Luzhou Li on Zoning China

Luzhou Li is a lecturer in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University, Australia. Her research focuses on digital media studies, global media industries, media policy, political economy and media history, and Chinese media. She is the author of Zoning China: Online Video, Popular Culture, and the State (MIT Press, 2019). Her work has also appeared in journals such as Media, Culture & Society, Television & New Media, International Journal of Cultural Studies, and International Journal of Communication. She received her PhD in Communications and Media Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015.

Lintong Lyu CMC '22 interviewed Dr. Luzhou Li on May 21, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Luzhou Li.

Can you describe what “cultural zoning” is?  Why and how was online video and television regulated differently in China?

By “cultural zoning”, I specifically refer to a phenomenon that I observed in the realm of media and culture in China in the two decades before 2014 where the TV sector and the online video sector were regulated differently according to market principles. My research finds that the online video sector was more marketized than the TV sector. For example, the development of the online video sector was from the beginning supported by foreign investment to varying degrees, whereas foreign capital was treated much more carefully in the TV sector. In the early 2000s, there were some signs that the Chinese government was going to lower the threshold for transnational media companies to enter the field of TV production in China, but the decision was quickly revoked. Accordingly, when it comes to content management, the regulatory regime over online video was relatively lax compared with that for TV. 

These two sectors were regulated differently partly because of the problem of the Chinese bureaucratic system, which prevented regulators from imposing effective regulations. Sometimes, it even took a long time for the government to decide which department should be the primary authority over a specific sector. Apart from this capability issue, I argue in my book that China was both incapable and unwilling to manage online video in the way it had managed TV before 2014. The latitude granted by the government for the online video sector was mainly induced by economic considerations. The economic imperatives allowed a relatively higher degree of liberalization in some of the cultural realm. Meanwhile, easing up a little bit more in some areas actually helped strengthen social stability. This allowed the government to achieve the greatest benefit at the lowest cost. Therefore, it’s an effective governing strategy, and the government can always revoke the latitude it has granted if that poses threats. 

Why did the Chinese government have a “lack of will” to strictly regulate online videos?  Does it have a stronger will now?

Yes, the will is stronger now. Most of fieldwork for the book was conducted before 2014, but according to my follow-up research, the government took a series of measures to tighten its regulation over online video. In 2014, for example, there were attempts to re-regulate foreign investment in this sector. In terms of will, the general direction of the current leadership was to decrease foreign investment in the tech and business sector. Since 2014, the government has made a series of new regulations, indicating its long-term plan to incorporate the online video content into the regulatory framework that was in place for TV. 

How did the piracy online video industry challenge China’s mainstream entertainment industry? How has China’s mainstream entertainment industry responded to this challenge?

The early Chinese online video industry was indeed, to a large extent, sustained and inspired by piracy. At that time, it did not yet identify with a professional model of cultural production and it didn’t have the resources to do so. The video sharing websites were particularly associated with piracy, because lots of the videos uploaded by users were either pirated content or contained copyright-infringing materials. 

The piracy-inflected online video industry challenged China’s mainstream entertainment industry economically and culturally. Economically, piracy harmed the interest of the domestic cultural industry because it apparently prevented traditional production companies from profiting sufficiently from the legal regime of the intellectual property rights they owned. Culturally, some of the pirated work were compatible with the mainstream culture, while others departed from it. For example, video spoofing that was popular in the mid-2000s demonstrated a kind of alternative, grassroots ethos that was outside the purview of the more mainstream culture.

The response to the challenges was mostly economically driven. It was most obviously demonstrated through the anti-piracy campaigns organized by intellectual property right owners roughly between 2007 and 2010. These companies began to demand compensation for damages to their intellectual property from online video companies. In this context, video companies began to buy licenses from copyright owners. Therefore, the mainstream entertainment industry was actually a quite important actor in advancing a tighter copyright regime for the Chinese internet.

How did the amateur parody video makers transform the online video industry economically and culturally?

Economically, early online video industry, especially the video-sharing websites, would not have grown to the extent that they have now without the energies and contributions from the amateur parody video makers. These internet companies relied on capitalizing user participation and amateur creativity to a large extent. Some of these amateur parody video makers later became more professional content creators, but they continued to bring benefits to the industry economically because online video companies could benefit from the huge traffic brought by the videos made by these creators. These companies could also take a share in the advertising revenue generated by these almost free content.

Culturally, it is the ethos of the early spoof videos and the piracy-influenced internet culture in general that shaped the content development of online video in China. Despite the recent professional development of content creation, the ethos of online amateur videos was retained. 

How would you describe the current creative dynamics of the online video industry, compared with when it was initially formed in the early 2000s?  

The current video industry is definitely becoming more professional in terms of content creation, compared with two decades ago. Online video has become a well-established medium in relation to TV, and online video companies have become original creative forces of production and distribution, which are attracting increasing investment. On the other hand, the industry is becoming monopolized by a small handful of market players, such as iQIYI and Tencent Video. By contrast, the organizational and technological forms of online videos were much more diverse two decades ago. The online video industry is not as open as it used to be to amateur video makers under this increasingly monopolistic environment. 

Has the tightening of the Chinese internet in recent years affected the online video industry? What will be the consequences of a tightening regulatory regime for this industry?   

The tightening of the Chinese internet would affect online video industry in two ways. First, it would further consolidate the industry. Small companies would seek collaboration with big corporations like BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) through deals such as mergers and acquisition, as big companies could leverage their clout to negotiate with regulators to better manage political risks. Second, it would accelerate the collaboration between the online video industry and traditional TV sector, as the TV sector has more political resources and experience that can benefit the online video industry. The TV sector would also welcome this collaboration because it has been eager to set up online platforms for years.  

Lintong Lyu CMC '22Student Journalist

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *