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On the Road: Dining with Celebrities

Oct
15
2006

My big, fat Chinese junket unfolded cadre-style: I was whisked to the airport in a black Audi stretch sedan, its windows tinted. I knew this to be the ride of apparatchiks, their business cronies and security flaks, and anyone else in China out to look more influential than he or she really is. Hereby my lot was cast with the lattermost set. On the way, I asked the chauffer – an employee of Lixun Investments, the Guangdong-based real estate firm behind the event – for specifics about this “forum for the protection of traditional culture” that I was off to. He knew none. The ride was a cipher for the indeterminate aims of my mission.

My destination, Guangdong province, did hold the promise of progressiveness. There I landed after three hours and change on a plane, and was greeted by another Lixun company driver at Guangzhou’s Baiyun Airport, among China’s biggest three. “Way bigger than we needed,” the driver grumbled, midway into our kilometer-long walk to the car.

The freeway to Foshan cut through the suburbs and smog of the Pearl River Delta, China’s base camp of mega-industrialization, credited with many a market breakthrough over the last 25 years: the Special Economic Zones of Shenzhen and Zhuhai, for example, and Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour” of 1992, an ideological stamp of approval for their “boomtown” entrepreneurialism. More recently, the region has yielded all the vital warning signals of the side effects of go-go growth: industrial pollution and e-waste, violent clashes over village land seizures, and sweatshop labor frictions so dire as to challenge the state’s minimum wage levels and Walmart’s no-union policies. What kind of legacy, I wondered, would this “Southern Tour” leave?

Only on pulling up to the five-star Foshan Hotel, did I begin to get a sense. Lixun Investments had given 1 million yuan ($127,000) to a fund managed by the State Cultural Relics Bureau specially earmarked to preserve historic architecture. It was the first donation of its kind, My friend – and host- Zhao Hong, the Chinese entrepreneuer – spy-turned curator turned farmer turned producer of this junket – explained that the gift came from the pockets of a couple of private real estate moguls.

“These developers are really rather enlightened,” Zhao said of his employers.

“So your company is into traditional styles?” I asked.

“Yeah, but here we’re building completely modern apartments and villas.”

“So where’s the tie-in?”

“There is none…just good publicity.”

Before I could inquire further, I’d joined a pre-event luncheon with my co-panelists, and gotten a big, cuddly hug from the woman in white linen clearly enlisted to maximize the aforementioned publicity: Hung Huang.

I know Huang. Tons of foreigners do. One sacrament required to pass for a real Beijinger nowadays, in the minds of some, is a brush with her. Granddaughter of one of China’s most revered modernist thinkers, daughter of Mao’s one-time English tutor-translator, step-daughter of the foreign minister who served during China’s rapprochement with the West, and ex-wife of the film director Chen Kaige, Huang is increasingly tipped to become “China’s Oprah”. Her bio fit the bill for the junket. Schooled in New York from junior-high on, Huang eventually repatriated and started a media company, bringing to China magazine titles like “Timeout” and (now defunct) Seventeen. She hosts a midnight TV talk-show and has worked as a soap opera actress. Her celebrity blog, on which she’s known to chastise the social behavior of other celebs, is currently among China’s most popular. She lives in a bauhaus-style factory space turned loft apartment in “Beijing’s Soho”, the Dashanzi art district. Emblazoned on the wall, in big red neon characters like the propaganda signs of old, are the words, “The Revolution is a dinner party”: her way of saying “touché” to Mao, who famously averred that it was not.

Most of the other guests Zhao had lined up came from Beijing as well. They included a half-dozen semi-retired relics officials and state academicians, seated to my left at the table. To my right, fittingly, were members of a newer school of artsy pundits – “public intellectuals”, they might be regarded, were the term not banned from the domestic press the past two years. They included Shen Hongfei, a famously droll newspaper columnist and TV talk show commentator who is shaped like the Buddha himself; and Wang Shouzhi, a veteran instructor of modern Chinese architectural history at the Art Center College of Design (ACCD) in Pasadena.

Given this company, I was surprised, right off the bat, by the intensive gimmickry of the forum. Lixun coined its promo campaign Hong Hezi Xingdong - loosely translated, Operation Red Box. The symbolism of the Red Box, based on the explanation one of the developers later gave, was some mumbo-jumbo about the possibilities of these builders’ imagination. The operative word really was xingdong, used to denote a military action, as opposed to a political movement, for which the term is yundong. The operation belied the lofty aims of Zhao and small team of avant-garde spin doctors.

According to their plan, 100,000 yuan of the “preservation” fund automatically would go toward protecting old buildings in each of four cities where Lixun had projects: Foshan, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Beijing. The remaining 600,000 yuan would be divided democratically, according to votes Lixun was taking from the audiences each of its events. Along with dozens of local architecture students, some fifty to sixty reporters were assembled. Little red boxes and paper ballots were set at each of their places. They also got “red envelopes”, of course. These contained 200 yuan (US$26) to cover the cost of “transportation” – a de rigeur “courtesy” to ensure Chinese media attendance at such events.

Social reform in China, oftentimes, really is all about marketing. Lixun’s new project in Foshan was supposed to gross about 500 million yuan, Zhao said. The company would spend about 12 or 13 million on advertising. So the fund amounted to pennies compared to the budget to promote it. But the point, echoed by one expert after another over the next two hours, was to whet Chinese developers’ interest in preservation and curb their appetite for destruction. And Operation Red Box was supposed to pave the way.

Huang, who had to leave just minutes into the programme – the mark of a rising star – paid tribute first. “In reality, I myself have always had the the worst of luck with real estate developers, because wherever I’ve lived they’ve wanted to demolish.” She told of the monstrosities now brooding over courtyard home in the heart of Beijing, which was given to her grandfather by Mao and Zhou Enlai after “Liberation”; and of the successful fight she co-spearheaded a couple years ago to save Dashanzi’s 1950′s factories from a high-rise developer. “So I’d like to congratulate Lixun and the city of Foshan on such a good project, and I hope that soon you can bring this project to Beijing,” she ended. “That way, I won’t always have to move.”

The free and open exchange that followed embodied the reformist spirit of the leadership’s populist policy platform and the buzzwords in vogue today: “harmonious society”, “macroeconomic readjustment”, and more “scientific development.” The “revolution” here is China’s current transformation: Its uncomfortable embrace of capitalism. The speakers here shed the propaganda in favor of cold, hard realities.

China used 56 percent of the world’s steel-reinforced concrete and 33 percent of its steel for building in 2005, said Professor Wang, a Guangdong native, who moderated. A couple of years ago at a dinner in Shanghai, he said, officials boasted about how they’d built 3600 buildings 30 stories or higher, equivalent to Manhattan, in less than 20 years. But in the process of China’s building frenzy, Wang said, “We’ve made a lot of mistakes. We’ve razed a lot of buildings that cannot be reproduced, cannot be rebuilt, cannot be saved. And we’ve razed them extraordinarily fast. That’s why foreigners say it’s the English who hurt us, because they named Zhongguo “China” – as in ‘demolished’”. (The syllables “Chi-na” happen to form a homophone for Chinese characters chai-na – 拆那 -meaning “demolish that”). People laughed.

The cadres on-stage actually went further in assigning blame. A former deputy director of China’s Cultural Relics Bureau, Ma Zishu, went on a ten-minute-long soliloquy on the history of lost relics and architectural devastation. “Since the 1990′s,” he groused, “this destruction has been the behavior of the government in collusion with certain interest groups, the losses caused by it cannot be retrieved, and currently this situation persists.” But “there are some developers,” he said, “who on making huge windfalls, considering how to ‘show their mercy’.” The Chinese developer’s job was not just to protect the old, Ma continued, “but even more challenging, was how to create buildings cultural heritage in the future. “Every place you go in China today is the same.” Finally, Ma, who presides over the special fund, expressed hope that other investment companies would make donations like Lixun, and that Lixun’s experiments would become a “social trend.”

The forum devolved into one sour rant after another, making Lixun look sweeter and more generous. Wang talked about a highway being built to facilitate tourism to majestic Lugu Lake, which straddles the provincial border of Yunnan and Sichuan, and is home to a tiny matriarchal society known as the Mosuo. Tibetologist Suo Wenqing then carped about cultural erosion in Tibet, which he saw only getting worse since the opening of a new rail link from Beijing this summer. “There’s not a single difference between the buildings in Lhasa and the interior anymore.”

Over dinner, I heard lots of convoluted tales of misappropriated relics and wanton officials that I was instructed explicitly not to report. Mr. Jiang and Mr. Xue talked about another developer who had an idea similar to Lixun’s, but wanted a stake in some ancient building. Jiang: “Being selfish defeats the whole point!”

I rode back to Guangzhou that night with my host, Zhao and a scholarly, old-school bunch of qingguan, or clean cadres. The chatter in the van was about all the money in the official and academic talk circuit in Beijing. “It’s really quite dirty”, said one of the men. If only they could get more of it into their new special fund.

Actually, the special fund wasn’t new at all, Ma, the ex-deputy relics chief, told me later that evening. It was established circa 1994, but neither the cash-strapped Relics Bureau nor anyone else ever had done anything about it before. “Now, we are, myself and these other old men.”

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