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What’s really driving China’s ambition to buy up Hollywood and win the World Cup?

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

The globalisation of the film industry is going to mean that “you can’t tell whether it’s a Chinese film or a Hollywood film any more.” That was according to Warner Bros’ CEO and Chairman Kevin Tsujihara last week as he heralded Sino-American co-productions now in the pipeline at Flagship Entertainment, a joint venture involving WB, Hong Kong broadcaster TVB and China Media Capital, the Chinese state-backed investment firm.

Perhaps you are a film fan. If so, how does this make you feel? Do you want to watch films that scramble all evidence of who made them and why – films with nothing to offer in the way of cultural specificity? You don’t? Well, that’s simply inconvenient. Chinese tycoons, in league with enthusiastic American partners, have their sights on establishing new global entertainment empires capable of capturing box office gravy in both East and West alike, and they want your money.

There’s nothing new about people in the entertainment business trying to maximise profits, you might protest, and you’d be right. What’s grating, I think, is the subtle suggestion that this coming together of cash, talent and storytelling – One Script, One Road, if you like – is just one big exercise in global cuddliness.

There have been other deals. Perfect World Pictures last month announced a co-financing partnership with Universal Pictures. Hunan TV is sinking US$1.5 billion into Lionsgate. Huayi Brothers and Fosun International are also investing heavily in American movie ventures. Moreover, the purchase in January of Legendary Pictures (Godzilla, Jurassic World) by the world’s biggest cinema chain operator (and China’s biggest private property developer), Wanda Group, for US$3.5 billion, has been branded “China’s largest-ever cultural takeover.”

U.S. anti-trust laws – look up the Paramount Decrees – are supposed to prohibit ownership of both movies and theatres. Wanda already owned AMC Entertainment, America’s second-biggest theatre chain. Why has nothing been made of this? Cynics might say it’s because the Yanks really, really want direct access to China’s booming box office, which is forecast to outstrip their own in the next couple of years. In that mission, however, they are also likely to find themselves dancing to the tune of the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), a body whose latest set of rules, targeted at TV producers, amounts to a laundry list of prohibitions, including bans on content that is “to the detriment of national image [or] endangers national unity and social stability”, “exaggerates social problems, displays excess, or shows the dark side of society”, “sets a negative character as a main character”, or “breaks with national sentiment”.

It is inconceivable that the propaganda risks and opportunities associated with inviting Hollywood into the Chinese multiplex have not been weighed by Beijing. Equally unlikely is that Xi Jinping himself has not had a hand in urging Hollywood-bound cash outflows. Establishing a modern consumer society in China that bears at least some of the hallmarks of America’s is a recurring theme of his leadership. One need only consider cinema’s counterpart on Xi’s two-pronged fork of consumerist expansionism to forget the notion that this is entirely about “rebalancing” the economy, however.

That other prong is sport – or, more specifically, football (the proper variety, not the American version). Led by Li Ruigang, a man dubbed “China’s Rupert Murdoch”, in November the very same China Media Capital paid 8 billion yuan (HK$9.5 billion) for the broadcast rights to the Chinese Super League for the next five years. For their part, meanwhile, Wanda last year not only took a 20 per cent stake in the Spanish football club Atletico Madrid but paid US$1.2 billion for the Swiss-based sports marketing company Infront Sports & Media, a company that holds the exclusive sales rights to broadcast Fifa events from 2015 to 2022, including the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Until very recently, global interest in the CSL was trace to non-existent. As reported diligently by the Post’s own James Porteous, it has increased somewhat in 2016 as Chinese clubs have taken to offering players double what they’re earning in Europe in a frenzied spree of spending fuelled by that injection of cash from CMC – who are evidently betting on a huge increase in demand for domestic football content and increased interest in the game generally.

To that end, China plans to have 20,000 designated football schools by 2017, raising participation to unprecedented levels. Professing himself a fan of the game, Xi has also made it known he wants China to host a World Cup and ultimately to win one. To be clear, then, the objective is to become a global power in the world’s most popular sport.

In his book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson wrote about China trying to replicate the West’s historical va va voom in pursuit of prosperity, or “downloading its best apps”: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, the Protestant work ethic and consumerism. The evidence suggests China has a few problems with its version of the third-mentioned, but in terms of consumerism, well, blockbuster movies and football as drivers of economic growth would seem like straightforward rips.

Only nothing’s as straightforward as Xi might wish. Just as Western moviegoers are likely to vote with their feet and stay away from the kind of films that adhere to SARFT’s worldview, Chinese football isn’t about to become exportable any time soon, and it’s far from certain that the subscription base needed to make the numbers add up domestically will materialise.

Matthew Syed argued in The Times (of London) the other week that Xi’s backing for football is about political indoctrination and control, that it is characterised by “top-down planning and the use of vast (unaccounted for) resources”, and that the paramount leader has rallied tycoons behind his cause in return for political favour.” “The attempt to rise up the rankings, and to stage the World Cup,” he wrote, “is testimony to the growing paranoia of China’s elite. Repression has escalated under Xi as the economy has slowed and propaganda is set to do precisely the same. In that sense, football is a mere pawn in a game of much higher stakes.”

It is certainly true that China’s leadership is facing multiple headwinds: slowing economic growth, shrinking employment, crashing markets, a growing suspicion that serious financial, economic and social problems are being papered over. And indeed, building up the nation’s leisure-industrial complex might be viewed, by the Marxist and the capitalist alike, as a useful expedient via which citizens / consumers can keep themselves (and not the streets) occupied. The official narrative is that buying Hollywood in order to censor it and demanding domination of a sport at which you are currently useless speaks of cultural confidence. It could just as easily be read as stemming from profound insecurity.

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Ugly populism is not an argument against democracy

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

The beacon light on the shining city on the hill is guttering. The barbarians are at the gate and the fox is in the henhouse. The worm, you may be assured, has scoffed the apple. Ladies and gents, American democracy is being exposed for a sham by an absurd buffoon who looks like a character from the funny papers. The mot du jour is dysfunctionality, and dysfunctionality is afflicting all known institutions grievously – but some (political parties, the electoral process) more than others. With the rise of Donald Trump, we have reached the inevitable end-point of politics’ showbusiness vajazzling. America’s Got Talent but it’s being offered a preening, pelt-haired Tony Soprano instead and if it’s repulsed it’s also enamoured.

I offer my apologies. Words along these lines are in over-supply right now – as likely to be voiced by disbelieving American conservatives as by liberals, by people with a dog in the fight as by despairing onlookers in other parts of the world. It’s almost as though Trump’s detractors have begun to echo and amplify the nihilism of his message. Millions of Americans, it is understood, have lost faith: in government, in political parties, in big business, in the media. Trump exploits this loss of faith to build a following. Trump-watchers respond that this following is further proof of the loss of faith, and of the dysfunctionality of the system – of the parties’ inertia, of a debased campaign financing model, of the remaking of politics as a reality gameshow. Others look at his followers and blame the situation on their stupidity and susceptibility. Either way, if you believe many parts of the commentariat, it’s democracy itself that is kaput.

This is a negative message for Americans to consume. For folks in places around the world where democracy does not exist it is all the more depressing. Indeed, the only people likely to take any solace from it are those who consider democracy a virus anyway. People like the Chinese Communist Party and its friends. Look, they might say of the world’s most hubristic polity – democracy is a mass of contradictions that offers only the illusion of freedom. Institutions are at the mercy of big money, Congress is gridlocked, mob violence attends public rallies and demagoguery is cutting through. In such an analysis, radical populist movements – whether in America or in Hong Kong, where we have a growing “localist” faction that’s driven in part by anger at the city’s “mainlandisation” and a failure to address blue-collar concerns – are warnings against disrupting the corporatist status quo.

There’s little doubt that Trump is garnering support not only for the populism of his message but also for his abandonment of the normal rules of civility – those are for the establishment “schmucks” on all sides who’ve propagated a system of top-down technocracy. Flat-footing his opponents by being provocative and boorish has played well with large constituencies of voters who are tired of party automatons. Other candidates gotta serve somebody – big pharma, Wall Street; The Donald’s personal wealth allows him to make a virtue of serving only himself. His anti-establishment credentials thus defined, he has eschewed consistency. Who knows what a Trump presidency might have in store for the world? His instincts seem not only protectionist but isolationist. He thinks America gets a raw deal as the world’s policeman. On the other hand, he wants to “rebuild” its military, and he wants to “beat” China, Mexico, Russia and Iran. If there’s a unifying message, it might be that the rest of the world can go to hell.

Trump also believes in torture, mass deportations and banning certain monotheistic types not of a Judaeo-Christian persuasion. The man most likely to gain the Republican Party presidential nomination is an authoritarian oaf. Does this invalidate democracy? No, it does not. Not in any real sense. Authoritarian thugs can be voted in; in democracies they can also be voted out. Meanwhile, the United States Constitution enshrines checks on the executive branch of government. That hoariest of Winston Churchill quotes serves: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In a more pragmatic sense, a Trump candidacy, while representing a nadir, may actually be good for the GOP: it may cause it to fracture, but the healing process would surely return it to a more centrist, consensus-building course. Already, the Trump enema has convinced some conservative thinkers that what’s required is to develop more policies that appeal to working people. Moreover, if – as pollsters anticipate – Hillary Clinton wins a two-way race against Trump in November, she could end up with a uniquely bi-partisan mandate.

To those who despair, or gloat, at the state of U.S. democracy, however, one need only point out one abiding characteristic of it to sustain a more romantic view. If millions of Americans have “lost faith” in politics, then millions of others do not appear at all cynical about the enterprise (and it’s true that both Trump and his leftist counterpart in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, have brought entirely new groups of voters into the process). A passion for voting and elections has been a feature of American civil society since at least the 1830s, when the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville exclaimed on it in his classic book Democracy in America. A little further back, Aristotle defined man as a political animal (zoon politikon) with an innate need to debate questions of justice and the common good. Sometimes this gives rise to expressions of humanity’s uglier nature. But no, democracy itself is not the virus.