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Experts Offer Perspectives on China, India and U.S. Media

By George Johnston


[Editor's note: The following article is the debut of "Media Insights," a new regularly appearing feature of the U.S./China Media Brief, in which a recent news article is discussed and analyzed by members of our Experts Exchange. The inaugural installment also includes supplemental audio in the form of a podcast that can be subscribed to on iTunes and downloaded by clicking here.]

The May 4, 2009 New York Times contained an article headlined: "U.S. Media See a Path to India in China's Snub."

The gist of the article was that after years of effort to grow their businesses in China, U.S. media companies such as Viacom, Time Warner and News Corp. have grown disillusioned by the lack of progress there and are now eyeing the region's other market of more than a billion potential customers: India.

Describing it as a "stark reversal," reporter Tim Arango detailed the frustrations and obstacles U.S. media companies were experiencing in China, such as an annual cap of 20 foreign films that can be shown in theaters. Warner Bros. Pictures did not even bother to attempt to have its top-grossing motion picture of 2008, "The Dark Knight," be among those 20 films because of fears the movie's content would not make it past official censors.

For U.S. media companies facing those and other obstacles, India appears to offer some advantages that China does not, such as, Arango wrote, " ... fewer government impediments for foreign media companies."

The U.S./China Media Brief decided to explore some of the issues raised by the article with two members of its Experts Exchange: Professor Sam Guo and Professor Vinay Lal.

According to Guo, the attitude of the U.S. media companies is "shortsided" and lacks the requisite patience required to do business in China. Furthermore, he says there exists a fundamental difference in perspective between U.S. media companies and the Chinese government.

"They try to treat this media market as a normal business opportunity, like the consumer market," said Guo, who teaches MBA and undergraduate courses on doing business in China, International Marketing, and International Trade at UC Berkeley, UCLA and Pepperdine University.

"In fact, there is a huge gap between the meaning of media market between the Chinese government and the American business people. For the American business people, they treat this China [media] market as if this is like the success of their consumer products in the China market," Guo said, referring to such U.S. brands as Nike, Coca-Cola and General Motors.

"On the other hand, for the Chinese government, they look at this from [a] totally different perspective. They don't think this is a business issue, they think this is a political issue, because for the Chinese government, at least until this day, there is still a one-party system. The Communist Party, they still control a major part of the Chinese economy and the Chinese market, and the media market is something they look at it as something vital to the survival of their regime."

Guo believes that for the U.S. media companies, India makes sense from the perspective of short-term profitability. Noting that while the populations of both nations are roughly equal, India has a higher proportion of people who understand English.

Lal, however, points out that in India there may be some roadblocks ahead for U.S. media companies unfamiliar with the Indian linguistic landscape.

"We cannot think of India and Indian media only in relationship to English," said Lal, who teaches Indian history, comparative colonial histories, contemporary politics and knowledge, and the politics of culture as an associate professor of History at UCLA.

"India is a country where there are well over a dozen languages, which have easily 10 million speakers or more. All of these are languages with highly literate traditions. In the cases of some languages, such as Malyalam, spoken in South India, you are speaking about a publishing industry, you are speaking about newspapers, the extent of which is really staggering. We are speaking really about of a multiplicity of languages and that would have to be taken into consideration."

Lal also wanted to point out that while in the West the term "Bollywood" stands for all Indian cinema, and that Indian cinema is thought to be synonymous with Hindi language cinema, that notion is, in fact, "entirely erroneous."

"The films made in the four predominant languages of South India — Tamil, Telugu, Malayam and Kanadda — together, films made in these four languages outnumber the films made in Hindi," Lal said.

Since India has democracy, fewer ideological restrictions and a love of movies, Guo says it makes sense for American media companies to expand there. Lal concurred, noting too that there has been talk of Bollywood-Hollywood crossovers for years now and said that he thinks there will be more of these co-productions in the years to come.

"I think that 'Slumdog' is in some ways the wave of the future," Lal said, "because I think that we will see more enhanced production, co-productions between two different countries, and I think that the fact that there is a certain facility in English and so on in India is certainly going ease the possibility of co-production."

As for where the problem lies for U.S. media companies doing business in China, Guo says that not only do they need to take a decades-long view in developing their ventures there, they need to better understand the local culture, economic and political environments, and then be willing to implement a different strategy than what succeeded in the U.S. "They should have a much better ... understanding of the Chinese government's perspective," Guo said.

It is actually the Chinese government's perspective that Guo feels is the major obstacle to success by Western media companies. "The major concern is the ideology," Guo said. "Because the Chinese treat this media as a vital part of their survival. They are very afraid, because American movies, American media in general very skillfully mix their ideology using the art form so that when you see the movie, without knowing it you accept the Western ideology — human rights, way of life, freedom."

Lal, meantime, believes that part of the problem lies in how the status quo has the West as "the one fixed point of analysis and comparison all of the time."

"Let's take the example of India and China, which is what this article is really talking about," Lal said. "I think we have come to that stage in history where, if you're in India and you're thinking of doing something like comparative history or you're comparing India with some other place, invariably the comparison is with the West, so it's India and the West. If you're in China, the comparison is with the West, so that it's China and the West. If you're in Sudan, it's Sudan and the West."

According to Lal, the New York Times article was steeped in "nation-state logic," which he says means that if one country loses, another country wins, if China gets snubbed, then India will gain.

"Before China and India were nation-states, which is the only way in which we now imagine political communities, they were civilizations and they are still civilizations," Lal said.

"I think that is a very modern way of thinking about the relationships between civilizations and people. I think what I would like to see is not simply trilateral relationships, because trilateral relationships between nation states, if I may put it this way, are more of the same game," said Lal. "I would like to see relationships between these entities where the actors are thinking of their countries not simply as nation-states but as civilization entities where the logic is not one as competition."

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