Dream Empire

This year's ByDesign Design and Architectural Festival opens with a stunning documentary, Dream Empire, about the real estate madness in China. The very scale of it will humble your wildest imagination. In comparison, it makes Seattle's construction and property boom look like something that would be missed if one just blinked. In China, whole Seattles are conjured out of nowhere. Capital there is hungry for the biggest bucks possible. It displaces the poor without a thought, and produces spectacles that overwhelm and paralyze some of the best bullshit detectors in the world.

The documentary follows Yana. She is only 24 years old, speaks enough English, and is the partner in a small company that hires white and black people to perform at real estate promotion events. The blacks are either "primitive" Africans or Western rap/R&B stars. The whites are either "elegant" Europeans or cowboys/hicks. They provide cosmopolitan cool to a real estate development that will be occupied entirely by duped Chinese people.

The doc begins when Yana is rising. She is getting more and more work, and looking all over Chongqing, one of the most Blade Runner-like cities on earth, for foreigners. The business grows. Her partner, however, is a dick. He and Yana do not have the same class background. She comes from a rural area; he comes from an urban middle-class family. Her self-willed command of English is her main asset. But to her horror, her young body is also another asset. (Like Walter Benjamin, the Stranger art critic Emily Pothast sees the obvious link between sex work and commodified labor.) Eventually there's a real estate bust in the Chongqing area, business dries up, and she eventually sells her share of the company. The last scene of this doc will break the heart you have for images of urban loneliness. It's comparable to the ending of Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angel.

Two things to think about. First: Today, Wall Street gained 400 points on nothing more than the promise from Chinese president Xi Jinping that he and his government, which is communist, are pro-free trade. Investors are now looking to China, to Shanghai (the next Wall Street—and Wall Street will become the next City), for the future of the neoliberal program, which seems to be floundering or sending mixed signals in Trump's America. The second thing is found in the opening chapter of David Harvey's last book, The Ways of the World. It concerns China's construction boom. Harvey is convinced that China's building frenzy pulled the whole world out of the real estate crash of 2008. In my opinion, this crash left an ideological vacuum that's now filled by Trump, after Obama spent his entire presidency pretending as if it wasn't there. But China represents, on a global scale, a Minsky displacement event, not a correction. Its construction boom is fueled by debt. That dark fact is captured in the excellent documentary Dream Empire.