Chinese Creative Economy – changing the ‘copy-paste’ reputation

Chinese creativity’ question in a nutshell – Can the concept of creative industries be accepted in a system guided by central planning and while being a part of state polices?

American scholar Jing Wang has expressed it clearly: ‘The thorniest question triggered by the paradigm of creative industries is that of “creativity” – the least problematic in the Western context. But how do we begin to envision a parallel discussion in a country where creative imagination is subjugated to active state surveillance?’[1]

During the past decade, creative industries as part of the post-industrial economy have been recognised as important feature influencing urban development, creating wealth and jobs, fostering talent or boosting entrepreneurship. Simultaneously, China started the move towards finding a model for its own emerging post-industrial development. In August 2010, China made economic history when it became the second largest economy in the world. National strategy stated in the newest 12th Five Year Development Plan (2011-2015) aims at shifting from goods to services, from ‘made’ in China to ‘designed’ in China; basically – from ‘sweat industries’ to ‘creative industries.’ Also recent World Bank Report ‘China 2030’ recognizes that China has the potential (therefore it is a hypothetical statement) to become a modern, harmonious, and creative high-income society by 2030.[2]

Creative zones and  industries 

The most common definition is the one made back in 1998 by British Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It has defined creative industries as those industries based on individual creativity, skills and talent. They are also those that have the potential to create wealth and jobs through developing intellectual property.[3]

In modern Chinese, the word ‘to create’ is chuang which is used as a verb in association with others, meaning ‘to make’ – zuo and zao. The contemporary translation for ‘creativity’ is chuangyi, literally ‘to make new ideas’, ‘to create a new concept of art; to break fresh ground in imaginative art’; while ‘creative industries’ are chuangyi chanye.[4]

Creative zones can be found very easily around the country, e.g. in Beijing – the famous 798 Art Zone [5]; or in Shanghai – Tianzifang District, however not only. As a matter of fact, one can see the word chuangyi basically everywhere, all over the places in every Chinese city, added as a description to various names of companies, service points, shopping malls, art zones, theme parks, galleries, etc.

However, does it mean that China is already creative or the word itself has become a catch-phrase, loosing original meaning while China is still the master of the ‘copy-paste’ technique?

Following the publication of the Creative Industries Baseline Study by the Cultural Policy Unit of the University of Hong Kong in 2003, the idea of creative industries has been introduced into mainland China in late 2004. Between 2004 and 2005 first international conferences and forums on creative industries were held in Beijing and Shanghai and the boom has started. Annual week-long fairs, such as Beijing International Cultural and Creative Industries Expo (each year in November) and Shanghai International Creative Industry Week (each year in September) assemble numbers of investors, entrepreneurs, policy makers, academics and artists. Shanghai Municipal Government set up the Shanghai Creative Industry Centre (SCIC), affili­ated to the Economic Committee, to gov­ern the creative industry market. Since 2005, the SCIC has labelled 75 quarters as ‘creative industry clusters’ (CCJQ).[6] The multiplication of creative clusters, parks and zones, often located around the fringes of cities, provide opportunities for exhibition, production and learning. Major events such as the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo have showcased China’s creative accomplishments.[7] China has also six cities listed in UNESCO Creative Cities Network.[8]

In order to get a real insight into Chinese Creative Economy and its actual content, it is useful to analyze a report prepared by the Martin Prosperity Institute and its director Richard Florida, well-known expert in the field.[9] To show how ‘creativity’ is distributed across the whole country, they have used Creativity Index for all 31 provincial level regions in China. It is derived by combining the results from three different indexes, each measuring a separate characteristic of the creative economy, namely: the Talent index, Tolerance index, and Technology index. Those 3-Ts are mutually reinforcing drivers of economic growth, while especially Talent is regarded as a key asset.

