China’s Dream Parks

China’s Dream Parks

Since 1989, thousands of theme parks have been built across China, in an uncanny reflection of the country’s economic liberalization.

Abandoned theme park and shopping mall, Dongguan, China, 2013 (Tong Lam)

On a crisp afternoon in January 1992, Deng Xiaoping stepped out of a golf cart and beheld a miniature replica of his country. It had been nearly three years since Tiananmen had forced his resignation, and the ex-Premier was busy reclaiming his legacy on his now-storied “southern tour.” Visiting coastal cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, Deng stopped in a government guesthouse here, a high-tech research facility there, giving his blessing to the laboratories of development he’d begun to open up in 1978.

The golf cart belonged to Splendid China, the country’s first theme park. With its miniature models of China’s natural and architectural marvels—from the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City to the Great Wall (the latter constructed of six million tiny bricks around the borders of the park)—Splendid China was a tribute not only to the country’s ancient heritage but also to its liberalizing economy. The park was a natural fit in Shenzhen, poster child of the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that Deng had nurtured as drivers of economic renewal. These oases of hyper-modernity had shot up, according to the propaganda ode “Story of Springtime,” like “fairy tales”:

In the spring of 1979
An old man drew a circle
On the southern coast of China
And city after city rose up like fairy tales
And mountains and mountains of gold
Gathered like a miracle

In Shenzhen, the dreamscapes didn’t stop with the factories. Splendid China was—and is—as the urban historian Thomas Campanella explains it, a “masterpiece of the miniaturist’s art.” The monuments of ancient Beijing meet the charms of the western border regions, with natural landscapes to match. Vintage photographs still exist of Deng posing, with his family, in front of the park’s 1:15 scale replica of Tibet’s Potala Palace.

Backyard blast furnaces and Mao statues are notably absent. In their place, Deng was greeted by China Folk Culture Villages, specializing in reproductions of Tibetan, Uyghur, and other ethnically themed gardens and landmarks. The China Central Song and Dance Ensemble of Ethnic Groups entertained with carefully curated performances of “Children of Fire” and “Spirit of the Peacock.” Deng, relentlessly tracked by cameras, can be seen here too, chuckling and waving at performers dressed in the most colorful permutations of their ethnic costumes.

Splendid China, which opened in 1989—the year of Deng’s resignation—was a breakaway success at home: it attracted 3.5 million visitors in its first year alone, recouping its entire original investment. If SEZs like Shenzhen—piling factory upon factory and boasting growth rates in some years of more than 30 percent—can themselves be read as themed environments writ large, then Splendid China is a fitting reflection of their triumph.

The Folk Culture Villages, completed in 1991, enriched the park further. Soon China Travel Services (CTS), the company that had financed Splendid China from Hong Kong, was hungry for international expansion. With the curtains only just up on its cabinet of ethnic curiosities at home, CTS announced plans to develop a sister park in the middle of Disney’s home turf of Orlando, Florida.

Unlike Disney World, Florida Splendid China would take culture and history as its themes. Instead of “leaping dolphins, performing whales, thrill rides and fireworks in the sky,” explained the developers, the new park would be “somewhat more passive and reflective”—a “pensive, walk-through kind of thing.” It was designed to “complement” rather than compete with Disney.

The vision would stay analogous to what was on offer in Shenzhen: China’s “timeless essence,” minus the politics and ethnic strife. The same gardens were to be constructed with the same omissions of labor camps and the southern fairy tales’ discontents. At a cost of $100 million, China’s Middle Kingdom would claim its place down the road from the Magic Kingdom, encircled by the same six-million brick rendition of the Great Wall.

“We could make every mistake in the book and still come out ahead,” one developer predicted. But within months, it was clear that Florida Splendid China was in trouble. Empty trolleys were the norm, and the park was panned by critics on both the right and the left. The Economist, dyspeptic as usual in such matters, pulled a quote from a Miami Herald editorial: “Don’t look too hard for the Murdered Dissidents’ Pavilion.” Even so, the magazine was impressed by the lengths to which China had gone to polish its image as part of a “headlong plunge into Western-style capitalism.”

Florida Splendid China limped out of business in 2003, following an especially jarring drop in sales after September 11. But the Shenzhen iteration, much like Deng himself on his southern tour, knew nothing but repeated successes. By the end of the 1990s, the goodwill exuded by the park was being translated into major investments and real-estate contracts.

In the time since Deng’s southern tour, an entire class of China’s own Disney-style “imagineers” have sought to recreate the success of Shenzhen’s pint-sized utopia: over 2,500 theme parks were built across China’s cities, suburbs, and farmlands between 1990 and 2005 alone. And as the number of theme park visitors increases each year, construction continues on new parks—from the Qiaobo Ice and Snow World, constructed with advanced irrigation in Beijing’s arid northern suburbs, to the pearl-like Polar Ocean World, which will bring 500 species of arctic animals and 20,000 species of fish to Shanghai, to Wild Duck Lake Resort of Kunming, Yunnan Province, which recently invested $800,000 in special effects equipment capable of recreating the iconic scenes from the Chinese blockbuster, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The economic logic of this construction boom is a bit murky. Of the 2,500 parks constructed in China in less than two decades, hundreds have disappeared; of the 2,000 or so that remain, it is estimated that only around 10 percent are profitable. Still, according to a recent report, China’s restless imagineers are expected to build yet another fifty-nine theme parks and five water parks by 2020.

