Exclusive: UK trade body Pact pulls out of China as political tensions, IP concerns escalate

ITV’s Hong Kong-set Strangers

UK trade body Pact is putting the brakes on all dealings with China amidst a tense political climate between the two nations, and escalating concerns over IP infringement.

TBI has confirmed that Pact has pulled all of its programmes with China for 2020, including the popular UK China Creative Exchange, the delegation to the Shanghai TV Festival and the annual trade mission that sees British producers visit various Chinese cities and meet with several broadcasters and producers.

Dawn McCarthy-Simpson, MD of business development and global strategy, says a number of issues have factored into the decision, including the recent political strife in Hong Kong as well as fall-out from China’s strict content regulations.

“Politics is really at the heart of whether we have a good trade in media with China or not,” she tells TBI. “The Hong Kong issue isn’t going away. The threats are still very live and [China has suggested that] if we don’t ‘back off’ and accept that Hong Kong is part of China and there is nothing British about it, we could face some consequences.”

If the situation escalates further, she says, “the first thing that happens is we won’t be able to get visas”.

The UK’s relations with China have been rocky since the start of the Hong Kong protests in late spring over a contentious extradition bill. Hong Kong was a British colony for 150 years until it was handed over to China in 1997 following a treaty between the two countries.

In July, UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt promised “serious consequences” for China over the treatment of protestors in Hong Kong, resulting in China warning the UK not to interfere in domestic affairs and suggesting “colonial-era delusions”.

However, in addition to political concerns, there is also “heightened sensitivity” around content issues.

McCarthy-Simpson says the UK is only now beginning to feel the full effects of China’s Radio and Television Administration’s severe 2016 regulations that limited imported TV formats to two per year.

“Over the last 18 months or so, more of our members are reporting IP infringement,” she says.

This normally plays out in two scenarios: if it’s a format that has been licensed over a number of years, some Chinese partners are exiting those deals citing a number of changes they have made to the format that makes the show inherently different from the original. This, in turn, frees up their quota for the year.

Then, there is also “straight copying” for some formats if they are simple enough.

UK-China co-pro treaty: a “silent agreement”

McCarthy-Simpson also expressed disappointment in the halting progress of the UK-China TV co-production treaty, which was ratified after a long process in March 2018.

It was once hoped that the agreement – which was preceded by a separate Chinese film treaty with the British Film Institute (BFI) and Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) – would be a boon for business with China and also help to protect UK IP, but the exec highlights a lack of exposure and education about the document.

“When we did the co-production treaty, we thought it was going to be a good route of co-producing together. But the problem is that no one knows it exists,” says McCarthy-Simpson.

“When you speak with Chinese broadcasters, they don’t know what it is because it’s not published anywhere. It feels like it was a silent agreement.”

Elsewhere, basic mobility issues have also hindered progress around Pact’s UK-China Creative Exchange, which sees Chinese producers and broadcasters come to the UK to explore potential business opportunities, and vice versa.

In the last year, China’s strict visa restrictions have prevented Chinese delegates from spending more than five days overseas, meaning they haven’t been able to spend any meaningful time in the UK. Meanwhile, some UK producers intending to visit China for the exchange have struggled to secure visas to enter the country.

McCarthy-Simpson says Pact will take a year off to evaluate relations, gauge the political situation and “look at what deals are being done and what they might look like”.

If Pact returns to China in 2021, the exec warns that the trade body “might approach it differently”.

“We’re definitely not ignoring it, but it’s a waste of our time at the moment because things are a little unpredictable, so we are going to back off and focus on other territories.”

In Asia, the focus going forward will be Korea, which is on a high following the global roll-out of The Masked Singer. Other countries of interest include Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the wider MENA region, as well as EU territories post-Brexit.

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