In 2009, Li Wuwei, an industrial economist from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, published Creativity is changing China. In this book Li, a vice-director of the main ‘opposition party’, the Chinese Kuomintang Revolutionary Party, outlines in detail a radical transformation of China’s economy and society.(2)  Li explains how China is currently seeking to activate its latent creative resources, consolidating what he calls ‘cultural soft power’. In his view important transformations have already taken place in cultural sectors and effects are being felt in other economic sectors; eventually, he says, China will transform into a creative society.

In this millennial vision China’s economy will be released from dependence on low-cost manufacturing and processing. Significantly, the negative externalities of this world factory model - in particular the problems of polluted environments and the loss of intellectual property earnings to foreign entities - will also be alleviated. Indeed, one of the most interesting sections is where Li compares China’s innovative capacity with those of foreign companies:

"‘Made in China’ and ‘created by foreign capital’ have risen as a contest between nations. From ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’ has become the future strategy for the Chinese economy."

Li’s three stage transformational model of industry-economy-society is currently being promoted as an alternative ‘creative China plan’ in the post global economic crisis period.  While Li’s is an important and powerful voice the genesis of the vision dates back to Beijing in early 2004 when Liu Shifa, Vice-director of the Market Development section within the Ministry of Culture, wrote an article called ‘Implementing the creative century plan; developing the creative China campaign’. In this manifesto Liu said:

"We are now focusing our attention on the new century: from creative industries to creative economy then to creative society. We are also focusing attention on China today: from Made in China to ‘created in China’. We are advocating the implementation of a creative century plan, and the development of the creative China campaign."

The creative China plan unfolds

The creative China campaign, the creative century plan, and the slogan ‘from made in China to created in China’ received airing at an international cultural industries conference in Shanxi in May 2004, which I attended. However, the themes of the plan, which included a wholesale shift of attention to creativity and a shift away from imitation, were lost among the clamours for cultural protection, an alternative theme closer to the hearts of local cultural officials.

The ‘created in China’ slogan attracted further media dissemination and popularisation at a conference convened in Beijing in July 2005 organised by the Queensland University of Technology in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Renmin (People’s) University. The event marked the first coming together of international experts and Chinese scholars, policy makers and entrepreneurs. While the First International Creative Industries and Innovation Conference was a success, Ministry of Culture officials were in two minds about the concept of creativity in China.

Arguably, it was the Western origins of the creative industries that off-sided some conservatives in the Ministry of Culture, the very institution in which Liu Shifa developed his creative China plan. The official line at the time from Beijing was that China is cultural first, creative second. The ensuing compromise term, cultural creative industries, provided a way of pleasing all players.

Despite the reservations of Beijing officials, the ‘creative China’ plan is now apparent in most of China’s tier 1 and tier 2 cities and is increasingly gaining traction in what China’s leaders like to call the ‘new socialist countryside’. The contemporary translation for creativity is chuangy,  literally ‘to make new ideas’. It is a concept introduced into popular lexicon in the past decade. Creativity, and the slogan ‘from made in China to created in China’, now turn up frequently in news reports, on talk radio, in business conference presentations and in policy speeches. TV reality shows extol participants’ creativity, the lifestyle pages of daily newspapers embrace it; and students in China’s universities are encouraged to use more of it in their thinking.

Major events such as the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo have showcased China’s creative accomplishments. Annual week long affairs, such as the Beijing International Cultural and Creative Industries Expo (each year in November), and the Shanghai Creative Industries Activities Week (in September), assemble a galaxy of entrepreneurs, investors, academics, policy makers and artists. Long regarded as trouble makers, artists have been rehabilitated into the creative China plan. The multiplication of creative clusters, parks and bases, often located around the fringes of cities, provide opportunities for exhibition, production and learning.     

Enfolding orders: the creative innovation system in China

International observers might justifiably be cynical about the creative China slogan. After all, in a country where the lid is kept securely on dissent, how can there be individual creativity, long recognised as the wellspring of renewal for any society?  Another view is that the current practice of corralling artists and media workers into government supervised clusters is a clever way of managing problematic populations; putting people in a container and asking them to think outside of the box. Unsurprisingly, most creative parks are not living up to expectations.  

If we want to understand how China is dealing with creativity, or indeed how creativity is changing China, we need to look deeper into social and institutional practices. I have identified three levels of activity which, taken together, constitute a kind of nascent creative innovation system. The first is in the realm of planning, the latter two concern market re-adjustment and co-creation.