The map (see Graphic 1) reveals that the most creative regions in China tend to be found along China’s eastern and northern provinces, while the least creative regions tend to be found in China’s most western and southern provinces. The resulting pattern from east to west and north to south mimics the pattern that is found when we map more traditional economic measures such as GDP, job growth and wages. The Creative Class in China consists only of 9% of its total workforce, while the same ratio in developed countries counts between 20% and 30%. On the other hand, in China’s most creative regions, the economy has become driven by services, a defining characteristic in many leading post-industrial nations. Between 1978 and 2008, the contribution of the service industry to total GDP and its share of total employment grew tremendously in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, China’s three leading Municipalities (see Table 2).[10]

Graphic 1. China’s creative economy by 31 provincial level regions (2008)

Table 2. Service industry employment and output for Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin (1978, 2003 and 2008)

Therefore, China is unlikely to shift to post-industrial phase all at once, the transition is going to occur rather in stages across the country. On the whole, China is performing well on the Technology measure. Additionally, roughly half of Chinese population is already living in urban areas, up from less than one in five 30 years ago. More than 100 cities have populations of one million or more. The government plans to increase R&D expenditures from the current level 1.7% of GDP, to 2.5% of GDP by 2020 (the USA figure today is 2.7%).[11] Chinese consumers buy 19% of all PCs sold throughout the world, 14% of the mobile phones and 26% of the cars. China has also become one of the world’s largest art markets, accounting for 23% of global art sales by value.[12]

However, despite those growing statistics, another research conducted also by Florida suggests that ‘China is likely to face substantial obstacles in moving from its current industrial stage of development to a more knowledge-based economy’,[13] since there is a need to develop human resources for innovation; build innovative culture; and strengthen intellectual property rights protection. Its human capital levels are low by the standards of post-industrial economies and heavily concentrated in just three regions. China’s overall technological and economic performance appears to be disconnected from its human capital and knowledge-based assets.[14]

A lot of criticism can be found also on the ground. In her paper on Shanghai for ‘Urban Studies’, Jane Zheng proved that CCJQ policies rather focus on the re-use of industrial buildings and are directed at a real estate boom than give any adequate support to creative industry entrepreneurship. CCJQs have failed to achieve their important functions, such as providing access to knowledge and technol­ogy, while focusing on enhancing commercial value of the enterprises. There is also little innovativeness at the policy level: the government does not rec­ognise the creative industry as a new industry sector different from other service industry sectors.[15] On the contrary, the concept of creative industries had to be connected with the policy mainstream to be validated by the Ministry of Culture. As a result, it coexists with the term of ‘cultural industries’ (although ‘creativity’ is a cultural construct), which has more ideological components and is associated with tradition and conservatism.[16] Its scope is also much wider, including audio-visual, publishing, TV, radio, journalism, exhibitions, museums, archives, performances, relics, cultural organisations and many more.

As a result, the overall concept of creative industries has became a strange hybrid[17], moreover being differently interpreted by every Chinese region according to its needs and resources. In many cities, like in Beijing, the concept includes tourism for instance.

Michael Keane is another well-known expert in the field, proposing 4 different perspectives on the topic of Chinese creative industries. [18]

First view states that the idea of ‘creativity’ itself is not native to China and it can not be Sinicising at all. The opinion that China has a culture of stealing and copying instead of a culture of innovation, is shared to some extent also in the West. Hence, the introduction of the ‘creative industries’ met with such a resistance from central government as the one with no real capacity to effect any systemic change. Recently, however, Chinese business and political circles, together with independent artists, are contesting this view and pawing the way for Chinese creativity and art.[19]

Second position argues that creative industries are fundamentally misunderstood in China and are more appropriately construed as cultural industries with the emphasis on traditional culture. Guided ‘creative’ tourism, ‘creative’ clusters, ‘creative’ theme parks are developed in a large amount, but with the main goal of rather providing employment for ordinary citizens and new income for regions than fostering talent or boosting entrepreneurship.

Third perspective is a pragmatic one, accepting the ambiguity of the definition, whether its ‘cultural’ or ‘creative’. Regardless to the name, those industries are to stay in China, moreover they will be continuously managed by party officials and the activities which generate returns, attract tourists and cause minimal disruption will be prioritised. Keane says that this is probably the model most likely to succeed in the current climate with a support of many foreigners. It is stimulated by a flow of scholar-consultants and practitioners from the West, most of who are already ‘literate’ in the language of the creative industries and willing to engage in co-productions and joint ventures in China, refusing to give them a free hand. Bert de Muynck aggress with Keane that actually not only Chinese are responsible for their ‘copy-paste’ reputation.[20]

The last view, supported e.g. by Li Wuwei, an industrial economist and reformer (removed from the Ministry of Culture on the ideological basis) states that creative industries are already fundamentally changing China, causing greater openness and internationalisation, embracing creative communities. Simultaneously, they maintain elements of cultural policy, putting the emphasis on Chinese ‘cultural soft power’ around the globe.[21] His book has significant title ‘How Creativity is Changing China’, but at many levels he remains pragmatic. Although he recognised that the development of creative industries was a major turning point in the economic history of the country and the effects are being felt in other sectors, the overall results need to be tested over time. Li’s three stage transformational model is currently being promoted as an alternative ‘Creative China’s Plan’: from creative industries to creative economy then to creative society.[22]

The key element is indeed to develop a creative society rather than a series of discrete policies. And for China a good place to start with would be in education.[23] Of course, creativity is an elusive concept, you can not ‘teach’ creativity as such, but you can ‘learn’ it from experience. China does need to re-structure its education system from one that focuses on tests, rote memory and absolute submission to ruling authorities to one that centres around experiences.[24] Only education, together with enterprise and environment, will help to catch the illusive ‘creativity’. One should also not forget what kind of historic forces have influenced the development of creativity within China – Confucianism, collectivism, communism and lately capitalism. Their remnants can be clearly seen in institutions and enterprises, as well as at the fundamental levels of family, and those foundations need to be shaken.[25]

As for this reason, Xu Xiaoping, one of China’s most prominent angel investors, stated that he ‘doesn’t think China will be able to produce its own equivalent of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in this generation.’ Things are changing, but it will take more time for creativity to become mainstream.[26]

Quoting Florida once again, Chinese economy appears to be progressing in a very similar way as many developed countries have already done in the past (see Table 3), moving from agriculture and farming through manufacturing to ultimate dominant service industry.

Table 3. Workforce composition between China: Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin; vs USA

What is unique here is that the pattern of development occurs unevenly across the country. China is showing encouraging signs of efforts that will favor innovative growth, like increasing R&D, improved technology, and growing global connections.[27]

However, in the end, China remains an industrial nation, which has just started unlocking its creativity, essential for a future of a whole nation.


  • M. Keane ‘Creative industries in China: four perspectives on social transformation,’ International Journal of Cultural Policy, Vol. 15, No. 4, November 2009, 431–443
  • C. Long, X. Zhang; ‘Cluster-based industrialization in China: Financing and performance,’ Journal of International Economics 84 (2011) 112–123
  • J. Zheng; 'Creative Industry Clusters' and the 'Entrepreneurial City' of Shanghai; Urban Studies, 48(16) 3561–3582, December 2011

Internet (access 24.11 – 02.12.2012):

[1] M.Keane, ‘Creative industries in China: four perspectives on social transformation,’ International Journal of Cultural Policy, Vol. 15, No. 4, November 2009, 431–443

[2] For more details, see: World Bank Report ‘China 2030. Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative High-Income Society’ [in]; also KPMG Report ‘China’s 12th Five-Year Plan: Overview’ [in]


For more details, see: Report by the Martin Prosperity Institute; Understanding the Creative Economy in China.’ “Within a creative based economy, growth is driven by the presence and ingenuity of the creative class; an occupational group comprised of individuals employed in occupations where they are paid not only to think, but to create. The creative class as an occupational group includes people employed in management, finance, law, healthcare, science, engineering, architecture, design, education, arts, music and entertainment.“ [in]

[4] M.Keane, ‘Creative industries in China: four perspectives on social transformation,’ International Journal of Cultural Policy, Vol. 15, No. 4, November 2009, 431–443. Michael Keane is an expert on Chinese creativity; wrote many books on that topic: ‘Created in China: the Great New Leap Forward’; ‘China’s New Creative Clusters: Governance, Human Capital and Investment’; ‘Creative industries in China: Art, Design and Media’ (upcoming in 2013) and ‘Media in China: Critical Concepts and Cultural Studies’ (also upcoming in 2013)

[5] For more details on 798 Art Zone, see:

Other well-known creative clusters include: Songzhuang, Fangjia 46, Loft 49, M50 and Suzhou Industrial Park.

