashing and then the adoption of new ideas,” said Carlos Tejada ofThe Wall Street Journal. “The Chinese government’s control of the media is simply opposed to that.”

Tejada, the Journal‘s China editor based in Beijing, said the government took action to bolster its national broadcaster CCTV against more independent regional networks. He pointed to CCTV’s televised gala celebrating the Chinese New Year, which China would like to make an Oscars-like international event, as an example of how government programming comes up short.

“It’s one of the most boring things I’ve ever seen,” Tejada said. “A lot of cameras focusing on important people in the audience. It’s really a snoozefest.”

Shi Tao, a producer with Beijing Television, said a televised celebration of Chinese culture has the potential to reach international markets if broadcasters meet their audiences halfway.

“Western audiences will never watch the galas unless they become more international,” he said. “If we produce the gala in New York City or San Francisco, bring over Chinese stars and have them perform with the local superstars who live there, then American broadcasters will buy it.”

Directors like Zhang Yimou are popular in Western art houses, but if Beijing wants China’s movie industry to rival Hollywood, said Tejada, it must allow filmmakers to tackle more controversial themes.

“If they’re going to create their own version of Avatar, they need to create their version of The Searchers first. This is a vibrant, interesting, fast-growing, exciting place. All the government has to do is take its hands off.”

Video: Hunan Satellite TV’s Spring Festival Gala

Tejada said CCTV’s official gala a “snoozefest” compared to Hunan Satellite TV‘s broadcast, which featured Shaquille O’Neal kung-fu fighting with children. “[It was] entertaining and funny, and that’s exactly what the central government doesn’t want,” he says, “eyeballs looking away from the national broadcaster.”

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