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Category: China

LeEco Goes East

LeEco seems to have bottomless pockets at the moment. In August the company announced plans to build a $3bn eco-park/driverless car manufacturing plant in Zhejiang, and now it looks like Le will start pushing its TVs, phones, bikes, cars and VR headsets in the US. From Variety (via):

LeEco has done some considerable spending to enter the U.S. market: The company has opened an office in San Jose and hired key talent from competitors; some of its high-profile hires include Samsung’s former SVP of HR Shawn Williams, Samsung’s former COO Danny Bowman and Samsung’s former Chief Marketing Officer Todd Pendleton. Earlier this week, LeEco also announced the hire of former Qualcomm exec Rob Chandhok as its new head of R&D.

LeEco is also a major content producer in China. Within my wheelhouse, they put on huge, live-streamed events at their 3,000-capacity music venue and 18,000-capacity sports arena in Beijing. They’re also the official streaming partner of Boiler Room China, which just hosted Skrillex’s BR debut. That probably cost some bandwidth.

Le also has a film production subsidiary that financed forthcoming Zhang Yimou blockbuster The Great Wall, which stars Matt Damon in a lead role (thoughtful piece on differing attitudes toward whitewashing in China vs US here), and will probably smash some kind of box office/co-pro record.

This from a company that basically started as one of several Chinese Youtube ripoffs. Tencent’s WeChat is getting all the hype lately as the China tech marvel (I was entertained by this recent LA Times article on how it’s being used to facilitate Southern California’s black market 小吃 trade), but LeEco’s moves seem much more grandiose to me. Lately I’ve been interested in trans-Pacific cultural flows, of both tech (China-Silicon Valley) and film/entertainment (China-Hollywood). Le is dipping its beak in both.

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Future Shock and Fast Trains

Here is a thoughtful obituary from NYT for a man and an idea: Alvin Toffler and his 1971 book, Future Shock. I say it’s an obituary for the idea as much as the man (Toffler died on June 27), because the shock’s worn off, and lately I’m feeling all we can do is strap in for interminable future nausea.

Speaking of nausea, the opening montage of this 1972 Future Shock documentary — narrated by Orson Welles — features some truly guttural synthesizers and provocative jump cuts between violence and riots. It would feel quaintly dystopian if we didn’t live in a time when snuff films widely circulated on mainstream US media lead to armed revolt against the police.

Anyway, the NYT profile neatly illustrates how Futurist forecasting, which was both a key propaganda tool and a useful legislative function during the Cold War, has been largely subsumed within the commodification of “innovation” best represented by Silicon Valley and its separatist, post-national world order. The brightest futurist minds in the West these days seem mainly preoccupied with building AI and imposing some stopgap ethical rules on its ascendance. Politically speaking, the problem of the future has been steadily exorcised from both sides of the US Federal government’s partisan agenda since the ’80s:

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as the American government began to spend huge sums in the Cold War, futurists became the high priests of the coming age. Forecasting became institutionalized; research institutes like RAND, SRI and MITRE worked on long-range projections about technology, global politics and weaponry, and world leaders and businesses took their forecasts as seriously as news of the present day.

In 1972, the federal government even blessed the emerging field of futurism with a new research agency, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which reviewed proposed legislation for its long-term effects. Futurists were optimistic about lawmakers’ new interest in the long term.

[…]

Newt Gingrich has long been enamored of science fiction — he wants to build a moon base. But when Mr. Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, became speaker of the House in 1995, he quickly shut down the Office of Technology Assessment. The government no longer had any place for futurists, and every decision about the future was viewed through the unforgiving lens of partisan politics.

[…]

“It is ridiculous that the United States is one of the only nations of our size and scope in the world that no longer has an office that is dedicated to rigorous, nonpartisan research about the future,” Ms. Webb said. “The fact that we don’t do that is insane.” Or, as Mr. Toffler put it in “Future Shock,” “Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.”

Yes, it is insane. Even on a cultural level, it seems we Americans are grotesquely unprepared to face the future, and will be at least until the weeping wounds of the past are addressed. We can’t escape from them into VR, and a real civil war would “disrupt” technological progress in a way not even the most hardcore Valley evangelist would find useful.