[6] J. Zheng, 'Creative Industry Clusters' and the 'Entrepreneurial City' of Shanghai; Urban Studies, 48(16) 3561–3582, December 2011


Additional information: One of China's greatest success stories in the field is Beijing-based animation company Crystal, which has produced all the 3-D images for the opening of the 2008 Olympics, and afterwards has been given the contract for digital imaging services for 2012 London Olympics. [in]

[8] Those cities are: Shenzhen, Chengdu, Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou and Harbin. Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing are ‘Cities of Design’ while Chengdu is ‘City of Gastronomy’ and Hangzhou ‘City of Crafts and Folk Art.’ The northern city of Harbin is recognized for its musical creations and promotion of the music industry (…) [in]

[9] Report by the Martin Prosperity Institute; ‘Understanding the Creative Economy in China [in]

[10] China’s fourth municipality, placing in the same category of provincial status as Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, is Chongqing, designated as a Provincial Municipality in 1997. The aim was to accelerate economic development and substantially improve central and southwestern regions of the country. Currently, Chongqing is continuing to underperform compared to other major eastern cities mainly because of the large rural areas – ten times as big as Shanghai and five times as big as Beijing – that were brought under its political jurisdiction when it gained Municipality status (…)

For more details, see full: Report by the Martin Prosperity Institute; ‘Understanding the Creative Economy in China [in]


[13] Key findings: “First, the distribution of talent (measured both as human capital and as knowledge – professional and creative occupations) is considerably more concentrated than in the US or other advanced economies. Second, universities are the key factor in shaping the distribution both of talent and of technological innovation. Third, tolerance also plays a role in shaping the distribution of talent and technology across Chinese regions. Fourth, and perhaps most strikingly, we find that neither talent nor technology is associated with the economic performance of Chinese regions. This stands in sharp contrast to the pattern in advanced economies and suggests that the Chinese economic model, at least at the time of data collection, appears to be far less driven by the human capital or technology factors that propel more advanced economies (…)”

R. Florida, Ch. Mellander, H. Qian ‘China’s development disconnected’ [in]

[15] For more details, see: J.Zheng, 'Creative Industry Clusters' and the 'Entrepreneurial City' of Shanghai’; Urban Studies, 48(16) 3561–3582, December 2011


[17] For more details, see: ‘The introduction of the term ‘creativity’ into the Chinese lexicon is a real 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 the communities.’ [in]

[18] For more details about each perspective and more, see:  M. Keane, Creative industries in China: four perspectives on social transformation, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Vol. 15, No. 4, November 2009, 431–443

[19] The majority of this community belong to the ‘post-'80s’ generation, having grown up in the comparatively poorer ‘1980s and witnessed the enormous changes in Chinese living standards through the '90s and into the 21st century. This generation draws on a widely mixed cultural-historical heritage in its creative work.

See: Sean Leow of NeochaEDGE talk: ‘Creativity in China’ [in]

[21] M.Keane, Creative industries in China: four perspectives on social transformation, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Vol. 15, No. 4, November 2009, 431–443


[25] Lorin K. Staats, The Cultivation of Creativity in the Chinese Culture – Past, Present, and Future, Journal of Strategic Leadership, Vol. 3 Iss. 1, 2011, pp. 45-53

[27] W.Xie, R. Li-Hua, ‘What will make China an innovation-oriented country?’ Journal of Knowledge-Based Innovation in China, 1(1), 11-14.

Katarzyna Żelichowska – absolwentka stosunków międzynarodowych na Uniwersytecie Jagiellońskim, stypendystka University of Applied Sciences – Hochschule Bremen. W latach 2010/2011 stypendystka Chinese Government Scholarship (EU Window) w Pekinie. Interesuje się Bliskim i Dalekim Wschodem, a w szczególności Chinami. Obecnie odbywa staż w jednej z Instytucji Unii Europejskiej w Brukseli. Znajomość języków: angielski, chiński, niemiecki.

Chinese Creative Economy – changing the ‘copy-paste’ reputation Reviewed by on 18 grudnia 2012 .

Chinese creativity’ question in a nutshell – Can the concept of creative industries be accepted in a system guided by central planning and while being a part of state polices? American scholar Jing Wang has expressed it clearly: ‘The thorniest question triggered by the paradigm of creative industries is that of “creativity” – the least