Pirates of the Middle Kingdom?

Chinese have their own entertainment now. Who needs Hollywood ripoffs?

There is a myth that Chinese people spend every evening glued to the screen watching pirated Hollywood DVDs. The myth is promoted by the LA studios and the video equivalents of the MP3-obsessed Recording Industry Association of America, who, no doubt influenced by watching too many of these movies, use scary and melodramatic storylines to try and prove their point.

My own observations suggest that the average Zhou in the China could hardly care less about Tom Cruise movies (assuming Tom continues to make them), Jim Carey flicks, Owen Wilson comedies and the rest. There are stores in a few cities along the narrow coastal strip where a wide selection of foreign film DVDs can be bought. But the volume of sales? Far far less than one would assume from  the endless IPR hype.

Take a walk down a street in a town or city anywhere in China off that thin and beaten coastal track. There will be a video/music store somewhere on the street with music blaring forth. Step inside and you will see stacks and rows of VCDs, CDs, DVDs, along with cassette tapes (still widely used in provincial China). Ask for foreign film DVDs, and you will be led to the back of the store—not because there is anything sensitive or furtive about the transaction, but because most customers are not interested. A handful of DVD films are lying in a cardboard box, mostly non-Hollywood, low-budget action films with no-name actors from small European studios.

These video stores are selling almost exclusively Chinese films and TV shows, particularly disk sets containing full seasons of the Chinese dramas which dominate Chinese TV broadcasting time throughout the day. There are almost no foreign music CDs for sale in these stores either. The Hollywood studio-generated myth is not only self-serving, it is culturally arrogant.

Even in China’s main cities, my impression is that pirate DVD sales these days are probably falling, for several reasons. First is that efforts to crack down and close pirate DVD retail outlets has had some effect. The downloading of BitTorrent versions of movies off the Internet has also had some impact—why pay even US$1 for a DVD if you can get the same thing for free straight into your PC?

But another factor, I think, is that these Hollywood movies are losing  their appeal even in China's cities, as arguably they are around the world. There was a time, a decade ago, when anything foreign had instant appeal for the Chinese urban masses, starting in Shanghai and fanning out from there. But the sameness of the Hollywood output, the repetitive deju vu blah of yet another Tom Hanks movie starring Tom Hanks playing Tom Hanks, generates multimedia ennui and a desire to find out what else is there to do.

Out in the countryside, in the mountain villages of central China, virtually every house has a satellite dish. Go into the houses and observe what is on the screen: people are watching local mainland TV shows, old war movies set in Communist revolutionary times, Chinese historical costume dramas, "As The Stomach Turns"-type modern love soap operas set in Shanghai middle class universe, and quiz shows from Beijing featuring ordinary mainland people.
The most popular foreign TV and video fare by far is entertainment from South Korea. Hollywood is hardly a blip on the radar.

China is becoming more and more comfortable with itself, more and more confident of its own cultural values, and less susceptible to Hollywood cultural imperialism.

That is not to say the quality of the Chinese TV and video output is all that high. In terms of production values and acting, it is nowhere near as slick as Hollywood. But entertainment is just a way to kill time. It is surely not surprising that Chinese people have mostly decided to kill time with their own video crap rather than Hollywood's.

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