These days it is almost impossible to pick up a newspaper without coming across a news story relating to China's extraordinary rise and growing economic might. The figures are impressive: when Mao Zedong died in 1976, the People's Republic of China was an internationally isolated, predominantly agricultural nation with a centrally planned economy and a per-capita GDP of $155. In 2012, China is the world's second-largest economy.
As the member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development wrestle with the fallout of the global financial crisis and struggle to avoid a double-dip recession, China has maintained its growth rate while its levels of domestic consumption continue to increase. Understanding what is happening within this vast and complex nation is thus a challenge to be taken seriously by readers seeking to understand current economic and cultural landscapes.
Furthermore, it would be difficult for even the most technophobic scholar to ignore the fact that new technologies for copying and communication are challenging policymakers and academic communities worldwide to rethink relationships between intellectual property rights, creativity, culture and commerce. Accordingly, US-based scholar Laikwan Pang's decision to tackle the role of intellectual property rights in the creative economy in the context of China could not be more timely.
The book raises key questions for those interested in understanding the problematic relationship between intellectual property rights and the creative economy: the fetishisation of "creativity" within discourses surrounding these rights, the contentious role of copying in artistic practice and cultural change, and tensions between cultural diversity and global intellectual property frameworks, to name but a few. Her decision to use China as a rich opportunity to explore and develop wider theoretical arguments is also to be commended.
Creativity and its Discontents begins by critiquing the creative economy concept as an expression of neoliberalism, followed by a closer look at how this is being played out in relation to intellectual property rights in specific Chinese contexts. The book's second half opens with an exploration of the contradictions between Unesco's efforts to promote the value of cultural diversity and the World Trade Organization's attempts to create global frameworks within which cultural and creative works can be traded as commodities. It also includes a critical reading of Chinese cinema as a creative industry, an account of how fine art is appropriated in municipal branding strategies, animation as transcultural signification, the semiotics of the counterfeit and the role of imitation in art.
Pang's goal is to provide a critique of the creative economy as a totalising system. She understands intellectual property rights offences as "those particulars that can bring us to the contradictions or failures of the creative economy, or late capitalism, as the universal". In doing this she draws on an arsenal of critical theorists, from Martin Heidegger and Raymond Williams to Jurgen Habermas and Slavoj Žižek. She identifies two opposing positions within the creative economy literature: scholarship that celebrates risk-taking, start-up entrepreneurialism, diversified niche marketing and pluralisation of style and that of scholars who tackle the issues of creative labour and exploitation. Her sympathies lie firmly with the second camp.
Although Creativity and its Discontents will be of interest to scholars associated with post-Marxist accounts of labour and transnational structures of domination, as a reader from outside this tradition, I found it difficult to engage with. Pang's account of neoliberalism in China was, for me, particularly problematic, given the overt role that the state continues to play in many areas of cultural production, consumption and commercialisation in that country. Overall, although this book contains a great deal that is valuable and interesting, it is unlikely to be the best place to start for those whose interest in China is not rooted in critical cultural studies.
Creativity and its Discontents: China's Creative Industries and Intellectual Property Rights Offenses
By Laikwan Pang. Duke University Press. 320pp, £67.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780822350651 and 50828. Published 10 February 2012