Forget the Great Leap Forward. Forget the Cultural Revolution. Forget the Little Red Book, and the 100 million souls who perished transforming one of the world’s oldest and most entrepreneurial civilizations into a communist gulag. These ghosts of China’s Marxist past are being exorcised in in a new kind of revolution—by consumers.
Derided in Communist times, the consumer remained a forgotten figure as China’s ruling elite set out to compress two centuries of economic development into a couple of decades. But as the U.S. and European economies sputter, threatening the growth of China’s export model, China’s economy is being belatedly redirected to serve its own people.
And what better way to mark the transition than the completion of the New Century Global Centre in Chengdu, China, a shopping center/hotel/theater/water park/office complex of such colossal proportions it could swallow three Pentagons. With the most usable floor space of any building in the world, at 18 million square feet, this behemoth structure is devoted to the pursuit, the enjoyment, the recreation, and the conspicuous consumption of the mighty Yuan.
If you haven’t heard of the New Century Global Centre, you’re not alone—at least not in the West. I only recently stumbled on it in an article in the New Republic, whose goggle-eyed reporter marveled at the size of this “Chinese mall you’ve never heard of,” yet missed the bigger irony of a pleasure dome of consumer desire rising up in the middle of a country once renowned for repression, ideological tyranny, and famine.
Google up this latest wonder of the world and you’ll find a raft of short pieces in the tabloid press that all appear to be written from the same news release. Yet you will not find a word about it in the New York Times or the Washington Post, nor did NPR give it a moment of airtime. It’s as if the collective consciousness of the liberal commentariat agreed to avert its eyes.
Of course, this being China, nothing on such a scale can remain untainted by central planning, in this case the now-not-so-Communist Party working hand in glove with China’s nouveau billionaires. True to form, the project appears to be replete with enough corruption to make Tammany Hall blush.
But before we tut-tut in condemnation, let’s not forget that while Boss Tweed milked the Brooklyn Bridge for all it was worth, the largest suspension bridge of its time was ultimately completed—in a city that went on to become the capitol of capital. So while the Chinese people will likely pay a price for the malinvestment fueling the country’s overheated real estate bubble, they can afford to blow some of the wealth they’ve created in the world’s largest shopping mall.
Like the Brooklyn Bridge, no amount of official corruption can diminish the project’s ultimate value. Yet unlike California’s impossible-to-kill bullet train to nowhere or the growing pile of cleantech carcasses piling up in the wake of misguided U.S. industrial policy, the apartment buildings, city centers, and shopping malls now going up in China will still be there to provide economic value even after a wave of defaults, bankruptcies, and mysterious disappearances claim the investors that backed them.
What does this portend for China’s future? It’s hard to say. Sooner or later the ruling party will pivot, not out of choice but of necessity. It’s not the pivot to democracy that will generate the greatest rewards but the pivot away from bureaucratic central planning toward a more open market economy. When that ultimately happens, the demands for democracy, civil liberties, and political freedom from China’s growing middle class will become harder to ignore.
Every country in Asia touched by the Mao-fleeing diaspora is testament to the human capital possessed by the Chinese merchants, traders, manufacturers, and investors who kept the flame of economic freedom alive during China’s darkest years. As their skills and capital return to the motherland, providing a path forward for a billion liberated socialist serfs determined to lift themselves out of poverty, China will have its chance to build a future of its own choosing. With a little luck they may stumble on the same formula that made the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness so exceptional, even as we trade away our patrimony for socialist promises of security, equality, and “free” healthcare.