Creative Economy & Cultures of Production, Creativity & Cultural Labour, Cultures of Creativity, research

The Covid-19 crisis and ‘critical juncture’ in cultural policy: a comparative analysis of cultural policy responses in South Korea, Japan and China

Karin Ling-Fung Chau

The Covid-19 pandemic has rendered the arts and culture sectors everywhere extremely vulnerable and put cultural policy under a serious common pressure. Seeing the pandemic as a significant event that has disrupted the existing institutions and discourses, many commentators are demanding a reshaping of cultural policy to cope with the crisis and to seize the chance to envisage alternative ways to think about and value arts and culture. How does this ongoing discursive potentialisation of Covid-19 as a ‘historical event’ transforming existing cultural schemas, resource distribution and power relations correspond and relate to the actual effect of the crisis on cultural policy regimes? 

Dr. Hye-Kyung Lee, Takao Terui and I have written an article ‘The Covid-19 crisis and ‘critical juncture’ in cultural policy: a comparative analysis of cultural policy responses in South Korea, Japan and China’, which was published on 25 June 2021 by the International Journal of Cultural Policy, to examine if and how the Covid-19 pandemic is engendering a ‘critical juncture’ – a short period of significant disruption and transformation – in cultural policy by focusing on cultural policy responses to the crisis in South Korea, Japan and China. In the article, we examine empirically the dynamics between the potentiality of change and the specific historical structures of cultural policy in these three East Asian countries by looking into key events, actors, debates and decisions made between January and December 2020. Dissimilar dynamics of policymaking in these countries during this critical period have been identified: ‘policy acceleration’, ‘policy movement’ and ‘policy locked-in’. 

In South Korea, the pandemic functions as a force of ‘policy acceleration’ by legitimising the country’s existing cultural policy discourse and organisational arrangement – especially those about artist welfare and social safety – and stimulating their further expansion. The Covid-19 crisis has created an incremental but important juncture in the country’s cultural policy. 

Table 1. The timeline of cultural policy responses in South Korea.

The timeline of cultural policy response in South Korea 

In Japan, the pandemic has triggered a ‘policy movement’ leading to a potentially more critical juncture. Artists have emerged as crucial institutional entrepreneurs who are fundamentally contesting the country’s non-interventionist tradition of cultural policy, demanding structural changes in the policy and expansion of state cultural support. 

Table 2. The Timeline of cultural policy responses in Japan.

The timeline of cultural policy responses in Japan

In China, cultural policy is ‘locked-in’ as it is frozen in the existing ideology and the top-down policymaking. The party-state monopolises not just policy discourse, agenda and actors but also the meaning-making of the Covid-19 crisis itself. It rearticulated the crisis in the existing policy regime thereby closing the space for reflection on the alternative potentiality of cultural policy. 

Table 3. The Timeline of cultural policy responses in China.

The timeline of cultural policy responses in China

Our comparative research illustrates how much cultural policy is embedded in its own past and trajectory and tied to each country’s political, institutional and sociocultural contexts, which, in turn, shape how the crisis effected ruptures and potential change in policy regimes differently. We show that the pandemic has speeded up and intensified the existing policy development (South Korea), engendered a new discursive turn in cultural policy (South Korea and Japan) and solidified the power of the dominant ideology and actors (China). 

The dissimilar patterns show that the pandemic has considerably affected cultural policy without necessarily inducing radical changes. Only the case of Japan comes close to the definition of ‘critical juncture’ in a strict sense as reflected by the quick formulation and mobilisation of advocacy coalition of artists, their key role in agenda-setting and policy discussion and the unprecedented expansion of the Agency for Cultural Affairs (ACA)’s budget and influence during the period. The case of China, on the other hand, demonstrates how the crisis can be appropriated in ideological terms of the regime and even ‘absorbed’ by it. Empirically, the potentiality (or potentialities) of change engendered by the Covid crisis is being exploited and developing in multiple ways in different societies. The opening up of the critical juncture in cultural policy by the Covid crisis neither guarantees nor prescribes what is going to happen next. Despite the lack of very visible transformative changes (yet), these consequences of the pandemic in all three countries still look ‘critical’ enough to determine the future direction of their cultural policies.

Further empirical and comparative research on how the critical juncture of the pandemic emerged and effected cultural policy changes in different contexts and especially underrepresented regions are urgently needed for us to have a better sense of what is happening, what can happen, and what could have happened. While it is not possible to turn the clock back, there is no guarantee that paradigm shifts will take place and sustain after the crisis subsides. I wonder how cultural policies in these three countries will look like in five years’ time; in any event, it will be a good excuse to reassemble the research team to revisit the potentiality of change. 

Full article available here.