She can turn a sleepy ghost town into a booming, world-class city for the afternoon. Yana and an assortment of colourful foreigners organise elaborate schemes with Chinese property developers and local government officials.

At real estate openings they stage dazzling spectacles where their foreign employees are presented as famous entertainers, important businessmen, top-20 models, diplomats, architects, and more.

The performances are timed right for when speculators from cities arrive. During the height of the housing boom, Yana continuously travels to remote development projects, staging spectacles that turn them into "cities of the future" - as defined by the surreal imaginations of provincial Chinese politicians and developers. For a while, she makes good money doing this work.

But soon the speculation becomes a deflating housing bubble. Facing increasing financial pressure, Yana is thrown into desperation and must fight to save her business and aspirations.

Ultimately she comes to have second thoughts on their industry - and the "Chinese dream" in general.

[Lars Skree/Al Jazeera]


By David Borenstein

It was the height of the 2008 global financial crisis and China faced the threat of a painful economic slowdown. The country’s already-weakening manufacturing sector collided with a sharp decline in Western consumer demand. Legions of workers faced sudden unemployment.

But China's technocrats had a plan. They were to dodge the crisis by means of the greatest housing boom in human history.

China was to use more concrete in two years than the United States did during the entire 20th century. The flurry of construction safeguarded jobs and GDP growth. But speculation and overbuilding created ghost towns and, quite possibly, the seeds of China’s own economic unraveling.

This common narrative of China's housing bubble seems accurate. Yet it also deflects attention from some of the most interesting aspects of the boom. Accompanying the building frenzy was an equally herculean effort to control what the economist Maynard Keynes called the "animal spirits" of an economy.

These spirits are the immeasurable ideas held by members of a society that create confidence in markets. They are the grandiose dreams of the future; the erotic fantasies fueling speculative frenzy. And they are also the most basic component of any economic boom.

The importance of the animal spirits was not lost on Chinese officials. At the beginning of the post-2008 building boom, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed, "confidence is more important than gold or capital." Provincial officials did everything they could to cultivate this precious commodity.

Banners proclaiming glorious futures and new booming cities became ubiquitous. Words like "utopia," "paradise," and "heaven" became common in the names of new developments. Even as building moved out to increasingly remote regions, local governments promised flourishing metropolises, filled with global commerce and investment. The term "internationalisation" became a particularly potent force, playing on romantic visions of the West held by middle-class Chinese.

When many of these new cities failed to reach their development goals, local officials and developers continued fighting to maintain confidence. Negative financial reports were discouraged. And when all other options fell through, "development" finally became a performance.

Chinese Dreamland is about the practice of Chinese provincial leaders hiring out actors to perform fantasies of "development." It is a story of China’s collective dreams during this tumultuous period of history. It is about the global romance with never-ending growth, increasingly divorced from real human needs. Most of all it is about the dreams of one incredible person who gets caught up in it all.

[Lars Skree/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera