Jet Li prepares for combat in Zhang Yimou's epic "Hero." As China commercializes its cultural space and concentrates on its internal market, the global arthouse fare of directors like Zhang is dwindling. Photo: Amazon

While the content exports of pop culture powerhouse Japan and rising star South Japan surge across the region and the world, China – a demographic, industrial and technological colossus – is punching well below its weight.

Why is the hard power giant so apparently weak at soft power projection?

While traditional Sinic culture – cuisine, literature, design, martial arts, etc – have been embraced across the world, the cultural products of millennial China have had far less impact than the country’s economic size would indicate.

That is not necessarily because local entertainment products are sub-standard, though for decades, they were.

“China came out of the void of the Cultural Revolution, so they looked at Japan and Korea,” Japanese American producer, marketer and researcher Keiko Hagihara Bang said. “China was gearing up to buy into Hallyu before THAAD – there were a lot of broken contracts.”

The deployment of THAAD, a US missile defense system in South Korea in 2017, infuriated China. In one prong of a multi-armed retaliation, Beijing banned imports of Hallyu – the “Korean Wave” of pop culture content that includes film, TV dramas and pop music.

But Bang believes that THAAD gave battered Chinese content producers an excuse to invoke protectionism in order to catch their breath and catch up.

“They could not stand that Korean content was invading their country because the Korean quality was so damned good, and that had nothing to do with THAAD,” the long-term Asian trend-spotter said. “But now they have learned.”

Another factor is a relatively new – and often lowest-common-denominator – form of commercialism.

Globally, the high water mark of modern Chinese cinema came with the works of acclaimed art house directors like Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern; Hero) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine; The Emperor and the Assassin) in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Now, the market has shifted. The expansion of China’s middle class has driven the growth of leisure services, such as cineplexes.

“New age Chinese cinema was not commercial,” Bang said. “Now they have so many more cinemas, so there is much more money to be made, and they have so many people, that even an average film can make a lot of  money.”

Entertainment trend spotter Keiko Hagihara Bang reckons that platforms, rather than simply content, are Asia’s lesson for the West. Photo: Keiko Hagihara Bang

Where is the ‘C-pop?’

And that is the first reason why there is no “China Wave” breaking across the globe: The sheer size of the home base.

“They do have content, but the growing trend in China is not to care about the outside world,” Bang said. “China does not need the rest of the world, its market is so huge.”

Another reason is that, to make an impact in Western markets requires the kind of time, effort and on-ground presence that South Korean Director Bong Joon-ho invested on the global festival and talk-show circuit in the run-up to his Parasite Oscar triumph.

“A Chinese director would have to hobnob in London and Hollywood and Cannes,” Bang said. “So they say, ‘I can be big in China or I can be big in the rest of the world’.”

Moreover, in the all-seeing surveillance state that is authoritarian China, producing content suited to the mores of a freer outside world – particularly the freewheeling, individualistic and democratic cultures of the prosperous West – can be risky. Professional and political relationships back home can be impacted.

“If you are big in the rest of the world, they can think you are a rebel or anti-establishment,” Bang said. “That is a problem if you want Chinese backing and finance.”

These disconnects could explain why recent China-Hollywood co-projects, such as the Matt Damon fantasy The Great Wall and the Jason Statham monster thriller Meg failed to make either a popular or critical impact globally.

However, China does have a saving grace in under-noticed and under-appreciated creative, technical and commercial innovations in its walled-off digital space – where Western platforms YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc are banned.

“What people miss is what [the Chinese] have done domestically in that void, which is to develop their own extraordinary apps and culture of digital engagement,” she said. “There is a lot to be learned by the West.”

Bypassing credit cards and moving direct to online payment solutions, China – where, for example, waitresses in restaurants embed QR codes on their uniforms for ease of digital tipping – is perfectly positioned to monetize content.

In the online space, digital payment features synchronize with cultural content enabling new revenue opportunities.

“They secure codes in the content,” Bang said. As an example she cited a Chinese food show where QR codes were included on screen and it was discovered the viewers sought to buy virtually everything in the show, up to the ingredients on the shelves.  

“This is engagement! This is interactivity!” she said. “I did a deep dive on ads on WeChat and it is extraordinary what they do. They are, ‘Let’s try…this!’”

As a result of these systems and behaviors, China has improved on some of the platforms created in the rest of the world. “TikTok is result of massive learnings from everything else,” she said. “This is why the West wants the algorithms for TikTok.”

TikTok, an app that allows users to create/edit online video content with easy-to-use special effects features, has raised the ire of the Donald Trump White House.

“The Chinese have mastered how to go viral within their own country, Bang said. “It is a culture of hyper engagement.”  

And hyper engagement may translate into hyper profits because TikTok has proven a monster hit with global and Chinese youth – raising the hackles of the Trump White House in the process.

It was reported this week that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is being valued at a hefty $50 billion. According to Reuters, investors value TikTok at 50 times its projected 2020 revenue of about $1 billion. By comparison, its rough US counterpart, Snap, is valued at 15 times its projected 2020 revenue, at about $33 billion.

TikTok has proved that well-engineered, creative Chinese platforms can capture western audiences. Photo: AFP

Where’s next?

While digital China looks set to remain walled off from the globe, the rest of cybersphere is seeing digital frontiers evaporate. “We are seeing the rise of a borderless culture and economy, and young people don’t care about the nation it’s from. They say, ‘That is so cool, I am now a fan’,” Bang said.

But speaking geographically, Bang likes the look of Southeast Asia.

“ASEAN is the next place that is going to rise, it is a huge market, it is not to be scoffed at,” she said, citing the Malaysian animation Egen Ali. “He is this Muslim detective who is loved all over the region,” she said. “And we are seeing some great Malaysian hip hop.”

Then there is India, though that country’s leading cultural product, Bollywood musicals, never caught on with Western audiences.

“India did not have a chance [in Western markets] because they were clichéd as Bollywood and it was heavily mythological, it was too far for people,” Bang said. Yet in developing markets, Bollywood products are is building non-Indian fan bases. “If you go to Africa they love it, and so do the Middle East.”

Of course, like Chinese, Indians themselves represent a massive demographic/market.  And new, locally produced content, largely unnoticed in the West, is winning global fans, such as a 2016 movie about a family of wrestlers that did massive business in markets such as Turkey and China. “We have Dangal with [producer] Amir Khan who does 100 million dollars in China,” Bang said. “He is huge.”

Moreover, the Indian diaspora is generating content of its own, such as the award-winning Kumar Family, a long-running TV show by and about Anglo Indians in the UK. “I think we are going to hear a lot more from India,” Bang said.

Two of Bang’s most recent projects have been the rollouts of digital platforms in India. One, a K-culture brand, is Namast-K. The other, an Indian-Japanese portmanteau, is DesiOtaku, which brings anime, manga and J-culture to India.

Unnoticed by Hollywood, the 2016 Indian film “Dangal” has captured the hearts of audiences in vast markets such as China and Turkey. Photo: IMDB

The Asia that Hollywood ignores

The increasing range of Asian productions, intra-Asian productions and intra-region selling is filling an ever-expanding digital space that customary pop culture hyperpower Hollywood may not be able to.

“Studios in Hollywood are not doing new things – look at music, look at Marvel; they don’t take chances,” Bang said. “America has controlled the bar for creativity as they had special effects, but nobody owns storytelling.”

And today’s Hollywood film producers and record labels no longer control distribution. “YouTube democratized all that,” she said. “Now, there are no gatekeepers – there are gatecrashers.”

As more and more Asians sell to Asia rather than more geographically and culturally distant markets, the Western companies are missing major production opportunities: Localized content.

“I really started to understand that when international networks – Discovery, HBO and all the rest – came to Asia, it was evident that none of them would serve local relevant and authentic programming, it was all about maxing their own content,” Bang recalled. “Some did not produce any original [regional] programming unless it came with advertising.”

As a result, ‘there are underserved communities all over Asia,” she said. “I feel in the digital space we can get to these underserved communities with content that is authentic, homegrown and relevant to millennials.”