One explanation can be found in the increasingly prevalent use of what experts call the “park plus real estate” model. Because building recreation facilities often constitutes a “public service,” theme parks offer a way for real estate developers to buy up land that would normally be cost-prohibitive—and then to allot some of that land to high-priced apartments and residences. In most cases, cash-starved local governments—which, in 2013, were granted the authority to approve theme park investments independently of Beijing—are only too happy to play along. Meanwhile, the budgets for many parks are astronomical, offering individual developers and officials various opportunities to embezzle.

It is also likely that, however unprofitable the majority of theme parks may be, developers will continue to gamble on them as China’s tourism numbers continue to climb—from 615 million domestic tourists in 1995, to 1.6 billion in 2003, to 3.3 billion in 2013. In 2014, the number of outbound Chinese tourists was forecast at 116 million; and given that the number of Chinese traveling abroad is estimated to climb to 535 million by 2030, tourism is destined to become an important foreign policy lever. It is no surprise, then, that developers are eyeing sites abroad as well.

Even as they chase profits, these pursuits—often with the financial and political backing of the Chinese state—also represent experiments in soft power, echoing the tropes of assimilation and expansion that were first staged at Splendid China. Two new parks in particular—one in the Special Economic Zone of Kashgar and the other in Australia—demonstrate the striking ways in which China’s power elite has put entertainment to work.

Many histories converge in the oasis city of Kashgar. In today’s China, it belongs to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, from which Beijing looks out onto the resource-rich expanse of Central Asia. While suspicions had been in the air for some time, it was not until 2010 that the Party confirmed that the predominantly Uyghur town would become China’s newest SEZ to be modeled on Shenzhen—a new kind of oasis in the desert.

In its most recent form, the SEZ was to include a partnership program whereby Kashgar would be linked with a “partner assistant”—in this case, a euphemism for the entire province of Guangdong, in which the boom cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen are located. As property prices skyrocketed, a raft of partnerships appeared between Guangdong manufacturers, traders, and hoteliers and their counterparts in Kashi (the Chinese name for Kashgar). It was only a matter of time before the city received its own styling of the miniaturist’s art.

Apandiland is like a shard of Splendid China. In the original, you can find Afanti—the wise fool for whom Apandiland is named—on proud display in the Uyghur section of China Folk Culture Villages. He’s the cheery fellow, smiling beneath his mustache and tugging the tail of a donkey that he’s straddling—backwards. Photographs online suggest that this pose is popular among both parents and children, who laugh at him together.

The new park in Xinjiang, covering 740 acres in total, features a statue of Afanti on a much larger scale. From this starting point, according to a document circulated by the Yihe Group—the Guangdong “partner assistant” responsible for the project—the park will be rolled out in phases. The first of these, which opened earlier this year, includes a bazaar, a cinema complex, and the first go at an Afanti Folk Village. It will also include a performing arts center for darwaz, the Uyghur art of tightrope walking, which will be graced by the “High Altitude Prince” himself: Adili Wuxor, whose sixty-day stint of tightrope walking in Beijing National Stadium—though sadly uncorroborated by Guinness World Records—has made him popular throughout China.

The second phase, coming next June, will include everything from thrill rides to the Afanti Exotic Garden, for the “pensive, walk-through kind of thing.” “You only need to go to our performing arts center, and you will see . . . an audience comprised of every ethnicity seated at the same table, eating and watching the program,” Adili told one news outlet as part of his extensive promotional efforts for the park. “This is a true portrayal of life in Xinjiang.”

What is not on offer at Adili’s banquet is more conspicuous: Islam, which authorities have sought to suppress outside of the park as well, and the frustrations and desperation that have led to over 400 violent deaths in the region last year alone. They won’t appear in Apandiland’s third phase either, which is limited to more theaters and film studios.

Instead, Apandiland provides a kind of refuge where an idealized image of ethnic relations can be shored up against reality. And like Disney World during the American urban renewal, it offers an escape from the hyper-modernization that has characterized China’s SEZs since the 1990s. It restricts relations with Uyghurs to the code of the marketplace, allowing (chiefly Han) visitors to encounter them safely, along prescribed paths with ample beverage stations.

Safeguarding the “harmonious society” on display at Apandiland has nevertheless required extensive precautions. When the park’s first attractions opened last July, police and park security could be seen conducting crackdown drills nearby with riot shields and wooden clubs. “It’s a real worry whether Chinese tourists are going to come in big numbers due to worries about terrorism,” one park worker told USA Today.

