China’s Next Big Export: Creativity And Culture

The Middle Kingdom is poised to take the lead in exporting culture and creativity around the globe.

Vincent Yu / AP Photo

Much has been made of the monolithic image presented by the recently named Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party: all men, hair dyed black, dark suits—a visual metaphor, it could be said, for the party’s commitment to the stifling of individualism and creativity. Indeed, critics of China contend that the country which gave the world paper, printing, gunpowder, and countless other innovations has lost its mojo under communist rule. China has no homegrown Apples or Microsofts, they say, because it is just a copycat nation. According to the naysayers, China under the Communist Party is doomed to backwater status because of an endemic culture of obedience and adherence to rules.

But do not be fooled by surface appearances. Before the reign of this group of Chinese leaders has ended, you are going to be singing Chinese songs, watching Chinese movies, dancing Chinese dances, and buying both products and services invented in China. The Chinese Communist Party has figured out that selling the world on Chinese culture is an important way to solidify the country’s global position, and they are backing indigenous creativity, as well as its export, with real resources. Yes, the party wants to squelch cultural expressions that threaten its own continuity and survival. But even these attempts at suppression have the contradictory effect of stimulating innovation in an essentially creative populace, just as, say, the sonnet or haiku rules have, in the past, produced great poetry.

China is far from indifferent to the share of mind that culture has allowed the West to enjoy through the ubiquity of our creative output. In the Chinese government’s most recent five-year plan, there is a chapter dedicated to exporting Chinese culture. The plan calls for a building of the China brand through international dialogue, cultural exchange, and cultural aid. Libraries, media centers and information services are to be established internationally. The trade of cultural goods is to be promoted. Investment in the well-known Confucius Institutes, which teach Chinese language and culture to foreigners, will continue to grow; there are now over 858 Confucius Institute facilities worldwide, including 81 institutes and 299 classrooms in the United States.

It is certainly true that various barriers to creativity caused by a bureaucratic mindset within the state sector do exist. Additionally, the routine theft of intellectual property lowers the reward for creativity, and it probably dampens the enthusiasm to invent when the opportunities to skim money in corrupt transactions are so common. But government attempts to suppress freedom of expression seem actually to have been spurs to amazingly successful innovation in citizen self-expression. The Chinese language lends itself to puns; consequently, the government is often confounded with maniacally clever, sometimes obscene ridicule of their policies in tweets which go viral on a billion cellphones.

Already Chinese consumers buy 19 percent of all PCs sold throughout the world, 14 percent of the mobile phones and 26 percent of the cars, so when the country finally rebalances its economy towards consumption and succeeds in importing Western techniques for understanding consumer needs, the mammoth internal Chinese market will itself give China an edge in innovation. But meanwhile there is plenty of innovation spurred by the government, which has created enclaves of creativity in research—such as the National Academy of Science’s research park, which does groundbreaking work in cloning with the help of a favorable legal environment. And the authorities have successfully incubated entire industry sectors such as solar and wind power, battery technology, and electric vehicles.

There is plenty of room for improvement in the quality of Chinese higher education, but you cannot ignore the fact that their universities graduate more than 10,000 science Ph.D.s each year, and increasing numbers of Chinese scientists working overseas are returning home. Right now, there are over 20 chemical compounds discovered and invented in China undergoing clinical trials. Even before the increases in research and development called for in the recent five-year plan, China accounts for 12 percent of global R&D spending, helped in part by 1,500 R&D centers established in China by multinational corporations according to McKinsey. Chinese expenditure on research and development as a percent of GDP continues to rise, and the number of Chinese patent applications has soared past those of the U.S.

When China hosted the Olympics in 2008, we saw a tightly choreographed example of Chinese creativity: massive numbers of people doing things in unison. Indeed, mass mobilization has been an impressive aspect of China under Communist rule, and it may be the secret sauce of a kind of innovation with Chinese characteristics. The Chinese do unison very well! At the beginning of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, Mao’s exhortation for all citizens to kill sparrows along with other pests was too successful in that it created an ecological imbalance of near-catastrophic proportions.

Nevertheless, in the wired 21st century, focusing a unified nation of 1.3 billion souls on a problem may have distinct advantages. We are already seeing in the West examples of “the wisdom of crowds” solving problems in medicine, finance, and design. Perhaps you call it ersatz creativity when a computer “outthinks” a chess grandmaster by running billions of decision branches before coming up with the best solution, but unprecedently large-scale collaboration through technological connectivity may put China in the catbird seat. Already companies doing business in China are compensating for an aversion to taking individual risk by creating “innovation work groups” which transfer risk from the individuals to teams.

The Chinese art market can be seen as an example of a kind of homegrown creativity, unique to contemporary China, which has freed itself from the state and pervades the entire Chinese economy. In the art sector there is exploitation of cheap labor, blatant imitation of other artists’ works and shameless repetition of one’s own themes, willingness to pay for art criticism and museum exposure, outright fraud, and money laundering in auction bidding. There are even stores which specialize in selling forgeries.

