Cultural Trade: A Unique Driver in Promoting Cultural Exchange and Mutual Learning between China – Central and Eastern European Civilizations


By Li Jiashan

I am delighted to meet with friends once again at the China – Central and Eastern European Countries Cultural and Creative Industry Forum and to discuss the development and cooperation with you. The topic of my speech is “Cultural Trade: A Unique Driver in Promoting Cultural Exchange and Mutual Learning between China and Central and Eastern European Civilizations.”

“Creativity brings happiness, and trade brings prosperity.” Cultural trade is the internationalization of cultural and creative industries, offering an effective means to realize the economic value of cultural creativity and protect cultural diversity.

Cultural trade can provide tangible value to cultural assets through trading cultural products, services, and intellectual property. It aligns most closely with market principles and international conventions as a way of cultural exchanges.

Cultural trade involves more than matching products; it resonates with people, fostering happiness through cultural exchanges. Its development not only enhances connectivity between our two cultural markets but also strengthens people-to-people bonds. It serves as a vital link in the market, facilitating cultural exchanges between China and Central and Eastern Europe, and promoting mutual learning among civilizations.

While it is challenging to quantify the results of civilization exchanges and mutual learning—since it involves people’s thoughts, perceptions, and values—cultural trade manifests the benefits of cultural exchanges and mutual appreciation among countries through indicators such as transaction volumes and the diversity of products.

I. Basic Observations on the Cooperation of Cultural and Creative Industries Between China and CEE Countries

The cooperation in cultural creative industry starts from cultural exchanges, mutual learning of civilizations, and harnessing the diversity of cultures to drive development.

For my generation of Chinese, our first touch of cultural and creative industries in CEE countries often began with childhood memories such as the anime “The Little Mole” and the movie “Walter Defends Sarajevo.” Meanwhile, the younger generation is increasingly drawn to sectors such as video games and e-sports from these regions. “Rather than geographical proximity, it is shared demands that bring China and CEE countries together.” Cultural and creative industries represent a pivotal area for our future cooperation. This observation is grounded in the following four characteristics:

Firstly, both China and CEE countries attach importance to cultural and creative industries. We have formulated and implemented effective development plans tailored to the characteristics of our respective sectors.

Secondly, regarding the current state of industrial development, the cultural and creative sectors in both China and CEE countries are increasingly vital to their economic growth. Moreover, the quality of employment within these industries is steadily improving.

Thirdly, in terms of development trends, the cultural and creative industries in China and CEE countries have seen rapid growth in digital sectors and a significant need for digitalization. A key trend in the current creative economy is the expansion of digital services, which drives overall sectoral growth. Both China and CEE countries are actively exploring more opportunities for cross-regional and cross-industry cooperation, including in fields such as games, animation, digital music, and creative software services.

Fourthly, both China and CEE countries face the imperative of revitalizing their cultural and creative industries post-pandemic. The strong aspirations for development and practical needs underscore the urgency for cultural trade cooperation between the two sides.

II. Analysis of Cultural Trade Between China and CEE Countries

Currently, international trade in the creative economy has become a focal point of global interest. According to UNCTAD, the rapid growth of the creative economy presents opportunities for economic development and diversification. Emerging trends in this realm include the proliferation of digital platforms and streaming services within the creative industries, the widespread adoption of digital technology and artificial intelligence across various sectors, and increased cross-industry collaboration within the creative sectors.

According to UNCTAD’s data on import and export volumes, cultural product turnover between China and CEE countries has been growing rapidly, increasing from $2.551 billion in 2017 to $5.177 billion by 2022, marking a 103% growth over five years. As China continues to enrich the global cultural landscape, it also shows increasing openness to introducing a wider variety of high-quality cultural products and services. China’s imports of cultural products from the CEE market have surged from $82 million in 2010 to $366 million in 2022, a remarkable growth of 281.7%. Although there are fluctuations in the year-on-year growth rates of import and export volumes, the bilateral cultural trade relations remain steady and consistent over the long term.

As shown in the chart, the share of China’s cultural imports and exports with CEE countries as a percentage of China’s total cultural trade has increased from 0.67% in 2002 to 1.89% in 2022. Moreover, the cultural imports and exports of CEE countries with China as a percentage of their total cultural trade have risen significantly from 1.96% in 2002 to 10.47% in 2022, marking a growth of 433%. Despite facing various challenges over the years, the cultural market importance of both China and Central and Eastern European countries is on the rise. We have reason to believe that this trend will continue, providing more opportunities for cooperation in the cultural industry between the two sides to generate greater economic and social value.

In addition to the overall growth trend, China and CEE countries exhibit greater complementarity in their cultural market structures. According to the Trade Complementarity Index (TCI) presented in the table for 2022, based on data from the UN Comtrade database, China’s cultural trade complementarity with CEE countries surpasses that with its trading partners in other Belt and Road regions, both in terms of imports and exports. While regions like East Asia and ASEAN constitute a larger portion of China’s cultural trade, the complementarity of cultural products exchanged is notably lower compared to that between China and CEE countries. This underscores the significant untapped potential in cultural trade between China and CEE countries, which both sides should continue to explore.

Moreover, the potential of cultural trade between China and CEE countries is also evident in the concentration of current categories of products exchanged and our trading partners in the CEE region. According to UNCTAD data, the import and export of cultural products between China and CEE countries are predominantly manufactured crafts, which constitute an average of 94.4% of total exports and 86.8% of total imports of cultural products. Fashion accessories (CER022), home decoration and daily necessities (CER023), and toys (CER025) are the primary products traded, highlighting significant opportunities for expanding trade in core cultural sectors such as publishing, performing arts, and software services.

In 2022, the top five countries in China’s cultural imports and exports to Central and Eastern Europe were Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Hungary, accounting for 86.71% of China’s total cultural trade with the region. Poland was particularly significant, making up 53.97% of the total alone. It is believed that in the future, through the Belt and Road Initiative and the Cooperation Mechanism between China and CEE countries, we can work together with more Central and Eastern European countries to develop cultural industry cooperation that resonates with the people of various nations and to enhance bilateral cultural trade relations.

III. Current State and Cooperation of China’s Cultural and Creative Industries

Last year, we surveyed over 200 cultural and creative enterprises and cultural promotion organizations in China. Currently, China’s creative industries display the typical features of those in developing countries.

First, China’s domestic cultural and creative design has limited international recognition, with significant gaps in high-end creative design. Creative products processed by the manufacturing industry remain the primary exports of China’s cultural and creative industries. The adaptability of traditional cultural industries to international design trends and processes is limited, resulting in a weak foundation for developing cultural creative design.

In recent years, fast fashion and retail product design brands like SHEIN and MINISO have gained popularity among mid-range international consumers. Additionally, high-end domestic design brands such as Lofree are actively expanding their presence overseas, and the “China-Chic” design trend is gaining traction among young consumer groups. More industries are increasing their investment in design, thereby enhancing the creative attributes of their products. These developments, including creative children’s book brands like Roshin Group, collectively bring optimism for the future of the industry.

Secondly, the rise of the digital economy has profoundly reshaped the structure and evolution of the cultural and creative industries. The rapid development of digital infrastructure and the Internet industry has accelerated the digital revolution within China’s cultural and creative sectors, reaching a broader audience at a faster pace. Chinese video game companies, exemplified by Perfect World, which is also represented here today, have experienced rapid growth and international success, frequently opting to launch their products first in overseas markets. Simultaneously, the advancement of digital media has seamlessly integrated diverse domestic cultural and creative resources such as art design, music composition, and video production, opening new avenues for cross-industry collaboration. For instance, Mr. Jiang from Shanghai Mingyue Industry Co., Ltd. has integrated audio-visual technologies into museum exhibitions, enhancing immersive experiences. Traditional theatrical performances have embraced digital high-definition television akin to the U.K.’s National Theatre Live. The changes in cultural and creative production modes catalyzed by the AIGC have also emerged as an evolving trend amidst ongoing debate.

Thirdly, traditional culture is experiencing a resurgence through the empowerment of cultural and creative industries. The innovative transformation and development of traditional Chinese culture have been a focal point in China. In recent years, the term “cultural and creative products” has emerged as a pivotal buzzword driving the modernization of traditional culture. Famous cultural and tourism landmarks across China, along with intangible heritage projects, are actively collaborating with creative design enterprises to foster cultural and creative products and create cultural IPs. Delegation members such as Civilization Fragment and Qiaohe Animation are revitalizing traditional cultural resources through transforming the murals of Yongle Palace and the portrait of ladies in Tang Dynasty into internationally influential cultural IP. Guo Chunxing, for instance, is tirelessly promoting traditional Chinese calligraphy on the global stage through cultural and creative design, transforming German, English, and Bulgarian into Chinese characters.

Given these new features of China’s cultural and creative industries, we are keen to foster international cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe, which share similar characteristics and demands, for mutual growth and prosperity. China and CEECs enjoy broad prospect and huge potential in cultural trade cooperation, which calls for more efficient and practical connections in order to make it a reality.

IV. Promoting Key Connectivity for Cultural and Creative Industry Collaboration between China and CEE Countries

To bolster collaboration in cultural and creative industries between China and CEE countries, and to ensure that cultural trade effectively promotes cultural exchange and mutual appreciation of civilizations, it is essential to foster practical connectivity for cooperation.

Firstly, enhancing connectivity in cultural and trade policies between the two sides. The Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries was officially announced on April 26, 2012. After 2018, Sofia Guidelines for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries and 2021 Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries Beijing List of Activities were introduced. In the realm of cultural trade, industry-to-industry and channel-to-channel connections ask for effective policy support.

Secondly, fostering connectivity among cultural and creative enterprises. These exchanges are foundational for advancing cultural trade and have become integral to our forum and related activities in promoting practical China-CEE cultural industry cooperation.

Thirdly, enhancing practical connectivity between the cultural market supplies and demands of both sides. China and CEE countries possess significant potential for cultural trade, which necessitates effective linkage between market supplies and demands. In the digital economy era, accelerating cultural trade would benefit from the establishment of a platform for streaming media and digital trade of cultural products between China and CEE countries. This platform could integrate diverse product offerings, language translations, and payment services to enhance market connectivity.

Fourthly, fostering practical connectivity among young people from China and CEE countries. The motivation, creativity, and innovation of young individuals are pivotal for societal development. Facilitating exchanges and communication among students from both regions can amplify their creativity and ignite new ideas. Therefore, alongside today’s main forum, we will host a youth sub-forum tomorrow morning to encourage deep exchanges between young people from Bulgaria and China.

Lastly, strengthening practical connectivity among think tanks from both sides. Given the longstanding historical interactions and profound cultures between China and CEE countries, it is essential to bolster the construction of relevant think tanks. This effort will promote active engagement and deepen cooperation between think tanks, enabling a comprehensive understanding of the real cultural market dynamics and leveraging their supportive role in cultural trade.

Our team has consistently aimed to foster practical exchanges and cooperation in the cultural and creative sectors between China and Central and Eastern European countries. The revival of “The 5th China and Central and Eastern European Countries Cultural and Creative Industry Forum” serves as a vital platform to sustain the enduring bonds forged through generations of collaborative efforts between China and CEE countries but also aims to serve as an academic bridge, facilitating ongoing exchanges in cultural industries and cultural trade between our regions.


The author Li Jiashan is the professor of Beijing International Studies University , the Executive Dean of  National Institute for Culture Development , and the Expert & Secretary General of the National Research Center for International Cultural Exchange ( Cultural Trade)