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JUNE 2003
Volume 95, Issue 5
 

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Made in China
What do Disneyland and Chinese cities have in common? More than you might think, according to Bard College’s Ian Buruma: “There is something inherently authoritarian about theme parks everywhere. The experience is completely controlled; there is something close to totalitarianism—though more entertaining.” Buruma’s April lecture, “Between Warhol and Mao: China’s New Capitalism,” used theme parks as a metaphor for contemporary East Asian cities, especially Chinese ones.

The connection goes beyond the stuff of one-liners (“Why should Tokyo have a Disneyland when it already is one?” “Sing-apore has been called Disneyland with a death penalty”), said Buruma, a professor of democracy, human rights, and journalism at Bard. Instead, he asserted that there is a real link between the theme-park experience and that of many East Asian cities.

Noting that a Japanese businessman who built an amusement park said that he did so to combat the disorder of Japanese urban life, Buruma argued that in China, this desire for control goes beyond the theme parks to the cities themselves. Like theme-park patrons—who have myriad opportunities to buy but whose thinking is controlled in the artificial atmosphere of amusement-park rides—urban dwellers have great economic freedom but not complete personal freedom. In what Buruma called “authoritarian capitalism,” Chinese cities are allowed some capitalist practices to promote growth but are not allowed the “Millian freedom” of a marketplace of ideas.

Throughout East Asia, urban architecture recalls theme parks. Office-building developers often ask architects to model their creations on existing buildings. They don’t want something authentic but rather something that refers to another place. Meanwhile, “authentic” buildings are sometimes destroyed only to have exact or theme-park-style replicas built in their stead.

Singapore’s Bugis Street, one example of such replication, was once a gathering spot for sailors, prostitutes, and transvestites. City officials destroyed the red-light district but soon regretted losing a popular attraction. The area was then rebuilt in sanitized, tourist-safe form. Buruma argued that, like Bugis Street, much of the authentic in Asia is being replaced by facsimiles.

Sometimes, of course, authentic and unauthentic overlap, as when Andy Warhol, an artist famed for his own pop-culture replications, traveled to the opening of a Hong Kong bar meant to invoke a hip New York bar. The owner, a Chinese businessman and art enthusiast, displayed Warhol’s work and recruited the artist and his friends to add atmosphere to the bar’s opening-night party.

The lecture was part of the Olin Center’s 2002–03 “Democracy outside America” seven-lecture series examining how democracy is conceived throughout the world. In the end Buruma remained ambivalent about whether or not democracy—like New York nightspots—would come to China. Although China’s continued authoritarianism casts doubt on the commonly held notion that democracy necessarily follows capitalism, Buruma dismissed the idea that the country is inherently unsuited for democracy. Liberal democracy could indeed replace communism in China, though he ventured that it isn’t likely to happen gradually or peacefully.

Or things could stay the same. The bleakest possibility, in his view, is that Chinese cities could become a model for other countries to follow, acting as “giant symbols of authoritarian capitalism” in a theme-park world.

—D.G.R.

 


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