To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—Japanese bamboo screens, golden Chinese dragons, Korean farmhouse walls—of certain restaurants providing local cuisine, but you can see those in London or New York City too. The architecture is mostly in the postmodern or late modernist style, high-rise buildings with curtain glass walls, concrete office blocks, shopping malls, and hotels in granite or marble. You could be in Cincinnati. And yet… you are not. There is something non-Western, indeed something distinctly East Asian about these cityscapes which is hard to put your finger on.

Perhaps it is the advertising, or the hustle-bustle of the raucous entertainment areas, or the myriad small stores that cluster around the high-rise buildings like mushrooms on big trees. In Tokyo, the old street plan has been more or less preserved, which lends a kind of phantom historicity to the city, but this is much less true of Beijing or Wuhan. Perhaps it is precisely the absence of visible history that looks distinctive. The same might be said of many cities in the United States, but somehow Pusan, Nagoya, and Chungqing resemble one another more than they do Cleveland or New York. They are monuments, in constant flux, of modern Asian life. But what makes the contemporary Asian style distinctive? What does Shenzhen, a mere village between Hong Kong and Guangzhou twenty years ago, and now a sprawling metropolis of more than three million people, tell us about the nature of post-Maoist China? One clue, I think, is the extraordinary proliferation in East Asia of theme parks. They are to East Asian capitalism what folk dancing festivals were to communism.

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Japan and China are now the main homelands of theme parks, more so even than the United States. New ones appear all the time and are sometimes as quickly abandoned as they were built, or even before they were finished: on the highway from Beijing to the Great Wall is a half-finished theme park which looks like a Babylonian ruin; the money ran out before it could be completed. Driving past it earlier this year, I was reminded of the huge skyscraper in Pyongyang intended to be the highest building in Asia, the Babylonian tower of Kim Il Sungism, which still stands there, unfinished, an empty shell, probably a premature ruin for ever. Not only did the money run out, but the building was so shoddily and quickly constructed, with such inferior material, that it is hopelessly unsafe.

Anyway, there they are, a small-scale Dutch town on the coast near Nagasaki, Austrian villages in Hokkaido, a simulacrum of Stratford-upon-Avon in northern Japan, models of famous Asian temples in the middle of Beijing, a replica of the White House in a small town near Guangzhou, Tibetan monasteries, Italian palazzi, Egyptian pyramids and French châteaux, a Disneyland near Tokyo, a Disneyland planned in Hong Kong, and so on and so on. What is curious is not just the insatiable taste for these fantasy places, but the fact that they often blur almost seamlessly into the “real” urban landscape. In Shenzhen, a brand-new residential “European city” looks out upon a theme park, named Windows on the World, with its Eiffel Tower, its Colosseum, and its Potala.

A variation of the theme park is the golf course, an equally controlled artificial landscape. Golf courses have proliferated almost as much as theme parks in East Asia. One whole city, named Zhuhai, opposite Macao, has been designed as a kind of residential golf course, a leisure city to complement the feverish working environment of Hong Kong and Shenzhen, an urban culture purely given over to tourism. The golf range is Nirvana promised to all those who do well in East Asian capitalism.

If Chicago and New York were the models for Shanghai in the 1920s, the postwar cities of China and Japan bear a greater resemblance to the zanier parts of Los Angeles. So much of what you see is a copy of somewhere else: hotels in the shape of French castles, exquisite Chinese teahouses on the fifteenth floor of concrete towers, coffeeshops in subway stations made up to resemble German taverns or palatial rooms in Versailles. Many Asian cities, especially Tokyo, look like gigantic stage sets, filled with representations of history, foreign places, or fantastic ideas of the future. All great cities live on fantasies and dreams; rarely has virtual reality become so pervasive, and sophisticated, as in East Asia.

Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images
Newlyweds ride in a limousine past the Cinderella castle during their wedding procession at Tokyo Disneyland.