Pivoting to China, which has its own set of political problems vis-a-vis future shock (“historical nihilism”, “digital sovereignty”, et al), here are two things I read recently that demonstrate how much more prepared it is to mitigate some of the more potentially catastrophic future shockwaves.

One is this detailed, data-rich analysis of how China’s high-speed rail (HSR) system is working. (TLDR: very well.) According to one estimate, per-passenger greenhouse gas emissions from HSR travel are “13 times less than a bus (30g), 50 times less than a car (115g) and 70 times less than a plane (153g)”:

As far as I know, the only HSR currently under construction in the US is the California High-Speed Rail, which began formal planning in 1996 and broke ground… last year. They plan to have the first stations open by 2025.

The Chinese Ministry of Railways, meanwhile, began shopping around for the prototype of what would become its current standard gaotie (高铁) bullet train in 2003, started technology transfer in 2006, and had the first line operational by 2007. Now China’s HSR network looks like this:

China plans to use “railway diplomacy” to additionally construct HSR lines connecting out to Seoul (by 2030), Singapore, and Moscow. The US will at best have a line connecting Northern to Southern California in that timeframe. The idea of the Federal government coordinating a nationwide HSR system seems pretty far-future, even though Obama outlined a national HSR initiative in 2009:

Already, $8 billion from the stimulus plan has been dedicated to this initiative and the president has requested another $5 billion over the next five years. The Department of Transportation will begin distributing funds to projects before the end of this summer.

I’m curious where that money has gone. Certainly not into building trains. Obviously there are bigger fish to fry now, and we’re not likely to hear Trump or Clinton talk about high-speed rail at a time when identity politics and asymmetric war dominate the national conversation.

The other thing I read recently was this: China’s plan to cut meat consumption by 50% cheered by climate campaigners

Also doesn’t seem like a conversation we’re anywhere near having in the US.

Of course China has the advantage of leveraging a technocratic autocracy to address these problems of future, and I’m not sure where Americans might find a balance between our democratic principles — which are kind of loudly and lethally self-detonating right now — and the radical, top-level reorganization we’ll need to get ourselves on track.

That’s a train pun. Incidentally, a ride on a Chinese fast-train is very smooth.

Sorry if this long trip into HSR-worship seems like a digression. It’s not. Global Times, one of the Chinese government’s preferred propaganda blasters, has a warm obit for Alvin Toffler, “China’s favorite futurist”:

Named “one of the top 50 foreigners who have had the greatest influence on China in recent centuries” by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, Toffler’s influence in the country began in 1983, when he and his wife Heidi gave lectures on [Future Shock sequel] The Third Wave at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Shortly after, Toffler’s The Third Wave was translated into Chinese.

[…]

“We were in China about two years ago. People came up to us and told us that they can still remember bicycling 10 miles to watch The Third Wave television program,” Toffler said in an interview with en.people.cn in 2006.

NYT’s official obituary for Toffler adds:

Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang of China convened conferences to discuss “The Third Wave” in the early 1980s, and in 1985 the book was the No. 2 best seller in China. Only the speeches of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sold more copies.

I doubt The Third Wave or Future Shock were as influential among the US political elite in the ’80s. Maybe that’s why I feel so sick today.

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Disney in China

NYT sheds light on the backroom deals behind Shanghai Disneyland, which had already hosted a million people before officially opening three days ago:

The Shanghai park… has become mission critical for Disney as it faces business pressures in other areas like cable. It is designed to be a machine in China for the Disney brand, with a manicured Magic Kingdom-style park, “Toy Story”-themed hotel and Mickey Avenue shopping arcade. More than 330 million people live within a three-hour drive or train ride, and Disney is bent on turning them into lifelong consumers.


Shanghai Disneyland (via SCMP)

The article tracks Disney’s history of doing business in China, from post-Reform “Sunday evening placement for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons on the country’s biggest state-run broadcaster”, to mounting success at the cinema in the ’90s (The Lion King killed here), to a blanket ban after the 1997 Disney release of Scorsese’s Kundun. Then-CEO Michael Eisner hired a stone-cold mercenary to smooth out negotiations after that gaffe:

Disney hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and mounted an intense lobbying effort. In October 1998, Mr. Eisner met Zhu Rongji, who had just been named prime minister, at China’s leadership compound in Beijing. Mr. Eisner apologized for “Kundun,” calling it a “stupid mistake,” according to a transcript of the meeting.

“This film was a form of insult to our friends, but other than journalists, very few people in the world ever saw it,” Mr. Eisner said during the meeting. (“Kundun” bombed, taking in just $5.7 million against a production budget of about $30 million.)

Ouch. The article then goes on to itemize the unprecedented lengths to which current Disney CEO Robert A. Iger has gone to make Shanghai Disneyland a reality, including courting a personal relationship with Xi Jinping:

After Mr. Iger learned that Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary leader, had visited Disneyland in 1980, he pressed his staff to find a photograph. A color photograph shows the president’s father, who died in 2002, wearing a Mao suit, shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. Mr. Iger presented it to the Chinese leader as a gift and a symbol of their partnership.

More interesting are the rights and profits that Disney has ceded to China in hammering out the deal. In short, this really is Disneyland with Chinese characteristics, or, in the motto coined by Iger, “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese”: no rides or attractions are repeated from previous parks, and the grounds are adorned with “indigenous trees from all around China, including a 59-foot chestnut oak from Zhejiang province”. The park itself will be surrounded by the “distinctly Chinese” feature of dense, redundant high-end shopping malls and luxury hotels, since the adjoining land is controlled by Shendi Group, a consortium of four State-owned enterprises including a property developer.

In other locales, Disney has typically maintained a firm grip on the immediately adjacent real estate. Shendi wants to use such land for hotels, spas and retail, like its new Shanghai Village, a 590,000-square-foot outlet mall, with luxury shops selling Armani, Kate Spade, Juicy Couture and other brands.


Disney against Commies

The NYT article does not mention, because it’s obvious or irrelevant or both, that Walt Disney, probably America’s greatest 20th century propagandist, considered Communism a dire ideological threat. From his wiki:

In 1946 he was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization who stated they “believ[ed] in, and like, the American Way of Life … we find ourselves in sharp revolt against a rising tide of Communism, Fascism and kindred beliefs, that seek by subversive means to undermine and change this way of life”. In 1947, during the Second Red Scare, Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he branded Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance, former animators and labor union organizers, as Communist agitators; Disney stated that the 1941 strike led by them was part of an organized Communist effort to gain influence in Hollywood.

Communism’s certainly traveled a long way, from ideological arch-enemy to “sharing the keys to the Magic Kingdom” in a short 70 years.

The NYT article does say that “Shanghai Disneyland is triggering concerns about American cultural imperialism”. Curious to see how that works out. To me it seems more like the latest spike in a long-term trend of cultural imperialism in reverse, as China continues to buy the Hollywood machine piecemeal and subtly tailor its content from within (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4). But that’s a topic worth more thought than I want to give it right now.


Robert Rauschenberg in Lhasa, 1985 (photo: Thomas Buehler)

I had a few private laughs when reading this article, comparing it with an anecdote that came out of a recent interview I did with Chinese artist Li Xinjian. Li worked closely with Robert Rauschenberg when the American artist visited China for exhibits in Beijing and Lhasa in 1985, as part of his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) project. I interviewed Li for an article (forthcoming in the July issue of Time Out Beijing) about Rauschenberg in China, which opened at UCCA in Beijing last weekend. He describes this incident after the December 1985 opening of ROCI Tibet:

He had over 60 works in the exhibition, plus five or six installations and 10 video works. There were not many TVs in Tibet back then. Local people were really delighted to see TVs. The video works had some Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck footage, the Tibetans thought it was fun. So they stared at the TV. How could they ever understand those installations and silk-screen paintings? If we understand Rauschenberg as trying to sell American culture, then maybe he really wanted normal people, ordinary people to understand his work, his art concept. But when he saw the Tibetans turning the scripture wheel, then happily watching Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, not willing to leave, he got angry. He told us to turn off all of the TVs except for the two playing his documentaries.

Seems Mickey and Donald work like capitalism itself, coldly indifferent to the intentions of maker and critic alike.

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