Taiwan’s Culture Minister Wants to Create “Aircraft Carrier”-style Cultural Industries

In the face of China’s cultural industries furiously seeking assimilation, Minister of Culture Cheng Li-Chun is completely confident in Taiwan’s film and television sector.

 Minister of Culture Cheng Li-Chiun (front-centre). Photo courtesy of Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan).

Minister of Culture Cheng Li-Chiun (front-centre). Photo courtesy of Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan).

By Lee Chia-ying & Kuo Hung-chi

This article was originally published in The Journalist in Traditional Chinese. It is being reprinted in English with permission of the author and editor.

Just as China was moving to absorb Taiwan’s unique cultural and film industries with a new set of policies, something interesting happened: a Taiwanese animated film was awarded one of the industry’s most prestigious film prizes. The film “On Happiness Road” picked up Best Feature Film at the Tokyo Anime Awards in Japan.

“Did we become the adult we wanted to become?” It’s a question threaded throughout the narrative of “On Happiness Road.” It’s also a question Taiwan Minister of Culture Cheng Li-Chun (鄭麗君) often reflects upon. Since taking office, Cheng has set out to foster the development of Taiwan’s cultural content industry. Has her dream been realized?

Learning from South Korea

It’s not just “On Happiness Road” that’s getting attention, Taiwanese live-action film “The Great Buddha” was also nominated for best director at the New York film festival. The so-called “Taiwanese Wave” is once again taking its place on the world stage.

But Chinese attempts to annex and dominate Taiwan’s cultural industries are also in full fury. Among China’s recently introduced 31 Preferential Policies, eight are related to cultural and cinematic industries. “In light of these challenges, we’re ready,” said Minister Cheng.

Even before China’s 31 Preferential Policies were introduced, Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture (MOC) had long intended to expand the market scale of Taiwan’s cultural industry. For over a year, the Ministry has been working towards this goal through a two-track system of awards and subsidies, along with investment financing.

After nearly a year-long drafting process, the Executive Yuan finally passed a bill that both promotes and institutionalizes local cultural content. A cultural content investment plan worth $60 billion NTD ($2 billion USD) was also approved by Taiwan’s National Development Fund (NDF). That’s in addition to an already adjusted funding of $40 billion NTD ($1.3 billion USD) promised during the previous administration. These bold financial commitments demonstrate Taiwan’s determination to expedite the birth of a “national team” of Taiwanese culture.

But despite the MOC’s ambitious plans, the results from previous stimulus plans have been less than ideal. In 2011, former chairman of the Council for Cultural Affairs Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) proposed a cultural and creative industries investment plan worth $60 billion NTD. But by early 2016, only $900 million NTD ($30 million USD) of these funds were delivered.

So how will this new astronomical commitment of $60 billion NTD be used effectively?

Cheng says past investment models have relied on venture capitalists to develop sources of capital, with the MOC following suit, supporting with passive investments. That model failed to produce results.

This time the MOC plans to invest more capital in the industry, while also encouraging financial holding firms, venture capital, vendors, distributors and publishers to collectively enter the market. The MOC will also commission a professional third-party for post-investment management.

Cheng believes that content is at the core of the cultural industry. But according to the NDF’s model for developing the cultural sector, subsidies are divvied out by classifying industries, rather than focusing on cultural content. What’s more, film production, broadcasting, and television each belong to different departments and lack a holistic policy framework.

For example, Cheng notes that while Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Communications are separate, in practice, the National Communication Commission (NCC)—the governing body of television broadcasts that sits under the Ministry of Communications—should consider reforms that will foster greater cooperation with the Ministry of Culture. But Cheng says NCC chairwomen Nicole Chan (詹婷怡) holds a strategic vision for local content, one that will prove helpful in long-term planning.

In order to break through organizational and structural barriers, Minister Cheng is looking to the South Korean model to revive local content. Under Cheng, the Taiwanese Institute for Promoting Cultural Content was established. “I’m the first person to bring up the content industry in discussion,” said Cheng. She adds that the content industry is a foreign concept to many government ministries.

Connecting venture capitalists, building an industry ecosystem

Cheng says that the MOC’s policy actions aren’t simply a response to China’s 31 Preferential Policies. The MOC’s policies are intended to construct a sustainable financial system in the cultural content industry. She believes that the Taiwanese film and television industry is consistently witnessing insufficient investment, production capacity, and industry scale. To ensure that the industry does not rely solely on the government, it’s imperative for private investment and financing to enter the industry and play a role in its sustainable development.

Cheng uses “On Happiness Road” as an example. Director Hsin Yin-sung (宋欣穎) received millions in funding from the Golden Horse Film Project Promotion, but it still took him five years to fundraise and fill the funding gap.

