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Creativity and Creative Industries in China


Creativity and Creative Industries in China                                      Back to E-Learning

Ian Lang ©2012

The idea of creativity as a driver of innovation has long historical roots in China, and as a philosophical truism, has informed the development of cultural, civil and technological advancements in China for over four thousand years, just as for a shorter time, it has in the West.


However as the West rapidly becomes a post-industrial society, ceding its expensive manufacturing industries to developing nations, the rhetoric of books such as Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) has provided many Western governments with a hope that run-down industrial areas can be reinvigorated through the development of creative-industries districts. These districts have sought to provide a planning umbrella and infrastructure support umbrella over sometimes marginally profitable small enterprises in digital media, visual arts, fashion and performing arts.


In some cases, former polytechnic-style institutions like Australia’s QUT and RMIT universities have gathered diverse creative sub-disciplines under specific ‘creative industries’ banners, to facilitate marketing for student recruitment, and provide a neater and unified strategic vision that fits government funding requirements. It is no accident that Britain and Australia were first to introduce creative industries precincts in the mid 1990s as a top-down strategy to keep inner-urban areas attractive and profitable, growing jobs and intellectual property in popular new industries.


In many cases, universities in the West have suffered student enrollment downturns in the traditional arts and humanities areas, whilst student interest in digital communications subjects has lifted. With lower cost digital technology making media production subjects possible in a wide variety of second tier institutions rather than simply the preserve of high end film schools, arts and humanities departments are increasingly reliant on creative subjects in areas such as screenwriting, interactive media, animation and games, to cross subsidise vital but sometimes unpopular traditional subjects in philosophy, history, economics, and secondary foreign languages.


Government funding requirements in these cases share many similarities with the development of creative industries in China, led by scholar Li Wuwei in his book How Creativity is Changing China (2011). As Li’s editor and communications Sinologist Michael Keane points out in the book’s introduction, the notion of ‘creative industries’ in China is anything but neutral – carrying potentially upsetting ideas. Instead, Keane demonstrates that Li argues for creative industries in both social and economic terms, that balances cultural national security with international growth potential.


In this sense, Li’s look to the arts of new media to not only extend Chinese soft-power, but to deliver hard foreign income from product not simply made in China, but as Keane argues articulately in his own earlier book, from product and services Created in China (2007). Li makes a convincing case too, not only for increased consumption of works created in China for domestic markets too, but ultimately, towards an energised ‘creative society’ in China (2011).


Strategic government arguments for developing creative industry clusters differ between China and the West, but in both cases are examples of top-down policy that not always at ease with less structured bottom-up practitioner-led movements that characterise key historic periods of creative growth such as the 18th century European Enlightenment helping to create a society based on reason rather than religion, or the development of Modernism in art and design in the 20th Century made possible by mass production that rapidly created social division between the haves and have-nots, resulting simplistically in the mass conflicts of world wars and the development of the modern Chinese state.


Revolutionary ideas characterised both these movements, with logic challenging religion in the first, and arguably with man challenging God directly in the second, as the powers of technology allowed world leaders inspired by Nietzsche’s very non-comic strip Superman the real powers of life and death so vast in the first half of the 20th Century, that it took the next fifty years for the world to recover.


The current arguments for creative industries are much less confronting, but offer much more productive outcomes – especially from an economic view that provides great security and social support for all community members.


China’s manufacturing sectors are much healthier than the West’s, but must work at very large scales to counter low profit margins, that sometimes also puts local physical environments at risk. Combined with increasing inflationary pressures on wages and interest rates as China’s economy continues to expand – albeit at probably less the 9% per year experienced in the first decade of the 21st century – the development of higher quality, China-owned Intellectual Property becomes an important aspiration of the 12th Five Year Plan.


In broader terms, the creative cultural industries – a term better accepted in both Shanghai and Beijing than ‘creative industries’ alone – also carries strong social agendas less apparent in the West. These social agendas include China developing greater pride in national innovation, reducing dependence and consumption of imported goods and values, and encouraging positive community service attitudes and pride.


