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Brave New Beijing

Recently a book and a movie, both based in Beijing, gave me some insights about China’s present and future.

by Alessandro De Toni

The first one is a novel published in Hong Kong, for a relatively little niche of mainland Chinese readers, while the second one is the film adaptation of a local bestseller. The book is 2013 The Gilded Era, by Chen Guanzhong a Taiwan/Hongkongese writer based in Beijing. It’s an interesting Orwellian-style science fiction novel: China is the only winner of a second worldwide financial crisis, Chinese people are in high spirits, the border between brain-washing and soft-power has become so thin that only a few selected ones can “see the Matrix”. Beijing is the flourishing capital of the Empire. The main character, the writer himself, sits at Sanlitun’s Village sipping a cup of “Longjing latte”, Starbucks was purchased by Wang Wang and Adidas survived thanks to Lining. Globalization has become a global sinicization of taste, “Chinese” now means cool and successful.

The magic spell is a strong boost to internal consumption, and beside some little extra brainwashing tricks, the equation of stability is consumed more = think/remember less.

Chen Guanzhong quotes Lu Xun (The Good Hell That Was Lost? to sum up the blue pill/red pill dilemma: What is your choice between a “good hell”, or we could say a harsh truth, and the “fake paradise” of a brave new world? When his beloved one asks him the fateful question, the main character immediately realizes that as you become aware of this choice it’s not easy to give an answer.

But the question doesn’t bother at all Du Lala and her audience.
She’s “Go Lala Go” Blockbuster’s protagonist – so far the movie earned more than 15millions USD at the box office – and I would say she’s also the unofficial marketer of the “fake paradise” among Chinese mass audience. The movie is an urban romance film about a girl’s brilliant career in a Beijing based big foreign enterprise. Each stage of her rise is introduced by precise info about her position and salary, from 2,500RMB to 25,000RMB in ten years of hard work and difficult love stories. She’s a winner, an idol for all the young people in Beijing who face the challenge of finding a job and surviving the hard competition. The first shot of the movie is a Beijing version of Sex & The City. The landscape of the capital’s business district is as shining as the skyscrapers of NYC: from Yintai Center to Beijing World Financial Center, all the glittering corners of prosperity introduce to the audience the brave new Beijing.

Since the earliest stages of Lala’s career, despite her monthly salary of 365USD/month, she’s dressed for a fashion show, the whole office looks like the editorial office of Vogue, the sky is always blue and vibes of cool jazz and MTV-style cuts rebrand the image of the city. It’s the world of massive product placement and the countless logos appearing on the screen are the local and global stars of a successful lifestyle: Lenovo, Ikea, Kartell, Marlboro, Gucci, D&G, Hermes, Lipton, Mazda, Motorola, etc.

Everything in the movie remembered me the gilded era of Chen Guanzhong’s 2013 and the feeling I had since the very beginning of the book that the author was projecting in the future what we already have under our eyes. We just have to cut whenever we see something bothering our view, but actually, we don’t even need to do it on our own: the Big Brother of Chinese flourishing film industry has already packaged a new, stylish, powerful image of the capital. If you feel that you still don’t belong to that gilded era, it’s just because you’re in the middle of a process: even though you can’t see your happy destination, the near future is already on the screen, ready to shape your imagination. And as Buñuel said: “Film dreams as if they were reality and reality as if it was fiction”.

Lala’s post-80s generation experienced since childhood the stress of fulfilling parents expectations and dreams of stability in a booming country with countless opportunities and hard competition. They spent years studying and then working without discovering much of the “outer” world, without any time for a carefree exploration of life. In other words, they had their “good hell”.When they achieve a good professional position and some way pay back their emotional debt to the family, a considerable amount of pressure is released and the availability of an increased budget for the first time put the power of choice in their hands. They finally can discover and explore but they still don’t have a clear idea about how to do it, moreover, they feel that they should get a reward for all their sacrifices and achievements.

Mass consumer culture offers countless options even before you get aware of having the possibility to choose. In Lala’s world of post-80s generation, you’re not asked to focus on your real needs and to employ extra energy on self-knowledge, you’re not used to getting involved in politics and social issues, you just have brandified identities and money to buy them. Once you’ve entered the gilded era you don’t want to exhume the old good hell. You enjoy the present paradise without wondering whether it’s reality or fiction, and the access to a fictionalized world becomes itself the highest goal of many post-80s.

Back to Chen’s novel, I quote He Dongsheng, a gloomy insomniac executive of the Central People’s Government. When he’s questioned about how the authorities managed to  totally remove unpleasant images from people’s collective memory, how people can really forget the past, his answer is:

“I have no way to explain it and it makes me feel puzzled. Probably the real world is not like detective novels where at the end everything can be clearly explained [..] Unfortunately I believe in materialism, otherwise I would certainly say it’s god’s will, it’s god who wants the Party to rule the country. God bless the Party.”

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