Niche interests, such as fishing, street food and hiking, are examples for non-fiction/documentary content.  “There is a huge, vast space of hungry digital audiences that are passionate and underserved,” she said.

Another issue is the East-West values disconnect.

Hollywood and western pop acts have promoted values of violence, individualism and moody bad boys/bad girls, and much content – thriller movies, rock, rap – concentrate on the dark side of life. While Asian directors like Hong Kong’s John Woo, Japan’s Takashi Miike and Korea’s Bong Joon-ho produce similarly edgy work at the cinema, dark themes are less the case in TV and music.

 “A lot of Asian culture is aspirational: you see beautiful people eating beautiful food in beautiful homes and sacrificing everything for the family, showing profound respect and Confucian values,” Bang said. “This is what Western producers do not get.”

She reckons this is why Korea’s TV dramas and squeaky clean popsters play so well in under-developed Asian countries. “This is what people want in Laos, Cambodia and Burma,” Bang said.

But despite the multiplicity of content-production opportunities, Bang’s next project – a new, spin-off company, Millenasia – is not into production. It is, instead, designed to provide specialist, bespoke portals that build and accelerate audience engagement.

Inside Asia’s ‘engagement economy

“Unlike other people who are putting content out, we want to own the conversations,” Bang said.  “Through these portals, fans can interact, they can create fan fiction, they can co-create trailers and so on. We are empowering the viewer.”

This approach slots into what Bang considers the strength of Asian producers, who leverage both technology and culture to connect with, build up and eventually monetize their fandoms.

“Bottom-up” content dates back to the pre-digital days of video cameras in the region. “Japan invented the home video, and they went nuts with cameras, they would make things like these amazing pet videos,” Bang said. “They were the first ones who started reality TV. They get it.”

But it took digital technologies to massively upgrade and accelerate the engagement that Asian players – from Chinese apps to K-pop labels – mastered. This is visible in the use of emojis, for example. “In Asia emoticons are used differently that in the West,” Bang said. “There is this kind of ‘stickiness’ in the cultures.”

Cultural “stickiness”, based on Asian communality, drives vertical and horizontal interactions. Vertical down from idols to fans, and up from fans to idols and communities, while horizontal relationships thrive between fans, such as BTS’ famous ARMY.

A man walks past posters of K-pop group BTS in Seoul. Few acts in the world have curated their fan base – the “ARMY” – as professionally as BTS and their management. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

“There is this collusion between fans and idols, nobody in the West has done this. They do hugathons or high-five-a-thons, they can take gifts from fans, and talk to them,” she said. “Koreans have taken it furthest because they are ‘stickier’. Koreans can’t sleep alone, they love hanging out, they need to see each other all the time!”

It is a self-generating cycle. Asian fans have higher demands and Asian acts respond more diligently to these demands than their Western counterparts.

“Madonna would come out with an album every two years,” Bang said. “Asian fans won’t remain dutiful unless you are constantly giving them stuff, so in J-pop and K-pop there are these calendars: You pick your favorite group, you follow your favorite member, you  know that he is recording today, the next day he is doing a TV show, the next day he is doing a fashion shoot, and so on.”

This level of intimacy is alien to the customarily more individualistic West. Not only are Westerners more jealous of their rights to privacy – as the Covid-19 pandemic has proven, disastrously – they are suspicious of invasive or potentially threatening technologies.

“In China and Korea and Japan, we love robots – we don’t have an Asimov or a Kubrick” she said, citing two Western icons whose science fiction warned of the dangers of out-of-control technologies. “Asians did not grow up with that.”

And this is the lesson that digitally literate Asian culture players and firms have to teach the West: The ongoing development of a new subset of the economy.

“This is the truly Asian spin that we learned from K-pop and China – the engagement economy,” she said. “I think that ultimately, the soft power wars are not going to be won by politics or massive funds, but by the engagement rates of fans coming to the things we made and create. BTS, anime and Bollywood are examples of this, and this is not well understood in the West.”

This is Part 2 of a two-part interview series with Asia cultural maven Keiko Hagihara Bang. Part 1 looked at the increasing depth and breadth of Asian cultural content and the rivalry between Korean and Japanese culture. It can be read here.