Undeterred by the example of Florida Splendid China, other theme park developers are looking to capitalize on Chinese living or traveling abroad, especially in settings where ethnic relations are less tense. Plans for parks in countries ranging from South Africa to the UK—where “Visions of China,” a collection of gardens and ponds, is set to be built on the site of a former opencast coal mine in South Yorkshire—represent another dimension of a soft-power push led by private investors but backed by Chinese authorities.

The most notable current venture is Australia’s Chappypie China Time, launched in 2010 by billionaire developer Bruce Zhong. If plans are approved on schedule, construction on the park will begin this year in Warnervale, Wyong Shire—about one hour’s drive from Sydney. Zhong, who studied communications in Australia and later immigrated to the country, initially announced plans for a Grand Museum of Chinese-Australian History and Culture, in which he intended to invest a whopping $500 million. After months spent negotiating over the site—resulting in a hugely lucrative deal for Wyong Shire—Zhong’s venture has been renamed Australian-Chinese Theme Park, Ltd. It was soon confirmed that the project, dropping its pretensions as a history museum, was to take the form of a grand theme park.

A virtual tour of Chappypie China Time describes the golden scales that will coat a full-scale replica of the Forbidden City’s gate—the entrance to the park—and ruffle in the wind, welcoming visitors to a “happy cultural exploration.” The park’s twelve main sections are designed “like a Chinese chessboard,” and, of course, there are plans to set a portion aside for residential real estate.

The park is anchored by Spring Festival Square, where twelve bronze animals representing the signs of the zodiac are aligned with their counterparts in the western constellation system. Meanwhile, in the bamboo grove, statues of pandas are spread out in all directions. “Panda Paradise,” intones the authoritative voice in the virtual tour, “creates a harmonious relationship between you and a panda.”

There is a house of China miniatures—with palaces, walls, and other monuments—branded as “a microcosm of the whole China.” And there is an educational component: you can study the “history” and writing methods for “happy Chinese characters” in a pavilion reminiscent of that other soft-power initiative, the Confucius Institute. But where Confucius Institutes are presented as adhering to standards of academic rigor, Zhong has explained that his park will allow visitors to absorb Chinese culture through sheer entertainment. Chappypie China Time will be rolled out in phases, beginning in 2016.

There is a strong utopian element in the “cultural banquet” Zhong envisions, but it doesn’t answer to a socialism that has anything to do with Karl Marx. Instead, it creates a world in which the cynical calculations made to bring inflated success to a select few—a world in which moral atrocities are regularly renewed—can be justified.

The large sums of money involved have all sides hailing Chappypie as “big” and “imaginative,” but there is something very tired in the park’s machinery. It is Australia’s Splendid China, less enhanced by the technical gimmickry than by the international economic prestige that China has achieved in the decades since Deng’s southern tour.

Chappypie China Time inevitably also recalls the Ur-theme park, Disney World. I wonder if we might look back at Michael Harrington’s pioneering 1979 essay “To the Disney Station,” in which he found a model for the Magic Kingdom in the Potemkin Village:

Potemkin, it will be remembered, was the Russian official who took Catherine the Great on a tour of the marvelous villages he had built. In fact, there was only a single, bogus village, which was assembled for each royal visit, then dismantled and sent down the line to pose as progress again and again.

The essence of Disney World, for Harrington, was a “warmhearted, futuristic authoritarianism”—“a rational, crisis-free society . . . without any visible democratic noise.” It embodied a kind of mock-socialism that belied some basic capitalist contradictions: a self-proclaimed triumph of free enterprise turned miniature replica of state monopoly; a drive to banish excessive individualism, especially in the form of labor unrest; a harmonious diversity preserved under technocratic control. Where else could Polynesia, East Africa, Mount Everest, and outer space sit so neatly side by side?

Harrington’s reading of Disney World was prescient in the Chinese case. The country’s theme parks reproduce what is at the heart of those fairy tales Deng began to tell at the start of the reform era. As Yasheng Huang documents in Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, “hyper-modernity” had severe effects on the average family and small businesses in the 1990s. It was a breathtaking rise in inequality that produced the gadgets and whirring infrastructure of Shanghai, “the world’s most successful Potemkin metropolis.”

Much hinges on whether these theme parks continue to find their way into the dreams of Chinese citizens. Their developers are betting on it, but they’re taking imagineering to new heights to make sure.

The apotheosis was announced to some clamor early last year: a $165 million scale replica of the Titanic, complete with a shipwreck simulator and historical museum, to be built in the landlocked city of Chengdu.

“When the ship hits the iceberg, it will shake, it will tumble,” said Su Shaojun, head of Seven Star Energy Investment Group, which is leading the project. “We will let people experience water coming in by sound and light effects. . . . They will think, ‘The water will drown me, I must escape with my life.’”

Asked whether a park built on the memory of tragedy was in poor taste, Su demurred. Liu Simin, an expert in the growing field of Chinese tourism and theme park studies agreed: “As long as there’s quality plus creativity, its future is destined to be to be bright and dazzling.”

Nic Cavell is a writer living in Brooklyn.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: