Mickey Mouse in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:49 am

There are some interesting articles in the current Modern China, and the one I would like to comment on at present is “Wang Luobin: Folk Song King of the Northwest or Song Thief?” by Rachel Harris of SOAS. The paper is mostly about the posthumous reputation of Wang Luobin, a (Han) collector and disseminator of “Uyghur folksongs” many of which have turned out to be quite popular, and thus profitable.

Picture of Wang Luobin

This has led to predictable debates about who owns these songs, bringing up all sorts of “questions of authenticity, ownership, and value.” (p.394) This is of course part of a debate on who speaks for Uyghurs that takes place in other contexts than music, and a debate on who owns music that is familiar to ethnomusicologists in places other than Xinjiang. Folk music is a particularly interesting place to bring up issues of copyright because folk music is validated in part by –not- being creative. In 1993 the Taiwanese singer Luo Dayou recorded versions of Wang Luobin’s songs and at first refused to pay copyright because the songs were the “property of the peoples of Xinjiang” and if anyone should get money it should be the Xinjiang government.(p.388) Wang Luobin then took out copyrights on the songs, thus admitting that he was not simply transmitting existing songs, but doing something to existing material that could be considered creative and thus could be owned. Harris cites Arjun Appadurai on what makes a thing a thing, and in general it is a very well-informed essay.

The thing that interested me most was that the things being owned were songs. One of the commonplaces of the reform era is that China needs to establish “modern” legal and property systems, in order to make itself more legible to international capital or as the necessary infrastructure for modernization, depending on your point of view. The one aspect of this process that foreign states pay most attention to is intellectual property rights, as this is the thing that is most likely to impinge on the profits of foreign companies. (China may need a more transparent real estate market, but this is not a concern for Disney.) The canonical Chinese response is to pay lip service to American demands for enforcement of IP, pretty much the same response as most developing countries. Enforcement of foreign copyrights is not at the forefront of most Chinese people’s minds. I’m sure many of us are familiar with the disconnect between reading U.S. accounts of China where the most important person in China is the guy with the pirated DVDs and, well, being in China.

This is what makes the Wang Luobin case so interesting. When the dispute broke out between Luo Dayou and Wang Luobin Wang copyrighted the songs and sold the rights to Luo. What interests me, although Harris does not discuss it, is why Luo would pay for the rights. I don’t think that there was any chance that a mainland copyright was going to be enforced on Taiwan, so I assume that he paid cash for Wang’s authenticity, as represented by the copyrights, even though by the act of copyrighting, and asserting creativity, Wang was “un-folking” the songs.

I find this interesting because it shows a new, and domesticated reason for people to adopt the form of copyright. Although American newspapers like to present copyrights and patents as transcendent goods they are of course socially constructed, and the construction is currently changing. When the last American copyright extension act was passed some people called it the Mickey Mouse law, because one of the things driving it was Disney’s fear that Mickey would go out of copyright. For modern post-industrial capitalism the idea that there are things that can’t be owned is not good. Well, there are some things that can’t be owned, and there is not much of a push to corporatize and commodify love or sex, it is not acceptable for something which has been commodified to go out of the commodity sphere.

Who will push for this type of commodification inside China? Disney will push from outside, and this will have some effect, but not a whole lot. To some extent it is in the self-interest of Chinese business community to push for commodification of ideas as they change their position in the international economy. When I was teaching English in Taiwan in the 80’s a number of my businessmen/students insisted that Taiwan was going to really crack down on IP violations because Taiwanese companies were finding it harder and harder to license really cool technology from overseas because of IP concerns.

Wang Luobin’s case seems to show a domestic, or at least inter-Asian reason to adopt the form of copyright. As China is deluged in ‘cheap,’ ‘fake,’ ‘copies’ a copyright is a way of assuring consumers that this is real. In the case of folksongs authenticity is more important than it might be elsewhere, but it might matter in lots of contexts. I’m not sure its a good thing, of course, but it does seem that we are moving towards “copyright with Chinese characteristics.”

ASPAC Notes: Demographics and States

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:32 am

Historian of Empires Niall Ferguson [via Ralph Luker] recently wrote:

Since 1989, the Russian mortality rate has risen from below 11 per 1,000 to more than 15 per 1,000 – nearly double the American rate. For adult males, the mortality rate is three times higher. Average male life expectancy at birth is below 60, roughly the same as in Bangladesh. A 20-year-old Russian man has a less than 50/50 chance of reaching the age of 65.

Exacerbating the demographic effects of increased mortality has been a steep decline in the fertility rate, from 2.19 births per woman in the mid-1980s to a nadir of 1.17 in 1999. Because of these trends, the United Nations projects that Russia’s population will decline from 146 million in 2000 to 101 million in 2050. By that time the population of Egypt will be larger.

This echoes what Kyle Hatcher told us in his ASPAC paper (panel 1) on Chinese migrants to the Russian Far East (RFE). Like so many nations with declining populations (and the RFE is declining faster, I suspect, than the rest of Russia), immigration could be a key component of economic and social revitalization. But Russia, like so many of the nations struggling with this issue, is unaccustomed to integrating immigrants. Mr. Hatcher’s work involved surveying Russians about their attitudes towards Chinese immigrants, and what he found is not good news.

Russian attitudes towards Chinese immigrants are terrible. They are viewed as untrustworthy, insular and territorially aggressive. They are considered a drain on the economy, taking jobs away from locals and putting very little back into local businesses. Russian immigration laws have been steadily tightening over the last few years, making casual labor migration across the border more difficult (and likely expanding illegal migration). This is fueled in large part, Hatcher found, by a vicious and shameless press, which plays up stories of Chinese crimes, overestimates the numbers of legal and illegal Chinese immigrants, and regularly cites anti-Chinese nationalistic scholars and politicians.

In fact, Chinese work at jobs in the RFE that Russians won’t do, even tough unemployment among ethnic Russians is very high. And Chinese buy most of their goods from Russian-owned businesses who make no effort to cater specifically to Chinese tastes. China has shown little interest in the RFE territory, and even if it had, the numbers of immigrants (at best guess) is well below the levels at which rational observers would consider it a threat of separtism, etc. Chinese immigration offers the RFE’s primary extraction industries (logging, fishing, furs, mining) and decaying mercantile economy their best chance of revitalization, but Chinese are not welcome.

For obvious economic reasons, many Chinese have gone to the RFE (the numbers are in the tens of thousands, at least), but legal and social restrictions make it impossible for the numbers to be large enough to make up Russia’s demographic and economic and institutional weaknesses. The starkly different social and economic conditions on either side of the Russia-China border call the concept of this as a “region” into question; I’ve never entirely bought the argument that Russia was an “Asian Power” just because it had some Pacific Rim beachfront. Interestingly, Chinese labor in the RFE had a “heyday” in the early 20th century, but was pushed out by increasingly nationalistic positions, culminating in the almost total removal of Chinese from the RFE at the time of the Sino-Soviet split in the late ’50s.

Needless to say, Russia’s post-Soviet collapse is of great concern to China (and, as Niall Ferguson points out in the essay cited above, the Chinese model of economic development without political liberalization is very intriguing, if unreachable, to many Russians) and the continuing decline and instability of the northern Pacific region has to be counted as a problem that will have to be addressed at some point in the future.

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