Chinese cities still have some ancient buildings, but many of them have been reconstructed in modern materials. Others were never there in the first place, but modeled after other temples, or reassembled, like artfully recreated antiques, from the components of different temples from various regions in China. Tokyo, and indeed almost every Japanese city of any size, is an amalgamation of European, Japanese, Chinese, and American styles. As the critic and expert on Japan Donald Richie remarked: Why have Tokyo Disneyland, if the city is already so much like Disneyland itself?

Even the modern buildings, especially in China, are often from somewhere else. The standard procedure for architects in China is to show their clients sample books with pictures of buildings in the US, Hong Kong, Japan, or Singapore, and the client takes his pick. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas wrote: “We could…say that Asia as such is in the process of disappearing, that Asia has become a kind of immense theme park. Asians themselves have become tourists in Asia.”*

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There is a possible explanation for this phenomenon in traditional Chinese and Japanese aesthetics. Eighteenth-century Chinese gardens, with their elaborate and artful miniature landscapes, often alluding to famous sites, real or imagined, were the models for equally fantastic English garden parks, filled with fake Gothic and classical ruins, as well as chinoiserie bridges and pagodas. The Qing emperors actually built a kind of theme park near Beijing, the Yuan Ming Yuan, which contained European gardens and houses, some of them designed by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione, as well as Chinese fantasies. This extraordinary complex of garden-palaces was severely damaged by British troops in 1860, led by Lord Elgin (of the famous marbles). The remains were looted and further destroyed over the years by Chinese, as well as Europeans. There is talk now of reconstruction: a theme park replica of a theme park.

L.A., as I said, could serve as a model for the modern urban versions of all this, but there is a difference between China and the US. In America, worlds of virtual history are created because the history of urban culture is so recent. Older Native American cultures are largely ignored, or turned into tourist attractions in their own right. China and indeed the rest of Asia are steeped in history. So why are Chinese officials prepared, or even eager, to tear down physical evidence of a real past and replace it with copies? Why do they appear to be happier with virtual history? And what lies behind the ubiquitous taste for Western theme parks, for creating an ersatz version of abroad at home? If the Americans build theme parks to compensate for a lack of history, Chinese build them to compensate for a willful destruction of history.

Again, tradition might serve as a partial explanation. Chinese have forever been rebuilding and reconstructing old landmarks. What counts as “old” is not so much the building itself, as the site. Thus a Chinese guide will point to a painted concrete pagoda erected last year and extoll its ancient provenance. But there is more going on, I believe, in the taste for theme parks, something with a more political agenda.

Modernization in East Asia, beginning in the late nineteenth century, has been a far more disruptive and destructive process than in Europe. Because modernization was equated with Westernization, efforts to modernize China or Japan often meant a wholesale rejection of local culture and tradition. One of the first things the Japanese did after the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s was tear down medieval castles and Buddhist temples. This was soon stopped, but the replacement of Japanese traditions with Western ones, in dress, artistic expression, or public architecture, went on relentlessly. There were always countervailing forces, of course, and much of Japanese classical culture remains, albeit in a somewhat fossilized form. Nonetheless, a modern Japanese, transported back a hundred years by time machine, would recognize almost nothing of his own home town, and would even have trouble reading the newspapers. The same is true of a modern, urban Chinese, indeed more so. And all the ravages of war and nature notwithstanding, the damage done to visible history in both nations has been largely self-inflicted.


In China, as in Japan, intellectuals have often oscillated between reactionary nativism and total Westernization. The so-called May 4th Movement of 1919 was many things, ranging from revolutionary socialism to American pragmatism, but the common thread was an attempt by intellectuals to liberate China from its past. Chinese tradition, especially its Confucian aspects, was seen as a stultifying relic, hindering progress, blocking Chinese minds. The way forward, it was thought, was to wipe away these ugly cobwebs and absorb the ideas of John Dewey or Karl Marx. Rarely has a generation of artists and intellectuals anywhere hacked away at the roots of its own culture with such zeal. Many strange things grew in the ruins of Chinese tradition.

