Skip to main content

China will be somewhat more open to the entertainment and culture of the rest of the world, as a result of a World Trade Organization decision last week. The upshot is that the Chinese government will no longer able to shape culture through monopolies, oligopolies and restrictions on foreign ownership in film distribution and similar businesses; henceforth, when it censors, it will be more or less explicitly censoring.

The decision by the WTO appeal tribunal upheld a ruling by a panel in August, in a dispute between the United States and China. Beijing relied on a clause in international trade law that allows nation-states to restrict trade in order to protect public morals. Washington was not challenging that power of moral supervision; instead, it denied that the controls on ownership and distribution in China were required for the sake of public morality.

In particular, the Chinese government will still be able to enforce the maximum of 20 foreign films that can be shown in Chinese movie theatres.

Story continues below advertisement

"Public morals" is an expression drawn from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the WTO's predecessor), as of 1994; it is not China's own choice of words for this particular dispute. It is probable that the Chinese government is at least as much concerned with politics, culture and its own business interests as with morality in any narrow sense of the word.

If Western distributors of films, books, DVDs, computer games and music (even cellphone ring tones) start operating in China, there are likely to be both cultural and economic consequences. The way in which popular culture is marketed has consequences for that culture.

Though the WTO decision does not deal with the making of cheap knockoffs in violation of non-Chinese copyrights and trademarks, the presence of Western competitors in China would surely be an inconvenience to the pirates.

The U.S. challenge arose from complaints by large corporations such as Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Bros. and Simon & Schuster, but commerce and culture are not entirely separable. The WTO's trade decision will not lead to a cultural revolution (in either a capitalist or a Maoist sense), but a noticeable shift in China's culture is likely.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to