“The Great Buddha” director Huang Hsin-yao (黃信堯) shared a similar experience. He fundraised while filming the movie, leading to heavy personal debt.

Stories of movie directors selling personal property to support their films have become a common narrative. With paltry film funding, many directors are fighting a lone battle. Cheng believes that the only way to retain local talent in Taiwan is by creating a local ecosystem for the industry, thereby solving the dual dilemma of a lack of financial and human resources.

So how can funds be introduced into the cultural content industry? Cheng says the government must do more than simply appeal to the sentiments of the people.

“We have to make investors understand the future potential of investing in culture,” she said. “Taiwan’s cultural wealth is a part of the country’s soft power, and a link in the new economy.”

Cheng admits that there is considerable distance between venture capitalists and artistic creators, and investment and finance institutions suffer from a lack of understanding about cultural industries. Such institutions lack the tools of professional assessment, while structurally, credit rating systems and intangible asset valuations have yet to be established. Cheng hopes to change the current role of collateral in financing systems, specifically by making pre-sale contracts an alternative option to mortgaging one’s house.

 Minister of Culture Cheng Li-Chiun (centre-left) seated next to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (centre-right). Photo courtesy of Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan).

Minister of Culture Cheng Li-Chiun (centre-left) seated next to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (centre-right). Photo courtesy of Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan).

Building “aircraft carrier”-style cultural industries

According to data provided by the MOC, cable TV or wireless access TV continues to act as an important channel of information for 70 percent of the Taiwanese public. Cheng says that globalized public media can serve as a key channel of communication, and is using budget allocations under the government’s “Forward-Looking Infrastructure Plan” to produce high-definition local content for Taiwan’s Public Television Service (PTS).

The network has also commissioned screen adaptor Wu Ming-Yi (吳明益) of “The Magician on the Bridge” fame to work on inter-sectoral integration at PTS.

But if Taiwan’s cultural industries want to sail around Asia, reaching “aircraft carrier” levels of cultural content and soft power, there are still plenty of challenges to overcome. Since joining the WTO in 2003, international content has dominated Taiwanese movie theatres and TV screens.

And with the rise of online streaming, Taiwan has failed to actively grow its own digital content. Youtube is the platform of choice in Taiwan, accounting for 44 percent of all online video viewing. Video sites from China account for roughly 20 percent, with Youku Tudou, Shtruecolor and iQiyi taking top spots. Meanwhile, the aggregate viewership of Taiwanese video streaming platforms like Yahoo TV, LiTV and LINE TV account for less than 10 percent. The market scale of Chinese online video platforms is estimated to be about $40 billion RMB ($6 billion USD), with an average growth rate of 60% every year.

“Some Taiwanese videos just can’t make it onto iQiyi!” sighed Cheng. In the summer of 2017, director Cheng Yu-Chieh’s (鄭有傑) “Days We Stared at the Sun 2” was removed from iQiyi after only two episodes. The TV drama series touched on issues of state media monopoly, the cross-strait service and trade agreement and Taiwanese independence.

TV series “My Dear Boy” starring Taiwanese actress Ruby Lin (林心如) was also discontinued in China after it was reported that the show tacitly supported Taiwanese independence because it received financial support from the Taiwan Ministry of Culture’s domestic film fund. China’s online video platforms explicitly reject any programming that spotlights Taiwan’s unique culture and values.

Capturing the globe’s attention with a “national team” for culture

In the face of China’s powerful video streaming platforms, how can Taiwan stay competitive?

Minister Cheng points out that doing more international co-productions is a viable strategy for Taiwan. Chinese diaspora communities are attractive target markets for international production groups; these communities demand themes and stories based on culturally Chinese experiences.

HBO drew inspiration from the PTS screening of “The Magic Touch” when producing the popular drama “The Teenage Psychic” while “A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities” was the first Taiwanese original programming produced and screened on Netflix.

These series’ were collaborative productions through international platforms, a form of production which drives the market on both ends. In the future, Taiwan’s newly established Institute for Promoting Cultural Content will assist the media production industry to proactively connect international cultural industries.

“If the flowers are blooming, butterflies will naturally come,” says Cheng. She notes that Taiwanese values of democratic freedom could become a platform for North America to connect with Asia, and Taiwan’s rich cultural style and sophistication will attract artistic creators from abroad.

Cheng’s dream of a national cultural team is not just meant to confront China, or take on South Korea. She hopes that Taiwan’s cultural industry can shape its own unique style from the inside-out, and share its cultural branding through international channels, driving the development of domestic cultural industries and narrating the unique Taiwanese story.

Taiwan Gazette