Mao Zedong took cultural iconoclasm to new extremes. He unleashed campaigns to destroy everything that was old: old temples, old art, old books, old language, old thoughts. Possession of a Ming vase at the height of the Cultural Revolution was enough to be branded a stinking reactionary and beaten to death. Mao, although obsessed with history, wanted to turn China into a tabula rasa, so he could remake it according to his own, often Soviet-inspired ideas. His hero was the Emperor of Qin, a third-century BC despot, remembered for starting the construction of the Great Wall and the destruction of the Confucian classics. He was the first great book-burner in history.

Mao wanted total control of his people. This meant controlling the environment, urban and rural, as well as people’s minds. All Chinese were forced to subscribe to Mao’s visions of utopia, and of Chinese history too. In a way, Mao turned the whole of China into a grotesque theme park, where everything seen, spoken, or heard had to conform to his fantastical dictates. This may sound like a far-fetched, even bizarre comparison. Theme parks, after all, are a harmless entertainment, not usually associated with mass murder. But I do believe there is something inherently authoritarian about theme parks, and especially the men who create them. Every theme park is a controlled utopia, a miniature world, where everything can be made to look perfect. It is not for nothing that the Japanese businessman who built the squeaky-clean Dutch town near Nagasaki did so because he disapproved of the messiness, the dirt, the chaos, and the sheer human unpredictability of Japanese city life. His proudest achievement in his own fake town was the construction of a machine that turned sewage into drinking water. The thing about theme parks is that nothing is left to chance.

The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who injected a strong dose of capitalism into Communist China, replaced Mao’s extreme vision with one of his own. His slogan was “To Get Rich Is Glorious.” He, too, was a Chinese Communist who had no love for traditional culture, free thinking, or indeed capitalism. But he realized that he needed private enterprise, strictly controlled by the Communist Party, to modernize China and restore the nation to its former wealth and power. Billboards sprang up during his rule in the 1980s with pictures of another utopian vision: a China of huge cities, crammed with high-rise buildings, crisscrossed by wide boulevards, and dotted with large squares and rigidly designed parks. This vision still owed much to Soviet dreams, but also to more Asian models, such as Hong Kong, and especially Singapore. What Deng decided to do was to create model capitalist cities in the coastal areas by government diktat, shielded as much as possible from the rest of China, where people might be too easily contaminated by the limited but inevitable exposure to Western ways. The bordered enclaves of Shenzhen and other Special Economic Zones were built as capitalist theme parks whose architecture and landscape only followed economic and social needs to a certain degree. First, these enclaves had to be made to look like great, wealthy, businesslike cities, even if half the skyscrapers had to remain empty of people, and superhighways relatively free of cars.

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Great cities, especially port cities, are windows to the outside world. They are where the local and the foreign intersect, where people of all creeds and races trade goods and information. Someone once said that the mark of a great cosmopolitan city was the presence of a Chinatown, as a sign of cultural diversity and immigration. Hong Kong could be described as a huge Chinatown itself, a city of Chinese emigrants. In any case, the influx of foreign influences in great port cities is difficult, if not impossible, to control; once you succeed in doing so, they die.

China’s great twentieth-century cities were mostly on the south coast—Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong, and, a little farther north, Shanghai. That was where foreign knowledge entered the country, where Chinese thinkers and artists came to establish reputations, and foreigners to trade. It was also from the southern cities that the Chinese diaspora fanned out to Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States. Contact with foreign ideas offered political and philosophical alternatives to Chinese traditions. Revolutionary politics thrived in the streets of Canton and Shanghai. Sun Yatsen, the father of China’s republican revolution, was from the Cantonese region. One reason why Chinese mandarins of the Qing court resisted British opium traders in the south was their desire to control the Chinese merchants and middlemen, who might acquire too much power and become disobedient.

The defeats in the Opium Wars were a great humiliation to the celestial empire, but the consequences were not wholly against the Chinese government’s interests. For treaty ports became semicolonial enclaves, where contacts with the outside world could be contained. Shanghai, in particular, became a window to Japan and the West, a stage set of modern life, a place of no great historical distinction, a kind of tabula rasa almost, where anything new could be tried and discarded in a foreign environment. Here, as well as in other coastal cities, was the platform for China’s modernization, which, to a large extent, meant Westernization. The famous Bund still looks a little like a 1920s theme park of Western styles: neoclassical, neo-rococo, neo-Renaissance, anything as long as it was neo.

Western imperial attitudes may have been arrogant and exploitative, but since the inhabitants of these urban enclaves in China were shielded by foreign laws, they could breathe and think more freely than would have been possible elsewhere in China. It was precisely this fresh spiritual and intellectual air, as well as such typical manifestations of raw capitalism as prostitution, that enraged the puritanical Roundheads of Mao’s revolution. Following the ideas of Marx and Engels, they sought to dissolve the distinction between country and city. And so, after the Revolution, Shanghai had to be strangled. Resources were relocated to the rural hinterlands; no new infrastructure was built; and the city was deliberately cut off from the wider world outside, which had always provided its raison d’être. As a result, Shanghai began to look more and more like a dilapidated museum city, frozen in time, physically a metropolis, but without metropolitan life.

An essential part of Deng’s idea of state-controlled capitalism in the 1980s was not only the revival of Shanghai, but the recreation of urban enclaves on China’s southern coast, to regenerate the economy and modernize China. Shenzhen today plays a role similar to Shanghai’s in the 1920s, except this time the Chinese, and not foreign imperialists, are in charge. Unlike pre-war Shanghai, however, where the marketplace provided everything, including ideas, freedom in the new urban enclaves is more restricted. Old Hong Kong and Shanghai were far from being democracies, to be sure, but they did offer the freedoms of thought and expression that John Stuart Mill considered the essential basis for civil liberties.

This was not part of Deng Xiaoping’s vision of modern society. His new cities in the south, which are still growing at the staggering rate of 7.4 square miles a year, allow for commercial freedoms, ruled less by law than by corrupt networks of Party officials and their friends, but not for intellectual or artistic liberties. And the window on the world does not consist of a large presence of foreigners, or anything like a truly cosmopolitan culture, but of theme parks, where all the famous sites of the world can be seen in strictly controlled conditions. Shenzhen, and even Shanghai and Guangzhou, are cities offering every material product of the good life—the latest fashions from Tokyo and New York, all the world’s cuisines, luxury apartments, fine hotels, and flashy discothèques—but nothing that resembles Mill’s notion of a marketplace of ideas.

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Singapore offers one model for this type of authoritarian modernity. A lesser-known model might be Manchukuo, the ultramodern Japanese puppet state in Manchuria during the 1930s and early 1940s. Nothing about this venture was what it seemed to be: an emperor, the hapless Henry Pu Yi, who didn’t really reign; a government which had no sovereign rights; a model of multicultural tolerance and racial equality which was neither tolerant nor equal; a blueprint for a new Asian identity which existed only in the minds of Japanese idealists. Manchukuo was an authoritarian utopia, a kind of theme-park colony, which was undoubtedly modern in a material sense: the trains were sleeker and ran faster than those in Japan; the buildings were higher and the parks better laid out; the modern hotels were finer, the movie and broadcasting studios better equipped, and the administration worked better than anywhere else in Asia. And yet, there, too, the missing ingredient was the one thing you can’t fake: freedom of the human mind.

Singapore is also modern in the material sense, ruled along the ultra-rationalist lines laid down by the ex–prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. He once called the citizens of Singapore “digits,” as though politics were a mathematical problem. Total control of the digits, of their economic activities, their political choices, but also their private lives, was always Lee’s goal. Singapore, once likened to a Disneyland with the death penalty, is truly a place where nothing is left to chance. The languages people speak at home, the ideal marriage partners for educated Chinese women, eating habits in public places, are all subject to elaborate guidelines, more or less forcefully imposed.

In a way, Singapore is a caricature, a miniature representation of Chinese politics. Lee’s mandarins make sure that all Singaporeans conform to an authoritarian version of Confucian ethics, once widely touted as Asian values: thrift, hard work, obedience to authority, sacrifice of individual to communal interests, and no criticism of government policies, except “constructive” ideas on how to impose them more efficiently. They had to be called Asian values, because Lee is officially opposed to Chinese chauvinism. Himself educated as a colonial Englishman, Lee had to invent an Asian tradition to suit his political ideas, and to give Singapore a common “identity.” Like Chairman Mao, albeit less murderously, Lee tried to control foreign influences, as well as ideas of the past. As in China, most of what remained physically of Singaporean history has been demolished, except for the odd street here and there, tarted up for the tourists. One such place, which used to be a raffish street full of transvestites, was destroyed and then rebuilt in a sanitized version of its old self, indeed precisely like a theme park, advertised in the tourist trade as a slice of Oriental nightlife.

