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.
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
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.