In many ways the creative cultural industries can be seen as a way of making China’s modern internal identity strong enough to withstand the intense and often socially testing pressures of international capital markets. This is a deeply complex but not impossible aim that will take time to achieve, challenging China and the world’s sometimes clouded perceptions of it, in multiple domains of political, educational, and cultural practice.


But how creative are the ‘creative industries’, and how are we to know when they are  working as expected? Perhaps more importantly, how are we to know what to do if the performance of creative industries seems less than community expectations for its investment in them? To answer these questions in practical ways, we need a shared definition of creativity, but defining such an abstract yet integral part of human behaviour is not easy.


British educator Sir Ken Robinson offer’s this.

 Creativity (is) the process of having original ideas that have value, and more often than not, from an inter-disciplinary way of seeing things.  (2006 TED)


This definition forces us to ask what may oblige this process to commence in the first place, if we take a view from cognitive psychology that all behaviour, no matter how unexpected, can be traced to bring in some was an outcome desired consciously or unconsciously by its actor.


The customary rhetoric of creative industries for example, infers that creativity is essentially a positive and unqualified social good – even conflating its expression with an American sense of reinforcing personal self-esteem ads a right. This is an uncritical reading of the nature of creativity that disqualifies the historical importance of adversity and even desperation as a stimulus for the creative act.


War and revolution have traditionally inspired great creativity, in political ideas, new technologies, and even in education and management techniques. In motion picture production for example, an overwhelming need for more efficient battle-field reconnaissance in the World War Two led to the development of 16mm camera systems that could easily be mounted next to aeroplane machine guns rather than 35mm cameras, to record exactly what target had been hit.


The Arriflex 16mm S camera, made in Germany, and still in use by most film schools around the world today, has a hooked thumbhold that allows the camera to be held in a single hand by a paratrooper filming as he descended. The camera’s body is strong enough to withstand impact even if when dropped from a considerable height. The wartime technology of 16mm motion picture film is directly responsible for the post-war growth of film schools in China and the West – and enabled a new wave of lightweight documentary making to begin in the 1960s.


In this sense, it is important to widen the definition of creativity away simply from the arts and entertainment, but to the actual production of useful knowledge in any disciplines. Thus is supported by common arguments from engineers, scientists, and even farmers, that much of  their work is creative – at least in the sense of responding to complex problems that require new and thoughtful solutions.


In particular, this type of knowledge-based creativity has sometimes been described in Western MBA programs as the key to unlocking so-called ‘wicked’ problems – problems of such complexity such as climate change, that adjusting one factor dynamically changes all other factors, so that new solutions must be continuously developed to cope with ever-changing situations.


As a proponent of building more creative curricula for school age children in the West, Ken Robertson has argued that our education systems have become so careful to stop people failing, that we have eliminated risk from our schools­ and therefore stifled the possibility of creative response to it, for fear that a student may fail. This has broadly been an argument used against Chinese education by the West – but in a Western way, looks at response to creative challenges in an individual rather than group perspective.


China has though shown itself nationally capable of creative response to challenging problems. The ‘wicked’ problem of persistent drought in northern China, has brought innovative climate control measures, and encouraged development of new agricultural techniques to optimise existing crops and nutrition with existing water supplies. The Three Gorges Dam is another proof, of creative intervention at the most massive scale. Interventions like this ask us to consider that creativity may equally be expressed by many working as one, as by a individual in a more Western sense.


China is as innately creative as any other country or nation. China expresses its creativity though, in culturally specific as well as universal ways. Arguments that rote-based education permanently damages creativity overlook for example, the remarkable group response to Deng Xiaoping rather than single-handedly ‘create’ economic wellbeing for post-Mao China, could be seen to have lit a fuse that started millions of bright fires in Shenzhen that have spread all over the country.


Creativity is a way of taking measured risks in order to progress, but creative solutions by definition may fail. China’s education system and powerful examination system for university entrance does not readily allow for risk and failure –  on an individual level. This is well understood by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and will be addressed with the introduction of a range of problem-based learning components into national curricula over the next five years amongst other reform and modernisation measures. In many ways, reform of this sort begins with teacher training as much as it does with written course documents, and instant reform in this case is neither possible nor desirable. Nor is the introduction of problem-based learning at tertiary level alone a useful step, as this does not provide continuity of learning for students and so may limit their performance.


