MICHAEL KEANE & HAIQING YU. Chinese culture and the power of digital platforms

Apr 14, 2020

Despite massive investment in soft power by the Chinese Party-state over the past decade, the influence of China’s culture in Southeast Asia and Australia remains relatively weak.

These are some of the findings of an Australian Research Council funded study, called Digital China: from Cultural Presence to Innovative Nation. A number of factors explain this underperformance, including a lack of familiarity with Chinese cultural products, linguistic barriers, as well as distrust of the Chinese Party-state and negative attitudes toward ‘made-in-China’ products. 

Telling China’s stories well

Since ascending to the leadership of Chinese Communist Party in 2012, President Xi Jinping has exhorted China’s media to ‘tell China’s stories well.’ Madame Fu Ying, a former diplomat and now chairperson of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, has also said on many occasions that China should exert greater ‘discourse power.’

‘Telling China’s stories well’ outside the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and exerting greater discourse power, however, presents a considerable challenge. State-owned flagship media such as China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Radio International (CRI), and Xinhua News Agency are generally responsible for undertaking this important role. A widespread perception outside the PRC, however, is that state-owned media are telling stories that are scripted by the government. 

Countering this perception of state control somewhat is the reality that many non-state, commercial media entities have now ‘gone out’, a term that describes China’s ambitions beyond the PRC itself. These entities are ultimately telling stories to achieve commercial success. In contrast to more conventional diplomatic practices such as Confucius Institutes and performing troupes, Chinese culture is now disseminated, streamed and shared on digital platforms.

Cultural familiarity 

In order to assess how well China’s stories are received in the Asia-Pacific, and who is telling them well, our research team conducted six focus groups of ninety non-PRC nationals in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur in 2019 and February 2020. While China and Chinese media products were familiar in South-east Asia, cultural knowledge of China in Australia was superficial. China’s stories, as they were told, were not well understood, unless retold and mediated by others (non-PRC producers and intermediaries). 

Film was a good place to start with in regard to media reception, so we began by asking about some high-grossing ‘Chinese’ films. Nationalistic made-in-China blockbusters–highly popular among PRC audiences–such as Wolf Warrior 2 and The Wandering Earth failed to register any recognition among our Australian participants. Chinese-themed films made by Hollywood and by non-PRC directors (such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon dir. Ang Lee or Kungfu Panda of DreamWorks) on the other hand received instant recognition in all the Australian groups.  

For older participants (45-65 years) of the focus groups in Australia, almost everything we showed them was a new, completely alien, and parallel universe. The younger cohort, in contrast, is more cosmopolitan in their media consumption habits. Many recognised WeChat, Huawei and Jack Ma (called by some ‘the Alibaba guy’). A very small number have WeChat on their phones, but only to communicate with their Chinese friends. Many have been on TikTok, although most were unaware that TikTok is a Chinese-owned company.

The lack of familiarity with Chinese cultural products and platforms is compounded by the perception of ‘made in China’ products as copycats of the ‘original’. A few participants expressed a negative attitude and a sense of distrust toward ‘made-in-China’ products and content. Apart from associating ‘made in China’ with ‘the world’s factory’, characterized by mass production, labour exploitation, cheap prices and poor quality, other respondents were under the impression that fake, pirated or grey-market products are pervasive. 


Antipodean unfamiliarity

Chinese culture is a very broad canvas and for the purposes of our research we identified ‘made -in-China’ products and services in contrast to the wider selection of Chinese culture that is available in Chinese-speaking regions; for instance Hong Kong movies. Nevertheless, the question of why Chinese culture encounters difficulty in crossing Anglophone cultural boundaries is an important one. Western culture, particularly Hollywood movies, has made inroads globally since the 1970s. While digital products from the PRC have certainly gained traction overseas among overseas Chinese, it is a longer term challenge to build ‘brand awareness’ of a modern China among the Australian community. Apart from WeChat and Huawei only a few people recognised leading digital brands or affordances such as Weibo and Alipay. 

Among our groups, people who had been to China, who had learned some Chinese, or who had close Chinese contacts were more appreciative of the intrinsic value of Chinese culture, even while they were aware of draconian controls over freedom of expression and human rights in the PRC. What this told us in relation to Australia is that educational institutions and media organisations need to be more responsible in covering China, not to ‘tell China’s stories well’ but to tell more Chinese stories, and to diversify topics. 

Language remains a barrier, and while Confucius Institutes have attempted to make China’s language ‘strong’ overseas, the current backlash against China and its overseas influence is likely to force closure of many of these programs. If this happens, Chinese culture may find itself with nowhere to go, except to the already converted. 

In conclusion, people’s media and cultural consumption is strongly shaped by cultural familiarity, geopolitics and ideology of national and transnational dimensions, as well as by the availability of competing content and platforms from around the world. In this regard perceptions of China and Chinese culture are still shaped by the ‘discourse power’ of the West. Even when it comes to accessing Chinese online content in the region, the most widely used platform is YouTube. The irony here is that while YouTube is taking China’s culture to the world, it is blocked by the government in China.

Michael Keane is Professor of Chinese Media and Communications at Curtin University, Perth, Australia.

Haiqing Yu is Associate Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Principal Research Fellow in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, Melbourne.

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