China’s ambitious belt and Road Initiative might appear to be an economic development proposal on the surface, but building a modern-day “Silk Road” connecting 68 countries from Southeast Asia all the way to Europe and Africa could transform what is, by some measures, the world’s largest economy into the center of global culture.
Industry insiders and scholars say despite the fact that President Xi Jinping’s trademark foreign policy scheme is still at an infant stage, it will have significant cultural impact in the long-run and exports of Chinese culture through films and filmmaking collaborations will play a pivotal role.
“We do not see Belt and Road’s impact on culture and entertainment yet as communication with these countries has only just begun. But once the hardware is ready, the cultural impact will follow,” says Professor Anthony Fung, co-director of the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
President Xi unveiled the concept, billed as an economic initiative bringing China together with countries in Asia, Europe and Africa through land and sea routes, in 2013, proposing the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to finance the construction of infrastructure along the Belt and Road countries. In 2014, China pledged to contribute $40 billion to set up the Silk Road Fund to foster the investment in Belt and Road countries.
Despite Beijing’s recent forceful crackdown on Chinese companies’ foreign investments, particularly on large conglomerates such as Dalian Wanda Group and LeEco, China’s investments and acquisitions in the Belt and Road countries already totals $33 billion this year — $2 billion more than last year’s figure. One of the largest deals: the $11.6 billion buyout of Global Logistics Properties in Singapore by a Chinese consortium in July.
But it isn’t just about the money. At the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing in May, President Xi gently reminded forum participants of the role of Silk Road back in the days of the Tang dynasty, which was thought to be the cultural center of the world. He said at the forum: “For thousands of years, the Silk Road spirit — peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit — has been passed from generation to generation.”
“From China’s perspective, Belt and Road connects not just the economies but also the people, facilitating cultural exchanges among these countries. It has a global vision that goes beyond the economic level. Among all art forms, film is one of the most important platforms,” says Ma Fung-kwok, chairman of the Hong Kong Film Development Council.
China has been been grappling with how to best export its culture abroad. There have been ongoing rows within academic circles over the perception that the Confucius Institute — the Chinese Ministry of Education’s organization that promotes Chinese culture around the world — engages in propaganda.
This has prompted China to look to its film industry. Yet, despite the dramatic growth of the China’s box office over the past decade, most Chinese films have yet to gain success, suffering from harsh criticisms and box-office letdowns. One example: the lukewarm response outside of China toward Zhang Yimou’s action fantasy epic “The Great Wall.”
But Peking University professor Zhang Yiwu has told mainland media that Belt and Road will spark the next boom in the Chinese film industry. Leaders of the China and Hong Kong film business are already jumping on the bandwagon, initiating contacts and exchanges with countries along the routes.
What’s more, China has signed agreements on film and TV cooperation with 15 countries along the Belt and Road. The China National Film Museum announced in April that it will collaborate with Belt and Road countries to hold annual film events, including screenings, awards and exhibitions.
This year’s Beijing Intl. Film Festival, which opened in April, presented a Belt and Road section for the first time, showcasing 13 films from such countries as Poland, Iran and the Philippines.
In June, the 20th Shanghai Intl. Film Festival also staged a series of campaigns promoting the Belt and Road initiative and signed the Belt and Road Film Culture Exchange Cooperation agreement. Zhang Hongsen, deputy director of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, said at the signing ceremony that cinema will take the role of a cultural link connecting the Belt and Road countries.
Hong Kong also joined the game, highlighting Belt and Road at the Hong Kong Filmart in March. Ma of the Hong Kong Film Development Council led a delegation of film professionals to explore collaboration opportunities in Belt and Road countries.
“Last year we invited Iran and other Belt and Road countries to Hong Kong. This year we went to Iran for the film festival. We hope that there will be more co-productions among us,” Ma said.
Professor Fung is leading research under the Hong Kong Institute of Asia Pacific Studies on the values of young people from Hong Kong, mainland China and Belt and Road Countries. Whether this ambitious initiative will succeed in creating a cultural impact will largely depend on whether people in various Belt and Road countries share the same global citizenship value, he says. Avoiding the repetition of the old Western colonial model is a must, he warned.
Fung adds: “At the moment cultural export isn’t high on the Belt and Road agenda, but through this initiative, countries receiving help from China will eventually be more receptive to Chinese culture.”