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Global Capital, Local Culture: Transnational Media Corporations in China

Author: Anthony Y.H. Fung
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2008
Review Published: December 2009

 REVIEW 1: Hanna Cho

In the years since China's 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), there have been dramatic changes to its cultural and media spheres. From Avril Lavigne to Spider Man to Harry Potter, global cultural icons have become both popular and pervasive, and Chinese youth eagerly embrace the pleasures of commodified consumption. However, the processes by which this shift has taken place are by no means simple. That is, global capital has not entered China without facing considerable challenges, nor has the Chinese state been passive in negotiating this entry. Interested in understanding this phenomenon, the academic literature on Chinese media and communication has grown considerably. As China continues its rapid ascent as an economic and political power, exemplified by its impressive performance with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, so does the desire to investigate the profound economic and cultural processes that have accompanied this shift.

These twin processes undergirding China's growing global power are central to Anthony Y.H. Fung's Global Capital, Local Culture: Transnational Media Corporations in China. Based on qualitative data collected between 2003-2007 on China's contemporary movie, television, and music industries, the scope of Fung's book is ambitious and broad. A standout feature of the book is the unprecedented range of insights gleaned from over 100 interviews with senior executives for global media corporations such as Warners Bros, Viacom/MTV, and News Corp.'s Channel V. Mobilizing these insights to provide a descriptive analysis of these media corporations' globalization and localization strategies, Fung outlines with special consideration the political and economic constraints of operating in China's rapidly changing media landscape. Core concepts of globalization, localization, and glocalization are used throughout to examine how global neoliberalism interacts with the Chinese government's own evolving strategies of neonational globalization.

The book's central thesis emphasizes the multiple ways that the development of the entertainment media industry in China has been, and continues to be, shaped by its political system. In Chapter One, "Piracy, Market, and Politics," Fung launches directly into an analysis of the key issues that many contemporary discussion of the PRC elicits -- that of China's perceived property rights infringements, the attraction and potential of its huge markets, and the politics of how these intertwining issues are handled on the global stage. In Chapter Two, "From Globalization to Glocalization," Fung defines the core research questions of the book, as well as sets out a theoretical framework built upon a political economy analysis of cultural production in China, and its connection to consumption. Chapter Three, "Globalizing China: The Case of Transnational Music Records," uses the music industry to provide an overview and background understanding to the globalization of cultural productions and media in China. In Chapter Four, "WTO, Politics of Control, and Collaboration," Fung uses the case of Warner Bros. Pictures in China to analyze the extent and conditions of collaborations between China and global players in a post-WTO context. In particular, he describes how the PRC's hidden agenda to incubate its own media prompted authorities to devise a policy aiming to co-opt global capital in a way that would rapidly modernize and indirectly shelter the growth of a national Chinese media empire.

He further develops this description of an emerging state media strategy to suggest two models of localization in Chapter Five, "A Tale of Two Localizing Global Capitals: MTV and Channel V," where he compares the hybridization and de-Westernization models of localization taken by different global media giants entering China. Illustrating the hybridization model, Channel V collaborated more with local stations and audiences, such as in the creation of locally made Chinese music videos. Conversely, MTV focused more on programs to be broadcast via local channels and intermixed Chinese music videos with Western content (96). In both models, transnational media companies are active partners of the Chinese state, and actively accommodate their political agendas in a manner which underlines how "there is no separation between market and politics, and between money and ideology" (102).

In Chapter Six, "Global Media Partnerships," Fung considers additional cases of transnational media entry into China, including satellite television, print media, and internet portal operators Google and Yahoo. Here, his analysis reinforces how global partners prioritize economics over ideals, and readily side with Chinese authorities in terms of political positions. Transnational new media such as Google and Yahoo are expected to behave similarly to mainland operators, and "push aside principles of privacy, democracy, human rights, religious freedom, upon their entry into China" (146).

Taking a cultural studies turn, Chapter Seven, "Active Nation, Active Audience," looks at youth consumption of globalized pop culture in China. Here, Fung's analysis explicitly rebuts the mainstream assumption that the PRC is anti-populist, and that Chinese youth are passive audiences. He valorizes the clever way in which the PRC manipulates and strips away the "pernicious" influence of global cultural imports such as the inherently anti-establishment elements of North American hip-hop culture. The chapter describes the Chinese government's deliberate construction of "pop citizenship," wherein cultural production in media industries is geared toward fostering a consumer-oriented sensibility that imbues Chinese youth with "a strong sense of blatant individualism, seditious independence, and above all, crude commercial values" and lead them to feel that "they are free, unbound, and liberated ... in [their] fantasization of the West" (170).

But Fung defends this deliberate narcotizing of Chinese youth, suggesting, "the audience does not need to revolt against the authorities because the latter have already led the "revolution", yet in a controlled manner" (170). He further argues that the political economy perspectives of scholars such as Schiller (1996) regarding the internalizing forces of capitalism are exaggerated, and asserts that we should instead see different structures, agencies, and institutions to be mutually shaping. That is, people's desires and the state agenda converge so that "the apolitical, highly commercialized popular culture caters to the audience while at the same time remaining unchallenging to the legitimacy of the state" (157). This reveals a critical gap in Fung's analysis, in that it fails to give sufficient credence to how the new media and communication landscape created by the interaction of global capital with the Chinese state dramatically remixes and changes class, generational, regional, and political structures. For example, Fung's audience analysis makes no mention of the millions of non-urban and less privileged Chinese who may not interpret or understand "glocalized" media from the same subject positions as the university-educated, globally-oriented, and upwardly mobile Chinese youth he does discuss.

In Chapter Eight, "Toward a (National) Global Culture," Fung gathers his various theoretical strands to conclude that the emerging media ecology and market in China has ultimately been shaped by the state's desire to actively extend their nationalistic ideology and agenda to a global audience. Rather than waiting for the "complete colonization of the Chinese market by global capital, Chinese media, possessing the ability to dictate national cultural policy, capitalized on the semi-open market to go commercialized -- in a way also favoring the existing political leadership -- to occupy the market first ... and prepare for global competition and the global market (178). Indeed, looking ahead, localized global media in China will not only continue to serve as a major source of media transformation serving the state, but will serve as an outgoing locus of Chinese cultural globalization.

Overall, Fung's book does a good job of exploring how, why, and in what ways global media have localized in the Chinese market, and how the state proactively receives and enhances their efforts. Provocatively, the book opposes the mainstream view predicting that China's entry to WTO and the opening of its media system would inevitably undermine the Communist Party's authoritarian control. Through the presentation of various case studies, Fung aims to debunk the "mistaken assumption that in authoritarian and closed nations, either the state counters global capital, or the liberating force democratizes the state" (183). Indeed, the book's conclusion argues, "localization of global media capital by various cultural forms does not eliminate the difference between the global world and China in terms of political ideologies ... [in] the political minefield that is modern China ... transnational media capital chose to localize their content and production in the PRC in the most effective and efficient ways -- and at the expense of any philosophical ideals" (197).

Although slim in form, Fung's book is substantial to read. Theoretical and ideological points of contention aside, the overall quality of the book could be improved with some careful copyediting and more attention to structure. While his attempt to blend different theoretical viewpoints in his analysis is admirable, it detracts from the overall cogency of his arguments. Fung's descriptive narrative style is well-suited for conveying sentiments and insights gleaned from his interviews, but it does little to clarify the complex weave of regulatory measures, policies, and historical contexts involved.

Nevertheless, Global Capital, Local Culture remains a solid resource, of interest to students, practitioners, and researchers interested in how globalization has affected China's culture and entertainment industries. A welcome addition to the growing literature on media and communication in China, it challenges readers to recognize the ideological and political compromises made by global capital. It also dares us to view the emergent state-global media empire in China as part of the PRC's unassailable right to act as a counterhegemonic cultural force. That is, not to simply demonize China's actions as an oppressive state, but as a counterweight to the heavy global (Western) forces of "assimilating capitalism." In this way, it is a unique and necessary counterpoint to mainstream assumptions, and adds to our understanding of China's rise on the global stage.

Schiller, Herbert I. (1996) Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America. London: Routledge.

Hanna Cho:
Hanna Cho is currently a PostGraduate Research Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. She is a graduate of the Joint Programme in Communication and Culture at York and Ryerson University, in Toronto, Canada.  <cho.hanna [at] gmail.com>

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