Arguably the state is overly involved in supporting the arts. As the economy commenced its double-digit annual growth under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, the state began pouring significant resources into the arts, creating a sector that employs over a million people, one which serves as—in the words of professor Richard Curt Krauss--a “giant advertising agency for socialism.” From 2003 to 2010, state investment in the arts grew at an average annual rate of 33 percent to an aggregate amount of $14 billion. Eighty thousand students graduated from Chinese art schools in 2010, a 15-fold increase in the course of a decade.

In all, hundreds of thousands of young people are currently enrolled in the nation’s university level studio, art history, and arts-administration programs. The Art Asia Pacific Almanac 2010 reports contemporary art is now exhibited in 37 Chinese museums, 23 nonprofit art spaces, and 197 galleries, an explosion from 10 years ago. (The 2012 budget for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts is $146 million, which is not apples to apples, since most of America’s cultural expenditures are made by individuals and nonprofits.) China has become one of the world’s largest art markets, accounting for 23 percent of global art sales by value. In 2011 $540 million worth of Chinese art, mainly contemporary, was sold at auction, a level surpassing America’s comparable $310 million.

Meanwhile, the auction tracking service Artprice documents an overall expansion of over eight times in the amounts bid for contemporary Chinese art since 2001. So at the same period that the state is increasing its support for the arts, it is allowing visual artists freedom to sell their art to international collectors, and this “commoditization” of painting and sculpture allows them to support themselves, sometimes spectacularly well, outside the state system. As the art sector has grown, art students who could not get into the best universities—based on their scores in the national exam system—have found alternative career paths, not just in film, television, and publishing but in every sector as draftsmen and product designers.

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On the whole, there seems to be relatively little interest in art for art’s sake in a country so recently arisen from the earliest stages of economic development. In China, contemporary art seems connected to an unusual degree with the world of fashion. Many a luxury brand-opening features works by emerging artists. Armani’s fashion blitz in Beijing earlier this year culminated in a glitzy happening at the city’s art mecca, a former armaments factory known as ‘798.’ A luxury hotel now under construction in Beijing will include a huge adjacent studio-gallery in collaboration with one of the country’s most famous artists, and owning the work of contemporary artists has become a status symbol for the wealthy Chinese elite.

Though the Chinese art scene is all about money, that doesn’t mean it lacks creativity. In China today you see a great breadth of experimentation in materials, with well-known artists using live animals, fiberglass, gunpowder, human hair, raw meat, and ancient artifacts. In addition there is a broad range of subject matter—from sex and politics to the meaning of language and tradition—in painting, sculpture, installation art, dance, and even avant garde music. Works range from the harsh superrealism of He Sen’s women of the night to Shi Jinsong’s disturbing stainless-steel baby-carriage sculptures, which mock the society’s professed commitment to protection of the young. The endlessly creative Ai Weiwei has moved on from his dramatic destruction and defacing of Ming vases to works made of student backpacks, implicitly critical of the party for unnecessary child deaths in the Szechuan earthquake.

Disciples of Qiu Zhijie, the artist in charge of the upcoming Shanghai Biennial, have been exploring out-there ideas for projects produced with materials they assemble, find, or purchase with their own savings. One of his students, Wei Yi saved up his money teaching third-year high-school students to build an installation that combines magnets, iron shavings, and video in an unusually inventive visual display which will be featured in the biennale. The protean, inventive Qiu himself has created a series of captivating images and projects over the years. Chinese rock artists, such as the increasingly well-known Carsick Cars, whose song “Zhongnanhai” hints that the government is illegitimate, are using underground draftsman who create their posters and album covers for minimal recompense.

Sometimes Chinese inventiveness is just process innovation or casual repurposing of existing technologies. A few months ago, in the night sky over Hangzhou there was an object with blinking lights of many colors that could not have been a satellite or an airplane. It turned out to be a kite programmed with LED lights. The artist who identified the object was blasé about it: “Yes, we’ve been doing that lately.”

It is a near certainty that some of the famous theft of Western-designed intellectual property is abetted by graduates of the best academies. And it is an incontrovertible fact that contemporary China has been copying Western inventions … but so did 19th-century America when it played catch-up by borrowing from the British. Like any developing economy, China can do so with the annoying ability to leapfrog to the best technology available without the drag of older legacy systems. There are signs everywhere of this spontaneous inventiveness that may finally make us the copycats. In the end it won’t matter that the Chinese are begging, borrowing, importing, buying, and stealing ideas both from each other and the rest of the world.

A Chinese Spielberg, Jobs, or Springsteen may not be waiting around the corner, but the party has recognized that it is in China’s interest to foster creativity and innovation generally while stimulating a cultural “going out” that parallels its existing support of overseas investment. So buckle your seat belts and grab your chopsticks. China’s “soft power” will soon be coming to a theater, pharmacy, fashion store, or portable device near you.

Ken Miller is president and CEO of Ken Miller Capital and adviser to the U.S. State Department through its Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy. He writes and speaks frequently about China.