Image 1: Far away from the ocean, the New Century Global Center in the Sichuan city of Chengdu nonetheless features a marine theme. Not only does its undulating roof call waves to mind, but the completed building will have inside it: an artificial beach, a water park and fountains, along with many other amenities. (© Tong Lam)
Image 2: A banner in an old Chengdu neighborhood reads: “Fortune Global Forum: A Global Event at the Doorstep.” The invitation only forum will be attended by the CEOs of the Fortune Global 500 companies, as well as political leaders from around the world. Many people in the neighborhood have heard of the forum, but few understand what it is all about. (© Tong Lam)
The Ultimate Pleasure Dome
by Tong Lam
In the immediate wake of World War II, George Orwell published a short essay called Pleasure Spots in which he predicted the arrival of large-scale pleasure facilities that people would be able to visit to escape from the real world. The “pleasure spots” of Orwell’s imagination would be enclosed and mediated environments with regulated temperatures, constant music, and endless entertainment. It would be a place where sensual pleasures and excitements were generated, while the individual’s thinking and curiosity was desensitized. In our times, pleasure spots such as resorts, theme parks, and cruise ships are no longer novel.
However, the ultimate pleasure spot exclusively for the super-rich and powerful has yet to arrive. The wait, though, is almost over. Roughly 1,000 km from the Chinese coast, a giant pleasure dome called New Century Global Center is rising from the bottom of the Sichuan basin in the new financial district of Chengdu. The building has 1.5 million square meters of floor space, or nearly three times that of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It is now the world’s largest standalone structure, indeed, large enough to fit 20 Sydney Opera houses inside.
According to the plan, the building will have a water park, an artificial beach, commercial complexes, shopping arcades, an IMAX cinema, a skating rink, and two luxury hotels with “seaside views.” It is no coincidence that the complex will be one of the venues used when the Fortune Global Forum is held in the city next month. The annual conference organized by the Fortunate Magazine will be attended by the CEOs of the Fortune Global 500 companies, as well as Chinese and international leaders.
When these leaders arrive in Chengdu in early June, the pleasure dome will not only shelter them from the smog that often blankets the city, it will also insulate them from experiencing the rising social discontents and economic disparity of this aspiring megacity. The Foxconn plant in Chengdu, for instance, has had its share of riots and industrial accidents since its opening a few years ago. Then, during the first weekend of May (a politically sensitive time, as it included the anniversary of one of China’s most important early twentieth-century protest waves, the May 4th Movement of 1919) thousands of police officers swarmed to key locations in the city, including its central square, after some local netizens called for demonstrations against the construction of an oil refinery near the city. At the end, there was no Jasmine Revolution-like event, no significant rally, in part perhaps because, in addition to ramped up security, the authorities (in a touch NPR’s Louisa Lim called “Orwellian”) shifted the start of that week’s “weekend” to Monday, so that students had to attend school and some workers had to work on what might have been a protest day.
For now at least, China’s “economic miracle” is still enabled by heavy-handed state policies, low cost labor, diverting forms of consumption and entertainment, and an array of contradictions. For now, the Global Center, a simulacrum par excellence, will shield global business leaders and state officials from the mounting social pressures for change. The ultimate pleasure dome, in a way, is also a counter-pressure dome.
Next week at the New School: Dissent Magazine presents China’s 99%. A panel discussion featuring Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, and Megan Shank. Get more info here.