In a recent visit to Australia, I was treated to Barrie Kosky’s audacious staging of The Magic Flute. I hoped it could offer me a break from writing, speaking, and thinking about contemporary China, but something rather odd happened instead. As Mozart’s opera unfolded, the libretto summoned me back to China. This was no surprise, perhaps. The Magic Flute is about the Enlightenment, its promises and underlying violence. For Europeans, the dialectic of the Enlightenment is by now a distant memory. In China, it is a vividly contemporary question.
There is a lot of violence in The Magic Flute and at first, both the protagonist Tamino and the audience are supposed to blame it on depraved passion. Slowly we come to realise things are complicated and that violence flows directly from the moral commandment to obey reason rather than passion.
The movie is a breath of fresh air. Its basic assumptions are sufficiently different from those of a Hollywood film.
The reality principle, the triumph of head over heart, is also the main topic of the much-discussed The Wandering Earth, the science fiction Chinese blockbuster taking the world by storm. The movie is great entertainment. It adapts Liu Cixin’s novel to great effect, lavishing us with the latest postproduction technology and built around a tight but inventive script.
The movie is a breath of fresh air. Its basic assumptions are sufficiently different from those of a Hollywood film, this increases our enjoyment of all the surprising turns while making us think about the way in which certain civilisational differences can lead to new forms of artistic expression. I will focus on two or three elements that seem to me to throw light on contemporary Chinese politics and society.
As the story starts, we discover that the earth is under the imminent threat of being engulfed by the sun’s expansion. Faced with extinction, mankind organises itself under a common government and decides its best chance is to try to propel the planet to another system by using enormous thrusters running on fusion power and installed on the earth’s surface. This is perhaps the first moment of wonder for the Western viewer. I felt I had seen this movie in different forms before, but in those cases, mankind would be trying to escape the earth and move to new planets. Here it would be carrying the planet along. I admired the rare beauty of the experiment, the earth refit as a giant spaceship and wondered why no one – to my knowledge – had explored the possibility before.
The answer, to some extent, is that a Western sensibility would see virtue in leaving the earth behind, the indomitable search for adventure and the unknown, whereas for the Chinese it must be regarded – I choose my words deliberately – as the secular equivalent of a great sin. The contrast is dramatised later in the story when it is a question of deciding whether to make one final attempt to save the earth from destruction – at this point in its perambulations, it is in mortal danger of colliding with Jupiter – by sacrificing the spaceship where all the products of human civilisation have been digitally preserved for future use and reproduction. The products of culture are indeed sacrificed to save the planet and the intuition underlying the choice is that they mean little on their own.
Human life is rooted in the physical environment, human action the struggle to transform it. The Wandering Earth is a movie about infrastructure, the only movie I know that deserves the label. Every development in the plot line is triggered by infrastructure problems. Human life tends to follow. Once the earth is thrown off its perk in the solar system, temperatures collapse and underground cities have to be built, while energy sources have to be procured by large industrial concerns on the surface. The Chinese seem fully in charge as they alone can build and run basic infrastructure. After Jupiter’s gravitational field causes a wave of earthquakes and disables the main thrusters propelling the earth, the movie becomes one large engineering problem. There is no politics and no ethics, at least not in the sense that anything of great importance could follow from the answer to political or ethical questions. Mankind will survive if the infrastructure question can be successfully solved and will be destroyed otherwise. The premise makes for great cinema because physical infrastructure is so visible and spectacular – more visible and spectacular than the conflicts of the human soul.
It is impossible to watch The Wandering Earth and not to be reminded of the Belt and Road, China’s major, intercontinental, infrastructure-based initiative.
I argue in my recent book that the Belt and Road represents a major change in developmental philosophy, an alternative development model, a complete break with the ideas now dominant in Western-led institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, where development is no longer seen as bricks-and-mortar building of factories and bridges, but as institution-building and policy change. As Branko Milanovic puts it, the Belt and Road proposes an activist view of development:
You need roads for farmers to bring their goods, you need fast railroads, bridges to cross the rivers, tunnels to link communities living at different ends of a mountain.
And it will not deal in any of the moralising prescriptions about institutions, rule of law, transparency, local empowerment, and so on that now dominate Western views on development. Milanovic concludes:
While in some quarters, this may be thought as a defect in others, it may be considered a plus: it will clearly distinguish between mutual economic self-interest and other political or cultural domains.
In Freudian psychology, the reality principle is the ability of the mind to assess the reality of the external world and to act upon it in order to better satisfy human needs. The principle does not ask us to sacrifice our desires, only to adjust them to the demands of the external world. Happiness is not a state of mind but a state of reality – reality transformed to further our desires. Infrastructure, in other words.
The characters in The Wandering Earth are engineers, workers of physical reality. Pleasure for them will come after their work is done. The Western viewer may be surprised that the movie contains no hint whatsoever of romantic or erotic interests. This is not a Hollywood movie where the male and female protagonists still find time for some flirting and making-out, even while saving mankind from certain extinction. The Chinese characters are too busy for that. They will have fun later, like the young men and women in Shenzhen who defer any romantic activities until they can actually afford them. For now – while the movie lasts – there is work to be done.