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Katherine Chu -- How the Chinese film industry co-opted the "wolves"

On the brink of collapse in 1994, China's film industry is now only surpassed by that of India and the United States.
January 13, 2010

Katherine Kit Ling Chu, "Co-opting the Wolves: National Film Industry Reform in China After 1978," Asian Politics & Policy 2.1 (Jan. 2010): 95-121.

Katherine Chu is a doctoral student in the political science/international relations program at the University of Southern California. A 2008 graduate fieldwork grant from the USC US-China Institute helped to make this research possible. A web report on a portion of this reseach is available here.

This article is about the relationship between the film industry, society, and the state, in the context of economic reforms. I first provide an overview of current writings on the field and then explain the film industry's structure since 1949. I also examine policy changes over the past 30 years. What exactly did the state change? And why did it change? By way of analyzing Chinese cinema, this article examines the relationship between the market, the state, society, and transnational capital. Although the government has increasingly been in favor of a market economy, it has never given up its official ideology over films. Moreover, the domestic film industry did not collapse after the entry of transnational capital; instead, the state successfully co-opted the "wolves" not only to save the film industry but also to enable the state to accumulate both economic and political capital.

From the beginning of the article
After 45 years of being restricted, 10 foreign movies officially were allowed into China’s theaters in 1994; the domestic film market was doomed. The introduction of Hollywood was characterized as a panacea to rescue the film industry. As of that year, Chinese film audiences had shrunk by nearly 80% since 1990 (see Figure 1), and total box office income had dropped to RMB $1.1 billion (U.S. $161 million), which was the lowest it had been in the history of the Chinese film industry. In 1995, the year following the entry of Hollywood, box office revenues were almost triple 1994’s earnings, but most of the domestically made Chinese films were shelved (Dai, 1999, p. 21). Hollywood’s success in China reached its peak in 1997. The box office receipts of Titanic (Cameron, 1997) accounted for one-third of the national gross, and through 2000, 10 imported films each year accounted for an average of more than two-thirds of China’s annual box office receipts (Zheng, 2000, p. 5). In the production sector, total feature film production in China plunged from between 100 and 130 feature films per year in the 1980s to 37 in 1998 (Dai, 1999, p. 21). Hollywood films did lure moviegoers back to theaters; however, the greatest winner from this policy was not the Chinese domestic film industry, but the imported Hollywood mega-productions.

In response to this trend, a well-known Beijing University professor named Dai Jinhua wrote an article titled “The Wolves Are Coming” in Beijing Youth Daily expressing her discomfort with the decision to allow Hollywood films into Chinese theaters (Dai, 1996, p. 408). Since then, the word wolves has been used widely by Chinese film intelligentsia to symbolize strong transnational capital (mainly Hollywood) that is dangerous to the local Chinese film industry, which is weak and unprepared to compete. Dai wrote that the 10 imported foreign films not only failed to “rescue” the Chinese film industry, but also that they intensified “the exploitation of transnational capital over the local film industry” (Dai, 1999, p. 21). She used the “wolves are coming” metaphor to warn people ignorant to the impact of Hollywood’s arrival. “Although lying and saying ‘The wolves are coming’ is cruel and immoral,” she wrote, “it is more brutal when the boy is eaten by thewolves. . . . Those people who insist ‘the wolves are coming’ was a lie will certainly find themselves confronting a pack of hungry and menacing wolves some days later” (Dai, 1996, p. 409).

Contrary to Dai’s projection, the Chinese film industry has recovered. Box office revenues dramatically increased between 2005 and 2008, more than tripling from RMB $1.7 billion (U.S. $250 million) to $5.7 billion (U.S. $835 million). The number of feature film productions jumped to 406 in 2008 (see Figure 2). The Chinese film industry is experiencing the fastest boom not only in its history, but also in the history of cinema. Why has China been so successful? How did China pull its film industry from the brink of collapse and transform it into the world’s third-largest film production center, behind only Bollywood and Hollywood? In short, how did China keep the intrusion of the “wolves” from eclipsing its own film industry?