Singapore is a model of modern rationalism, a rich urban enclave in Southeast Asia, whose shopping malls and department stores contain all the name brands of West and East, a city of plush golf courses, smooth highways, superb restaurants, and perfectly efficient leisure resorts, where the old exotic customs of Malays, Chinese, and Indians can be enjoyed in safety and the comfort of a perfectly clean environment. Here, then, in this controlled material paradise, capitalist enterprise and authoritarian politics have found their perfect match. If all physical needs can be catered to—and Singapore comes as close to that blissful state as anywhere in the world—what need is there for dissent, or individual eccentricity? You would have to be mad to rebel. And that is precisely how those few brave or foolhardy men and women who persist in opposition are treated, as dangerous madmen who should be put away for the comfort and safety of all the digits.

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This is pretty much what Deng Xiaoping had in mind when he cleared the rubble of Maoism. If there ever was a blueprint for post-Maoist China, it would have looked like Singapore. This new Asian model, which also owes something to South Korea when it was still being run by military regimes, and to Pinochet’s Chile, is a challenge to those who still take it as a given that capitalism inevitably leads to liberal democracy, or, in other words, that a free market in goods automatically results in a free market in ideas. In the case of Chile, South Korea, and Taiwan, this turned out to be true, but there was nothing inevitable or automatic about it. Military regimes collapsed when the middle classes rebelled, or at least stopped supporting them. So far, there is little sign that a similar democratic transformation will happen soon in China or Singapore.

In fact, the authoritarian capitalist regime in post-Maoist China has been astonishingly successful in co-opting the middle class to its political ends. There is, of course, nothing inevitable about this either. Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong have shown that there is no inherent cultural reason for Chinese to prefer authoritarian to democratic government. Koreans, too, come from the same Confucian tradition, indeed from a particularly authoritarian version of it, and they have fought successfully for a more liberal political system.

Taiwan is actually an interesting case, since it is indisputably Chinese, and its politics once had many theme-park elements too. When the KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and later by his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, ruled Taiwan as the last bastion against communism, it still pretended to rule the whole of China. Up to the 1980s, ancient representatives from mainland Chinese provinces were still rolled into the national assembly, snoozing in their wheelchairs. And such institutions as the Palace Museum, housing the Qing imperial collection, were meant to show that the KMT represented Chinese civilization. The Taiwanese democracy movement, however, led by local Taiwanese, had no interest in ruling China, not even a miniature China. Taiwanese dissidents and activists simply wanted to establish a democracy in Taiwan. As soon as they succeeded, continental pretensions and phony symbols—though not, thank God, the superb Palace Museum—quickly disappeared.


Japanese politics may not be flawlessly democratic, but Japan has had a relatively liberal system longer than any other East Asian country. Nonetheless, even postwar, democratic Japan developed a de facto one-party system, which is not as oppressive as Singapore’s, but has made a similar pact with the middle class. Since the early 1960s, Japanese have been promised a lifetime of secure employment and a doubling of their income every year. Acquiescence to the political status quo was demanded in return. Not everyone benefited to the same extent, but enough did for the system to work. Governed by bureaucratic mandarins, more or less corrupt Liberal Democratic Party politicians, and the representatives of big business, Japan is a paternalistic state that conforms in many respects to the Confucian tradition: obedience in return for order, security, and a full bowl of rice.