Greater social benefit occurs when problem-based learning is gradually introduced into each of the major stages of learning from pre-school, primary and secondary school. Much of the evolution occurs within subjects themselves, as teachers reframe for example, mathematical problems from the purely abstract, to real-world situations where a variety of intelligences may be required to formulate a workable if not always perfectly correct answer. This is not to suggest that incorrect answers are acceptable – simply that if education mirrors the complexity of the modern world, perfectly correct solutions to real problems may be impossible to achieve.


If for example, our real world education task is to measure how much electricity is used by a family in 24 hours, and then determine how to reduce the amount of electricity consumed as possible while still maintaining reasonable life comforts, a great deal of assumption is required of the student. Each family’s needs and priorities are different. Geographical differences and seasonal differences will play a major part in each family’s energy needs. In considering ‘creative’ solutions to energy saving for example, one student’s solution of replacing light bulbs with low-energy versions, may not work for another student who finds that the higher cost of replacement bulbs outweighs the potential energy saving – and so this student may suggest it is simpler and cheaper to simply turn off more lights.


Within a real-world problem like this, there are many ‘solutions’, made on an individual basis. This is a western method of developing creative thinking skills – on an individual basis. But as Li Wuwei suggests, can we move to a creative society, and in fact, does evidence exist to suggest this is already happening.


The answer is a condition ‘yes’, from what may be called a Chinese anthropological perspective, and is described by a number of new media spokespeople as ‘mass creativity’. Wikipedia is a key example of mass creativity. (citation?) Credible research from British scientists show the reported error rate from an amateur mass-created works like Wikipedia is statistically around the same as the error rate found in professionally produced reference works such as Encyclopaedia Britannica – that had long been a benchmark for quality knowledge in the United Kingdom.


The remarkable difference between the mass created work though, and its professionally produced rival however, is in the very large difference in entries between the two. Encyclopaedia Britannica has around 170,000 entries in total, and each year adds less than 5,000 new entries. Wikipedia at the time of writing, has around 16,000,0000 entries, and is growing at a phenomenal rate each year. Whilst Wikipedia has in the west been discouraged as a reference in academic papers and journals, it is clear this will change in the new future particularly for subject entries that reference new media and changing social issues.


The linking trait of mass creativity, is an observation that people can and will change behaviours quickly en masse, where risk is low and returns are high. In the past, superstition and rumour have sometimes provided questionable motivation for mass creativity to occur. During the 2011 nuclear crisis in Japan for example, rumour-fed panic buying of salt as a prophylactic medicine against radiation poisoning, led to salt hoarding by families, and the produce being sold-out at shops, with prices inflating wildly as a result. The panic has spread by word of mouth. The behaviour was rational, but the information that salt cures radiation was and remains false.


At the time of the Fukushima reactor meltdown, a report in from the Wall Street Journal reprinted in the Chine Realtime Report (2011 March 17), notes ‘the government’s top food safety official called the salt run “totally unfounded.” York Chow, Secretary for Food and Health, said Buying salt for its iodine content is “totally unfounded, both scientifically and medically.”’


This reassurance was able to limit panic to some extent, through the use of mass digital media. Effectiveness of the government campaign though was compromised by some on-line bloggers who were able to make counter arguments to disprove the scientific evidence with rumour. Like the early stages of Wikepedia, this case does not disprove the usefulness of the internet and on-line media, but it does show that in this media’s developmental phase, the social need for wider and more thorough formal education grows at a similar pace to the capacity for the internet to spread ignorant and potentially dangerous rumours instead of evidence based fact and informed opinion.


The policy and education implications of the ‘2011 salt rush’ suggest the greatest task facing governments in both China and the West, is the development of first-choice information sources, that inevitably mean on-line news and web sites whose integrity is beyond question, and has been proven over time as dependable in earlier crises. If it is true that under attack, people retreat to a proven defences, there will ne no short cuts to earning this sort of integrity, other than ensuring that all published materials are based on solid evidence.