“Dream Empire”, a documentary set in China between 2012 and 2014, narrates the economic collapse of the Chinese real estate industry and reflects on the language of development through changing social dynamics of Yana and David, the two main characters. Yana is the co-founder of a foreigner agency that employs foreigners who came to China to seek work. She is a migrant from the Xianxiang province who came to Chonqing to seek employment, a region in 2012 that showed high economic development, primarily due to its booming real estate sector. In the rest of the article, I will explain how the financial consequences in China in the documentary are reflected in the political and social spheres.
The economic status quo significantly affected “the language” of development. As evident through the stages of life of Yana, China followed a mainstream type of development which refers to everyday development talk in developing countries, international institutions and development cooperation. The regular development talk is evident during the interview of the city developer who claims “privatised” cities to be the future of China. The developers aim to pursue development based on the logic of the free market to build a whole type of new city. Similarly, Yana claimed Chonqing to be a “great city” for development due to the boom in the real estate sector. The economic logic mandated a monoculture of mind that centralises specific values such as profit and growth reflected in the language of development.
Further examples of the use of language can be found in the “Money never sleeps” quote on the billboard or houses being advertised as “high class” and “aristocratic”. These two examples demonstrate the central values of the neoliberal system in China expressed through certain words as connotations relating to the upper class. In 2014, customer demand’s deterioration of real estate due to rising prices was reflected in the word choices for development in the documentary. Returning to the last example, this specific usage of language reflects the social goal of the people of China, as Yana considered the possibility of living a “miserable low-class life” when the real estate sector started to plummet. The language of development, in a way, reflects a “national transformation”, which claims a cultural change because it affects the lifestyles and habits of people. Yana organised three hours of free time during her day, including one hour of fashion reading: something required for a high-quality representation of foreign models, further emphasising Yana’s struggle for survival in the real estate industry.
Similar to China, the depicted setting in the documentary. Brazil is a developing nation that has encountered a similar development narrative. Gustavo Esteva, one of the most well-known advocates for post-development, states that Brazilians enrich their conversation by culturally rooting their speech. Thereby, Esteva indicates that the language of development also reflects a social and cultural change which will become more apparent through the end documentary when public protests rose against unaffordable housing. During one of her talks of Yana with a potential investor, she states different prices for different models based on their ethnicity. White foreigners are prized above black and Indian ones, which are rare because they add “class” to the atmosphere. The price difference in Chinese industry hints at the global power balances with a Western hegemonic background, which affected the pricing of the foreign agency market. In addition, this pricing strategy offers more opportunities for White foreigners, which arguably is arranged due to the higher strategic importance of European countries to China in terms of international partnership. Furthermore, the geographic locations make the White race more exotic to Chinese culture. Culture combined with the economic development in China created new cultural imaginaries that benefitted the Westerners most, as evident from David’s monetary gain and life satisfaction at the beginning of the documentary.
However, the change in global power dynamics due to economic factors, which positioned Europeans as international migrants in China, is an example of the commodification of culture. Yana gave foreign workers different backgrounds to add “class” to her business, which indicates the embeddedness of economic and social class relations imposed by the dominant cultural knowledge systems. This means that the fundamental rights and wrongs of each development discourse, like the “growth” view of neoliberalists, further reflect China’s level of social development in China. The necessary and proper instinct to generalise can distort our Worldview. It can make us mistakenly group things, people, or very different countries. It can make us assume that everyone in one category is similar. The city developer and the government believed development to be comprised only of building rich skyscrapers, which turned out to be an insufficient perspective of development. Rural inhabitants, who were thrown out of their livelihoods without notice, started protesting “the growing city”, as the people who lost their money on newly built accommodation.
By 2014 the booming real estate economy had plummetted due to the skyrocketing housing prices that many people could not afford. As a result, many newly built houses stayed mostly unsold and were referred to as “ghost towns”. Empty soccer stadiums and apartments are examples of “premature deindustrialisation”, as Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard University, refers to countries that start to lose jobs. In this case, China, a developing nation, experienced a collapse in the real estate sector. The empty stadium and apartments are illustrative examples of this concept because they’re the monetary waste of unused infrastructure. Arguably, premature deindustrialisation also stems from the lack of economic reforms. In this case, the lack of social housing reforms is an example of the risks in Asia because only a handful of nations lack sufficient infrastructure to provide a stable real estate market in terms of volatility. China followed the pattern of structural change of the previous East Asian Tigers, which refers to 4 states: Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, which are fueled by exports and rapid industrialisation after WW2, and advanced Western countries from traditional unorganised agrarian to industrialised, organised service sector countries. However, the forces of globalisation and technological progress made it more difficult for “late comers” to emulate the industrialisation experience of the East Asian Tigers or the European and North American economies before them.
The economic bubble in the real estate sector, which burst in 2014, made the structural deficiencies of China apparent. Another example of systemic issues is the unfinished political reforms evident via the lack of regulation in the housing sector. City developers started to expand their projects to the countryside, removing local people from their homes. City development also contributed to environmental degradation because air, water and soil pollution increased by expanding construction into rural areas. Rising environmental pressures are likely to increase political and economic insecurities, reduce community wellbeing, and contribute to political authoritarianism. Further deepening the national inequality is an example of demographic challenges. The notion that development could not have been disconnected from growth made itself associated with “fascism” as villagers accused the government; economisation and colonisation were seen as synonymous, which started the social unrest in China.
Besides the post-development rhetoric, the portrayal of the growing middle class, which is further apparent within the timespan of the documentary, provides an additional perspective on the economic downturn in China. At the beginning of the documentary, the real estate sector was at a peak stage, also reflected in Yana’s life. The positive return for Yana’s business was primarily thanks to the trust of middle-class buyers in the industry. As the cost of living increased and the household prices became unaffordable, middle-class people protested the state of rapid poverty within just two years.
Nancy Birdsall, the president emeritus and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, points out the concept known as “loss aversion”: one’s greater sensitivity to losing money than gaining it. This concept is evident within the documentary, too, as investors became more hesitant to buy condos after recent developments during the year 2014, the year of the economic bubble burst. As Birdsall states in her article that widespread fears of looming losses undermine the sense of security and the expectation of a better future that characterises the middle class. Yana entered the stage as an aspiring with dreams of having a rich life and lost the trust of her customers along with her expectations. Likewise, the fear is that the new middle classes will be hit hard if it turns out that global growth was built too much on easy credit and commodity booms and too little on the productivity gains that raise incomes and living standards for everyone, which was the case, for instance, in the Dream Empire, which becomes a nightmare for everyone involved.
Wietzke and Sumner, two crucial development scholars, state that while socio-cultural and political transformations are traditionally associated with the unlikely expansion of the middle-class in most developing countries, new pressures for reform may arise out of demands to better protect modest increases in private assets. As seen in Dream Empire, unless the real estate sector goes through specific reforms and regulations, higher distributional conflicts between economically vulnerable lower-middle income groups and more-affluent middle classes give birth to social conflicts, and further authoritarianism is inevitable.
For instance, riots took place in the streets and further escalated in one of the housing events to promote new accommodation built by a foreign company in Chongqing, where protesters who belonged to both lower and middle classes disrupted to stands. Counter-hegemonic movements often seek to advance the goals of equality (and social justice in general) and difference simultaneously. In this case, the riots of 2014 in China aimed to stop injustice within the housing sector caused by the financial industry’s influence on the government, which resulted in development being seen as a Western tool of globalisation often mentioned by dependency theory critiques.
At the heart of Dream Empire lay the five types of growth failures: jobless growth, as many people and Yana lost their jobs). Ruthless growth, as only the city developers have benefitted from this industry. Voiceless growth, in which villagers did not have a voice. Rootless growth, as the Chinese cultural identity has been undermined by materialism. Lastly, the futureless growth because resources and the environment cannot be conserved for the future generation based on the dynamics of the housing industry.
Towards the end of the documentary, Yana stated her disappointment with the real estate sector and her experience of being sexually harassed. The financial and social pressure she felt to leave her work and the social struggle experienced by the Chinese house buyers are examples of the establishment of economic value, which requires the disvaluing of all other forms of social existence. Due to the economic and social damage it caused, the housing development is a “lie”, as claimed by David, or “inhumane” by Yana, as she negatively stated her personality change. Yana’s realisation has led to her questioning her obligation to become rich; at the end of the documentary, she received a reply of blank looks from her former colleague, representing the struggle between the “economic” man and the “common” man. The negative consequences of development solely focused on economic growth prove that it cannot sensibly be treated as an end. Development must be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy.