Though bookstores in China are packed with Japanese and Korean comic books, China's cartoon critics still regard the future as promising, given the large number of single-child families in the world's most populous country.
"I believe the cartoon industry will bloom in China since it is closely connected to the large number of small kids in the country," said Jin Yanshi, chief economist of Changsha-based Xiangcai Securities Co. Ltd when attending a cartoon industry forum held in October in Qingdao City, east China's Shandong Province.
Jin quoted a recent survey conducted by Peking University that found consumption by single children had contributed to some 4 percent of China's annual GDP growth.
The increasing cartoon mania in the country and strong demand have seen cartooning become one of the most sought after occupations in the job market in Nanchang, capital of east China's Jiangxi Province.
"The development of China's cartoon industry is now just at its beginning," Jin said.
However, some scholars and cartoonists said there is still a long way to go as the country lacks a good environment for cartoon fans.
There is no shortage of aspiring artists for the work as thousands of fans fancy themselves creators, and some, like Li Weichong, have found their alliance on the 400-member Internet community named "SPACE" based in Qingdao.
"It is common for publishing houses and magazines to hold back payments for our cartoon works," Li said, "we find a home in the community."
Currently, most of China's cartoonists are just processing materials for foreign companies like animated cartoon giant Disney, the way many Chinese companies did during the early stage of the reform and opening-up drive.
"China has many excellent young cartoonists, but lacks an environment in which cartoonists feel comfortable to draw comics," said Kimura Tadao, head of a Japanese cartoon college.
"You have to get a place for those young cartoon lovers to publish their works when more young Chinese begin to draw cartoons," Tadao said.
There are currently only two bases to film animation in China, Shanghai Animated Film Studio and the China Central Television, with China's investment in comic books and animated cartoons totaling less than 100 million yuan (US$12 million) every year.
Observers said foreign cartoon producers' 80 percent dominance in Chinese market shares and domestic indifference towards young cartoon artists might stop China from expanding rapidly.
"Our gap with foreign competitors mainly reflects production methods," said Zhang Xing, head of a cartoon studio under Hebei Provincial Arts Publishing House. "Our rivals have already turned to the high technologies while China still adheres to its traditional painting."
"We need to shape a market in which comic books, animated videos and other cartoon related products like clothes, toys and drinks can find a place," Zhang said.
Unfazed by challenges from foreign competitors, Zhang's cartoon studio has signed contracts with 208 cartoon artists for a cartoon production line to produce "made in China" cartoons, hoping to add more Chinese genres like realistic painting to the existing Western and Japanese patterns.
"Foreign cartoons have their advantage in marketing but we Chinese cartoonists have ample tales for creation, like the mythical novel Pilgrimage to the West," Zhang said.
Zhang said the capital shortage for Chinese cartoon producers might also prove another set-back for cartoon studios to carry out mass production because a minute of animation will cost 8,000 yuan (US$964) in China.
The hallmarks for traditional Chinese comic strips are realistic paintings and fascinating episodes, read only by children, unlike the Japanese cartoon mania for reading on trains, at home, at work and at school.
"It's necessary for China's cartoon industry to catch the kids' eyes and watch the world from the perspective of children," said Jin Yanshi, the securities economist.
Xiong Chengyu, assistant dean of the Journalism and Communication School of Tsinghua University, contends local cartoon stars and figures are more important.
"To survive the fierce competition in the global cartoon market, China needs to create its own Mickey Mouse," he said.
(Xinhua News Agency November 8, 2003)