Intellectuals, so often the source of political dissent, have traditionally enjoyed the status in Confucian societies of loyal advisers to the rulers. In theory, if the rulers strayed from the correct path, it was the duty of learned men to point out the error of their ways. In practice, you had to be a brave man to do so. Some always were that brave, and often paid a heavy price. The tradition of the intellectual as a freethinker, independent of the state, is relatively new in East Asia, and in China still undeveloped. This made it relatively easy for Deng Xiaoping and his successors to harness most intellectuals to the cause of economic reform, just as it was easy for the Japanese government in the 1930s to bring Japanese intellectuals to Manchukuo to work on socioeconomic issues, supposedly to liberate Asians from the evils of Western imperialism and capitalist exploitation. The Chinese government has also been quite successful in promoting the idea that to be critical of the system is to be unpatriotic, especially when that system offers so many social and material benefits to the educated urban elite.

Many young, entrepreneurial Chinese, perhaps faute de mieux, have even convinced themselves that capitalism can be a substitute for cultural and intellectual freedom. A property developer in Beijing once explained to me that “commercialization” was the best way to build a free, modern society. She was the perfect example of the post-Maoist yuppie: partly educated in Britain, with work experience on Wall Street, dressed in the latest European fashion, driven by ambition and nationalist pride. She liked to quote Andy Warhol’s views on the dissolving borders between commerce and art. Her latest project was an architectural theme park at the Great Wall, where eleven hot Asian architects were commissioned to build modernist villas, to be rented for vast amounts of money to rich individuals or companies, such as Prada or Louis Vuitton, who would hold “events” there to promote their products.

Status, stability, patriotism, and wealth, then, have proved to be sufficient reasons for the growing middle class to accept a paternalistic, authoritarian form of capitalism without much protest. The fact that any form of organized protest in China would immediately lead to heavy punishment is, of course, another ground for political obedience. The big cities of China are really monuments to this kind of modern society—technocratic, affluent, but politically, as well as intellectually, sterile. It hardly needs to be pointed out that foreign businessmen are happy with this state of affairs. Dealing with corrupt officials may be tiresome, but that can be left to middlemen. And blessed is the absence of awkward trade unions, opposition parties, political dissent, and other messy manifestations of more democratic societies.

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Will the Singaporean system last in China? Or will it crack because of what Marxists call internal contradictions? The widespread demonstrations of 1989 against official corruption and for more civil liberties were a warning that stability can never be taken for granted. But capitalist authoritarianism has already lasted longer in China than I had expected, and the end is not immediately in sight. Without middle-class rebellion, it is hard to see how it will come. There are reasons, nonetheless, why the system may be much more fragile than it looks. Singapore is small enough to create a stuffy middle-class city-state. In China, the urban elite is still a minority. Most Chinese live in the much less prosperous hinterlands. Farmers and workers, often laid off in large numbers from bankrupt state enterprises, are not the beneficiaries of East Asian technocracy. Their daughters flock to the southern cities to work as virtual slaves in Chinese or foreign-owned factories, or as prostitutes in the blossoming sex industry. Their sons roam the country as itinerant construction workers, without rights or protection. Since they are unable to organize themselves, their voices are muted, and their sporadic explosions can be contained as local riots.

But technocracy will always be hostage to economic fortunes. In the case of a severe depression, several things might happen. The sporadic riots may lead to a nationwide uprising. A discontented middle class might join in, even though fear of mob rule makes this an unlikely prospect. On the other hand, the urban elite may lead an organized rebellion against the corrupt one-party system. Or perhaps something closer to what happened in 1930s Japan might be the pattern, especially if the frightened rulers try to deflect domestic unrest into aggressive chauvinism directed at Taiwan or the West. Variations of fascism are a distinct possibility.

The establishment of a liberal democracy after the Communist Party finally loses its power cannot be ruled out. But more violent, less liberal solutions remain more likely. None of them will be pleasant, and all of them will be dangerous. Then again, things might simply remain the same, and China, as a continent-sized Singapore, will be the shining model of authoritarian capitalism, saluted by all illiberal regimes, corporate executives, and other PR men for an emasculated, infantilized good life: the whole world as a gigantic theme park, where constant fun and games will make free thought redundant.

  1. The Great Leap Forward, a book on the Pearl River Delta, by Koolhaas and his Harvard Design School Project on the City (Taschen, 2001), p. 32.