When we reflect on the history of China in the late 20th century we find the guiding principle of reform (gaige). At the national level reform symbolises the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Reform can be traced to the First Five-Year Plan (1953 - 1957) which laid down the initial groundwork for China’s industrialization program and the nation’s eventual rise as an economic super power. Industry subsequently became a synonym for progress; that is, industrialization was good for the nation and its people. Economic development (jingji fazhan) was the means to modernization.

The recent introduction of the term creativity into the Chinese lexicon is a challenge for officials trying to understand its implications, as well as manage it effectively. While the practice of reform is ultimately conducted by officials, the role of creative thinking is increasingly being outsourced to epistemic communities. Strong competition occurs among ‘growth coalitions’, which are networks of developers, entrepreneurs, investors, artist-entrepreneurs, officials, intellectuals and residents who offer various development models and solutions. In Beijing the slogan ‘from made in China to created in China’ may have been incubated in the Ministry of Culture but it was the Creative China Industrial Alliance, a local think tank associated with the Ministry of Information Industry that popularised it.   

The second level of the innovation system is the realm of commercial popular culture. In the marketplace we see a great deal of opportunism. In reality reproduction, more so than origination, is the modus operandi. New versions of cultural classics and nostalgic remakes are common; moreover, we find a predilection for adaptation in literature, TV drama, online games, visual arts and animation. Reproductions appeal to new market segments; for example Yu Dan’s (2006) adaptation of Confucius, Confucius from the Heart, mixes Buddhism and Western psychology.2 In addition, a high degree of sifting takes place: that is, market agents search international environments and online communities for ideas to commercialise.

Because novelty and originality, the foundations of the copyright system, are fundamentally problematic concepts in China, this allows a great deal more borrowing to occur without the risk of litigation. An example is the novel Wolf Totem, which was written in 2002 by Jiang Rong, a pseudonym for Lü Jiamin, an elderly and relatively obscure writer.3 Ostensibly about the experiences in Mongolia of sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution who develop a fascination with wolves, the book has generated many readings and critical perspectives.

Aside from its controversy, the book has incubated a large number of associated ‘wolf’ publications and commentaries with most offering variations on the theme of the outsider; for instance self?help books suggest people emulate the ways of the wolf to survive in the modern world. Writing about this phenomenon in a recent book, Copyright Matters, Lena Henningsen notes: ‘If such imitative creativity proves to be a feasible model for the development of human society, why should it not be employed in the creation of works of art.’4

The third level in the Chinese creative innovation system is probably the most important – informal grassroots culture. It is typified by creative activity in non-commercial spheres. Much of the activity currently occurring in online communities is not aimed directly at profiteering, but rather functions as informal and amateur incubation. In other words it is both re-creation and recreation. The productiveness of this layer is not measured by economic success but by impact. China has more than 420 million netizens and over 600 million registered mobile phone users. The capacity to contribute spontaneously to online communities, whether in banal chat room conversations or in the viewing of satirical spoofs of Chinese celebrities highlights the potency of user-generated content.

Whereas levels one (official) and two (popular culture) require navigation of censors, the third level is conspicuous by its risk culture. One particularly interesting example of spoofing culture is a short video made by a team at CCTV headed up by Cui Yongyuan, the host of a serious mainstream current affairs talk show called Oriental Horizon. Obviously limited by the constraints of CCTV, in 2001 Cui and his colleagues released a video called Splitting Up in October, parodying the internal power struggles in CCTV. It soon went viral, with the effect of enhancing Cui’s reputation with the ‘masses’ as more than just an anchor man for the regime.

The three levels I have mentioned comprise an innovation system with limitations. The layers are enfolded. However, the tendency to date has been for commentators to see these as separate domains. The top level is concerned with creativity but doesn’t really understand it; it seeks out sounding boards and tests out its ideas cautiously. The book Creativity is Changing China by Li Wuwei is an example of how this level promotes its ideas. Conversely, the realm of commercial popular culture is struggling to understand the market in a restricted content environment; it has one eye on the regulators and one eye on social network markets. It is in the third level, the sphere of recreation, that we find the most innovative work and prospects for further social liberalisation.    


Li Wuwei, Creativity is Changing China (Chuangyi gaibian Zhongguo) (Beijing Xinhua Press, 2009). An abridged version of this book translated by Michael Keane, Hui Li and Marina Guo, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic in 2011.

2. In China there are eight sanctioned minor political parties; their function is not so much to oppose in a liberal democratic sense but to represent different interests; they often provide alternative development perspectives. Their representation on major reform committees allows the Chinese government to claim that a democratic consensus prevails.

About the author

Michael Keane is a Centre Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. He is author of Created in China: the Great New Leap Forward as well as a number of books on Chinese and Asian media.

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